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Managing your horses muscles for competition


In lieu of the FEI three day event coming up in WA I thought now was a good time to talk about managing your horses muscles, because as someone who has been a therapist for over 15yrs and taught massage for over 10yrs I can tell you that it’s more then just getting your horse a massage!  There is information and resources everywhere about managing joint health, looking after your horses for ulcers etc but do people really know about muscles?  Managing muscle health is important for any horse in any discipline but it is especially important pre, post and during competition.


Pre Competition

Managing muscles pre competition is something that everyone should be aware of, even if their horses don’t compete.  The muscles are what moves the horse and supports the skeleton and if they are not healthy our horses will suffer.

Paying someone to massage your horse regularly or learning to do it yourself will obviously help to pick up any issues, help keep the muscles supple and reduce the chances of muscle strain but it’s not enough.

Firstly do you understand what healthy muscles look and feel like?   Because I see quite a few horses that people think are well muscled and they are really just tight!  I could write a whole article on what healthy muscles look and feel like but very quickly I’ll just say if you can obviously see the division between your horses muscles your horses fascia is dehydrated.  If the muscles are not pliable under your fingers they are tight and if the horse isn’t shiny (without conditioner and coat gloss) there is something not quite right as horses produce natural oils.  Also topline and muscle are not the same thing and fit and skinny are also not the same thing!

Secondly do you know how to build muscles in your horse and feed them for development??  Muscles actually require specific nutrients for health and development and these are often not adequately provided for in the feeds we feed.  What you need to ask yourself is:

Is my horse getting adequate protein and Amino Acids?  Muscles are made of protein and protein is made from amino acids.  Horses have 21 Amino Acids in their muscles and 9 of these essential ones the horse cannot make itself.  We all look at a feed bag and see %crude protein but not all proteins are equal in terms of amino acids!  Yes feeding high protein diets will help “bulk” the horse up but if they are not high in these essential amino acids then they aren’t going to help with heathy muscle growth, it may just be fat your horse is putting on.

Lysine is the most essential of these Amino Acids and is lacking in most feeds.  It is very palatable when fed on it’s own and it is my #1 supplement I add to any horses diet.  And the best bit is if the horse is getting too much there are no ill effects, they will just pee it out!

The 9 essential amino acids in order of importance are:

  1. Lysine
  2. Threonine
  3. Methionine
  4. Tryptophan
  5. Leucine
  6. Isoleucine
  7. Valine
  8. Histidine
  9. Phenylalanine

So if you really want to help your horses muscles make sure they have additional supplementation of Lysine, Threonine and Methionine.

Also making sure their feeds have adequate trace minerals of zinc, manganese, copper and selenium will help slow muscle damage and aid muscle recovery.

And thirdly, do you understand strength exercises you can do with your horse to build muscle?  Just riding your horse is aerobic fitness, it is not necessarily going to build muscle. In humans we lift weights etc but our horses are unable to do this (aside from lugging us around) so you need to make sure that not only is the horse fit and conditioned enough for what they’re about to do (and I have a whole blog on this as it’s my pet peeve!! ) but are they muscularly able to do it as well.  Also are they pain free?  You can’t build muscle when your muscle is hurting.  Once pain has been removed, little and often is best for developing muscle.  6 x 20min rides per week will be more effective then 3-4 60min rides.  To get the muscles to recruit properly you need to introduce an exercise regularly for short periods of time.

As I just said… it is really important that your horse is fit or conditioned to do what is required of it.  If your horse has not been adequately prepared to do what is required for it at competition then the muscles will suffer and this is when injury will occur.  This is a whole other topic but just to put it in perspective if you are asking your horse to canter for 6mins jumping 21 jumps you want to know that your horse can canter for at least 20mins and get their heart rate back to normal in a short period of time.  Not to mention can you canter for that long in two point!


At the Competition

This is perhaps one of the most important times to think about your horse and it’s muscles.  Here in Australia we usually have our horses out in paddocks and they may only come into a stable at night, or a WIWO or they may be in a paddock 24/7.  At a comp they are in the yard 24/7 and this does not allow them to use their muscles as they are used to.  So it is very important to make sure they have adequate walks during the day and evening and it’s also highly advisable to put stable boots and a rug on that is designed to increase circulation.  Products like Back on Track and Rambo Ionic are embedded with a substance which works with the body to stimulate blood flow.  Back on Track is infused with Welltex which reflects the bodys heat energy back as FAR infra red.  Rambo Ionic is embedded with Tourmaline which releases negative ions and FAR infra red that stimulates blood flow.  Both these products really help to reduce stiffness and muscle fatigue.

