Building muscle strength and flexibility is an important part of developing a horse’s performance, and the principles of doing this are steeped in science and techniques based on results. In people, strength training has been reported to reduce sports injuries by half. Not only does muscle strength improve a horse’s performance, but strong muscles also protect against musculoskeletal injury by stabilizing joints and reducing strain on tendons and ligaments. Muscles and connective tissue naturally tend to stiffen if they are overused or underused. Stiffness can result in injury, lead to inactivity, and eventually speed up the aging process of the musculoskeletal system. To remain supple, the connective tissue and muscles need regular stretching.
Essential to activating a horse’s core is activating the abdominal muscles and the thoracic sling muscles, which are responsible for adjusting the position of the sternum, ribcage, and withers when the forelimbs are on the ground.
1. Hill training
Riding up and down hills is a great way to strengthen the muscles required for dressage and jumping, but it’s also a fantastic way to fitten up your horse for eventing, endurance or any other discipline you take part in. Uphill work promotes engagement and abdominal wall contraction. Downhill work increases passive engagement and will be challenging for horses suffering from sacroiliac joint disease.
Resistance exercises are refined by altering difficulty and/or intensity by the angle of the slope, changing gaits, or urging more speed to negotiate the climb. Anytime you ask your horse to work in high-resistance conditions, you must gradually condition him to avoid straining tendons, ligaments, muscles, or joints.
2. Different footings
You can use different surfaces to provide drag on your horse’s movement. Trotting your horse in shallow water or snow are excellent means of increasing his hind leg lift to increase flexion of joints and muscles in his hindquarters. Water or snow creates drag when the horse swings his leg forward. Sand training can develop muscle strength in a different way. Sand is a shifting medium; the grains move away from each hoofprint, causing your horse to have to step up his muscular effort to move himself along to overcome the “loss” of resistance as the sand gives way.
Firm footing will create more vibration and is not indicated for horses with joint or bone diseases such as kissing spines and facet joint disease.
3. Rein back
This is an exercise that when done properly each leg will be lifted off the ground and placed directly behind his body. Dragging, shuffling, resisting and rushing backward is an ineffective use of his body. Horses with tight or weak backs or injured hocks will have problems with the rein back.
Another useful technique to stimulate a greater increase in joint flexion and muscular strength involves using poles either on the ground or raised as high as 20 centimeters off the ground. Owners can adjust the poles’ height and spacing to further challenge the horse’s coordination.
5. Single leg standing
Hold a forelimb off the ground in a position that is comfortable for the horse. Push back on the point of the shoulder toward the hind limb on the same side. The goal is to push just hard enough to rock the horse’s weight back but not hard enough to unbalance the horse. Hold for 5 seconds. This destabilizing technique stimulates the pelvic stabilizer muscles to control the weight shift and lateral balance.