Muscle up: conditioning your horse

Conditioning muscles, as with most other work with horses, therefore, relies on a consistent, progressive programme

Muscle is the most adaptive tissue in the body in that it can grow and develop with training and degenerate and become weaker during periods of inactivity. Trained muscle is more efficient because:

  • It has an increased number in the size and type of muscle fibres, which make up the muscle.
  • It has an increased blood supply, so more nutrients and oxygen can get to the muscle tissue, and waste can be removed more efficiently.
  • It has an increased number of mitochondria, which act as the power-houses of the muscle cells, so there is more power for muscle contraction.

Strong muscles require a well-conditioned cardiovascular system, and it is almost impossible to achieve one without the other. Horses must therefore have a reasonable degree of fitness in order to build healthy, productive muscle. Depending on the age, breed and existing fitness level of the horse, muscle changes take approximately four to 12 weeks to take effect.

Do it right

Conditioning muscles, as with most other work with horses, therefore, relies on a consistent, progressive programme. Training that progresses too rapidly is actually counterproductive, as muscles will fail to develop and instead become fatigued, sore and may even sustain damage. Training too slowly obviously just delays the muscle development, and if the training is repetitive it may become dull for the horse.

Once muscular condition has been built it will usually last for several weeks. Missing one to two weeks of training does not really affect overall muscular fitness in the horse, but certainly would do in a human.

Muscle is not all identical. There are different types of muscles throughout the body. For example, the muscle in the heart is quite different to the muscle found in the intestine, and the muscle found in the intestine is quite different to the muscle found in the gluteal region. These muscles naturally have different roles to play and therefore function differently. Not only are there different types of muscle, but each muscle can be made up of different fibres and/or regions, each specialised for a different function. It is therefore important when considering conditioning to remember that one type of exercise will not improve all functions of that muscle, but rather several different types of exercise will be required to build well-functioning muscles that are able to respond to all of the tasks required of them.


Long, slow, distance work develops muscular endurance, which allows muscles to perform for longer. This kind of work can be done in the arena or ideally while out hacking, so as to avoid making the horse sour. Endurance work is needed for all disciplines, especially, however, for the disciplines of endurance and eventing. Time worked for and distance covered must be increased gradually, moving only to the next level of training when the horse can reasonably and comfortably meet the previous time and distance demands. This ensures that muscles are not over-exerted, as overtraining often leads to injury.

For a horse coming back into work, 15 minutes a day walking is a good place to start. This should progress by adding 10 minutes a day and gradually introducing some trot and canter work. The aim is ultimately to easily achieve at least 45 minutes of work in walk, trot and canter.

Strength training should be part of a planned conditioning programme


Strength is necessary for stability, balance, posture, weight-carrying capacity, precision of movement and performance. Strenghtening exercises result in joint stability, improved muscle tone and an increase in the number of muscle fibres which increases the size and power of the muscle. Strength training should always be part of a planned conditioning programme, regardless of the discipline the horse practices. In order to avoid muscle fatigue, however, strength training must only be done two to three times a week. If performed more frequently than this, not only will there be no beneficial effects on the muscle, but the muscle may in fact suffer serious damage.

Muscle strength is achieved using bursts of high-intensity exercises such as:

  • Hill work, including transitions, lateral work and rein-back both up- and downhill.
  • Raised pole work, progressively increasing the height of the poles and going over them in both walk and trot.
  • Performing half steps of piaffe and passage (if current training allows).
  • Gymnastics jumping including grids and related distances, progressively widening and increasing the height of the obstacles.
  • Working on a loose, deep surface, but this must only be done gradually and in a controlled manner to reduce the risk of injury.
  • Riding through water, which encourages the horse to lift his legs and make the muscles work harder through the resistance provided by the water.

Text: Dr Lizzie Harrison

The full article appears in issue 131 (March) of HQ > Shop now