Is your horse drinking enough??  70% of muscle cells are water so it is really important that your horse keeps hydrated at a comp (as well as pre and post comp). This may sound like a no brainer but your horse may not necessarily drink as much when out as they do at home.  The water will taste different but also stress is usually higher which reduces water consumption.  Make sure that if your horse is really fussy you bring water from home.  And that you put something in their feed that will encourage them to drink.  It could just be adding salt or apple cider vinegar or making the water taste nice with peppermint or molasses but if that’s not enough there are products on the market such as Drink Up which could help.  Just make sure that you introduce your horse to anything well before the comp.


The other thing that can really help a horse at a comp pre and post ride is a good old massage.  We know that when we get stressed we get tense and this can make you quite sore.  The horse is no different and horses (who thrive on routine) get stressed and tense at competitions even if they look calm.  There will usually be people floating around that you can pay to massage your horse at an event (although at FEI make sure they are FEI approved) or there are some great products on the market to help loosen muscles such as Activo-Med, Equissage, Sportz-Vibe and Equilibrium.  Even just giving the horse a rub yourself will help 🙂

Post Competition (or phase in a multi phase event)

Whether your horse has gone to a dressage competition or a three day event etc post competition recovery is important and starts before the event, not after their class, not the day after.  A proper warm up prior to your event will prime the body and optimise muscle function.  It helps to improve elasticity of the muscles, tendons and ligaments.  It also improves the aerobic metabolism (muscle cells use of energy) to help delay fatigue.  The longer a horses muscles work in aerobic metabolism (energy production with oxygen) the less heat and lactic acid is produced.  The same should be said for cool down, the longer the horse spends in aerobic metabolism the more heat and lactic acid is removed.  This will minimise muscle soreness.


As I said earlier, just being at a competition is a cause of stress and tension, and the horse usually works harder then they would at home.  Often things don’t run to plan and we may be on them for a lot longer then normal due to a class running late or we may not get adequate warm up time due to running early etc.  I also know people who don’t ride their horses for longer then 20mins per ride but then take them to a whole day of competition and sit on them doing multiple classes for 4 or so hours.  This is tough for horses!

So how can we help their muscle recovery?  Good preparation is key!  If you’re doing the things we talked about pre competition then your horse will recover a lot better from a competition day.  If you have a therapeutic rug or boots pop them on straight after the comp.  I float home in my Rambo Ionic Rug and Boots.

If your horse has done strenuous work or is prone to muscle fatigue or pain then applying a liniment to areas they may be sore straight after you have ridden is an excellent idea.  My personal favourite is comfrey and Arnica Gel!

If you have done hard work such as cross country or endurance, or riding on a surface that your horse is not used to, or even just general heating up of tendons of being in boots or wraps, then cold boots or ice boots are an excellent addition.  Cold therapy causes vasoconstriction (constriction of blood vessels) followed by vasodilation (dilation of blood vessels) and promotes a massive increase in circulation.

You know how we talked about Amino Acids pre competition and I said which ones were the most essential for building muscle??  Well the three most important for muscle recovery are different sorry…. These are leucine, isoleucine and valine and should be in most of your recovery pastes and injections.  Ensuring that the horse is given something that will replace what it’s lost during competition is essential.    Making sure that they get a good quality electrolyte, lots of fresh water and hay (will hold water) will help recovery.

After a long tip in the float or a strenuous competition think about letting your horse be in the paddock for the next 24hrs.  Simply walking around could be your best fix for increasing circulation, stretching the muscles and preventing stiffness.  It’s also good for them mentally.  Horses are slow to replenish glycogen stores and what people don’t realise is that it can take up to three days for muscles to recover from strenuous exercise so if you can only afford to give your horse one day off then try and make the next two days long slow work.  The fitter the horse is the quicker it will recover.

Use these strategies at every level of training, conditioning, and competition to help your horse recover following an event. The steps you take immediately upon completion, as well as back home, can help your horse return to exercise, while maximizing his athletic longevity

Author Jessica Blackwell

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