Strength training for horses isn’t just limited to heavy draft breeds competing in pulling contests. Any horse in any discipline can benefit from a strength-building regimen, and any rider can put together a systematic, safe program to muscle up her mount. Try these simple tips to increase the muscle power of any horse. Stamina has to be in place before strength can be increased, so put some endurance-building mileage on him before beginning power trips.
Undulating terrain is the best equine gym, as a horse must lift his own body weight with each stride when traveling up- or downhill. Start with jaunts up gradual slopes, and increase the grade and length of time spent in “climbing” as the horse becomes more muscular. If your horse has a particularly weak side, negotiate the ups and downs on the diagonal, with his weaker side toward the crest. The “high” side of the body has to exert more muscle to maintain balance. Flatlands riders can use man-made “hills,” such as dry drainage ditches, in place of natural terrain; or they can practice jumping or pulling in a harness (drags and harrows, not easy rolling carts), even if their horses don’t otherwise use those skills.
Monitor your horse during his strength training: Heavy blowing or trembling muscles indicate that he needs a break, Next-day soreness tells you that you pushed him too far; scale back next time out.
Strength develops slowly, but after a few weeks of power tripping, the first changes will become visible as increased muscle mass along the spine and greater tightness and trimness of the belly. Your horse’s ridden performance will improve as well, with a greater reach in his gaits, more bounce in his jumps and increased control in his turns.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue # 231.