Cross-Training is Bodybuilding for Horses

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horse musculatureFrom Dressage Today, What it takes to truly build a strong and supple topline. Doing some of the suggested exercises will not only help your horse physically, but will also keep him mentally stimulated and having fun. Variety is the spice of life!

This is an excerpt by Michael J. Baxter:

Most high level dressage horses have strong loins which is important for
stability of dorsal muscles of their loin. These muscles in the loins develop
symmetrically if the hind legs are pushing evenly. However, in order to
develop the muscles under the saddle, the horse has to lengthen and shorten
this area. The fact that your horse seems to suffer from muscle atrophy in that
area shows that his back is not correctly working. He does not open up
through the back into his withers. In this condition, some horses might show
spectacular movements in the fore but not in the hind. Most often they are
throwing the forelegs forward and the hind legs are not stepping under lifting
the withers. It’s like having the break on and the gas pedal at the same time.
Only when the core muscles of the trunk, are work correctly -alternately
lengthening and shortening the muscle fibers will grow and the muscle under
the saddle will develop.

Your problem is not necessarily caused by an ill-fitting saddle but should
be check by an experience saddler. I see many dressage horses that have
saddles that fit well but show poor muscling like your horse. Part of the
problem is that they are often ridden in a frame that is too rigid which
prevents their back muscles from working properly. When the back is always
set in the same state, the muscles in that area can’t develop. In some horses,
even higher level dressage horses, you can literally see the outline of the
saddle in the muscles, like an indentation. You need to have what I call
thoracic expansion and lift. Constant riding with a heavy driving seat can
compress the muscles under the saddle too much, which can accelerate the
problem. On top of that, some riders tend to have their hips rigid and locked,
which makes it worse.

One training solution to this problem is to develop power in the muscles
of the under line and to stretch the back. Instead of practicing dressage
movements every day work on some gymnastic training twice a week I
recommend what is called cross training in human sports-training the
muscles for performance.

Shorten your stirrups so have better balance for when you need a lighter
Go on a field and ride a gymnastic pyramid type of training which is
galloping in 3-4 tempos going forward and back . For Example gallop 10
strides in collection, in a deep seat, 10 strides in medium gallop in a middle
seat and 10 strides in a forward gallop in a 2 point light seat and then back
down in medium pace and slow pace and back up to medium and again
forward, repeat 3-4 times and do in 3- 4 sets. In between sets trot forward on
a stretched long rein for muscle recovery and relaxation
In general, gallop is the best gait to build muscle fiber for the back. Gallop
transitions with speed increments help to recuite more muscle fibers. Down
transitions build the abdominals to support the back. Trotting over poles and
cavaletti is also beneficial in building muscle for the back. If you have a
medium 3-4 % hill, canter up the hill and walk down. At the same time, make
sure to really let your horse go forward in your hand, don’t worry about the
head set all the time and let the horse play a little.

Some people might recommend long and low riding. I’ve seen horses go
long and low with their hind legs dragging, and long and low with good hind
activity. Its not the long and low but it’s the importance of the hind end is
working to lift the back. If the hind legs drag, it means the energy doesn’t go
all the way through the back to lift the withers to the bit which (builds the
muscles). So the question is not long or low—one of the biggest debates these
days–but is the middle of the back really working. If the back is working
properly, the horse’s head can go where it wants to in a natural way. The
muscles of the back can only work properly when the horse’s hind legs are
not dragging but are energetically pushing off.

Keep your horse straight and aligned. Only when the horse is straight can he
use his hind legs properly and their energy be direct his energy over the back
so it can open up. To sum it up: Do more gallop time in work , up and down
transitions to create straightness and lighten your seat sometimes to help relax the back.