Wednesday, July 8, 2009


So, as promised, here it is, my blurb on muscling in horses. While correct muscling in a horse is dependent upon a horse's skeletal structure to a degree, our horsemanship with, and riding of, said horse can have a great effect on a horse's muscle development (or lack thereof).

As prey animals, horses often tend to build strong underline muscles, particularly when influenced into a poll-highest frame by their riders (even simply at the halt, on contact), when the horse is not lifting from the base of their neck and working correctly back to front. The result of a tense neck and back results in over-developed underline muscles. Particularly reactive or flighty horses will especially develop the underside of their neck, because they are contracting and tensing those muscles on a constant basis. As a whole, the reactive horse over-develops all the muscles he typically uses to react: jaw muscles, underside of the neck, etc and he often experiences topline atrophy - a weak upper neck and weak abdomen and dorsal muscles.

This horse actually has a naturally nice topline (note he is not ewe-necked on top), yet his underline is extremely developed. Also note his overall body attitude - his head is up, ears are back, and he is standing square with a wide rear (where all his power is for takeoff) stance for better push-off. His entire body language screams out: I am ready to explode!

Note how this mare - a Dutch Warmblood - is almost the complete opposite of the above horse. She's alert but not reactive, she's not fearful. She has got a very nice natural topline. Her upper neck is rounded and her underneck is flat rather than convex in shape.

For a horse to have a successful, long, sound career, however, we want to work their muscles to their best benefit. That means developing the muscles appropriate to keeping them sound and easing the weight of a rider - topline and abdominal muscles. A horse that is working in a relaxed manner - raised neck at its base, tracking underneath with a bent, shock-absorbing hind leg, raised back, etc, is going to develop different muscles than a horse that is tracking about with a tense jaw, whose tension travels all the way through the neck and down the back. They're going to develop a stronger topline, abdomen muscles (which help raise and support the back), etc.

Where our horsemanship comes in to play then, is in developing a calm, relaxed horse. If every time we work with our horse we encourage it to be reactive and flighty - to have a tense body - we're going to continue building the wrong muscles to best help our horse work under-saddle. If instead every time we work with our horse he is calm and relaxed with a supple jaw and back, we develop a horse with the correct muscling to best suit the work we're asking of him. This is not something that can be done through force - see-sawing on the reins, pushing the horse into contact, etc. Relaxation does not come through force, it comes naturally - with a relaxed horse! So the key is to always have the goal of beginning and ending on a relaxed note with your horse. Pretty soon, what happens last starts to happen first.

What riders typically do, however, when they experience roadblocks with their horse, is they start to throw in mechanical contraptions in an effort to force their horse into a particular frame. Except, by forcing the horse, the "frame" is full of tension and is without relaxation - which really defeats the whole purpose. If instead of focusing solely on the physical aspect, riders also included addressing the emotional side of things, they would have a better chance of achieving that strove-for "frame" they so desperately seek. A horse's mind controls his body. Therefore, by addressing mental and emotional relaxation, we achieve physical relaxation. With that starts to come the appropriate muscle development and the correct movement we seek from the horse.

You can often judge a rider pretty accurately by simply looking at his horse. How he holds himself (tense versus relaxed), his expression (content versus fearful or frustrated), the type of partnership he has with his rider, the equipment he wears, and his physical form. Sometimes a horse has not been in a rider's hands long enough, is not yet at the appropriate stage in his training to be experiencing beneficial muscle development, or just has not been schooled sufficiently on a regular basis to accurately depict his rider. Of course looking at the horse can also give us a pretty accurate picture of the horse himself - is he typically tense and reactive/spooky? Or is he normally calm and relaxed, thinking? This particular horse (above) is wearing a martingale (likely to "encourage" him to hold his head below a specific level) and you can see the clear lack of muscle definition along his topline.

This horse actually hasn't got a bad topline but you can see the over-developed underline muscles. With a little work he would probably have a brilliant topline and a straighter, less convex underline.

Here the horse is clearly pulling against the tie-down he's wearing...which leads to underline muscle definition with time. He is not lifting from the BASE of his neck, which leads to over-development of the neck muscles that allow him to raise his head.

Most people don't want to hear it, but our horses really are a product of us - our handling, our management, our riding. We have the power to either balance our horses' emotional states (or keep it balanced), or to create an emotional wreck of a horse. Coincidentally, a horse's emotional state plays a huge part on his physical state - his muscling. So, if how we work determines the physical and emotional state of our horses, the key is to work with them in such a way that the horse is relaxed and in tune with us - in partnership.

....horses should be trained in such a way that they not only love their riders, but look forward to the time they are with them. ~ Xenophon, 350 B.C.

Does your horse love you and look forward to your time together? If you take all the ropes off holding him to you, does he remain with you, working in partnership, or does he take off as fast as he can?

Correct neck muscling is particularly crucial to a horse sustaining the weight of a rider because otherwise the horse relies on a tense back to hold the rider, which can be detrimental to their development and long-term soundness. More here. Working a horse back to front, building on the dressage training scale, will build the appropriate muscling so your horse may effectively carry your weight. This is where the mental and emotional state of a horse and your partnership with that horse comes into play, because a horse's mental and emotional state reflects in its body. A relaxed mind is required for a relaxed body, which enables the rider to develop rhythm and suppleness - the foundation of your dressage training scale. If you are interested in the concepts of true versus false collection (which play a large role in muscle development), take a look at Sustainable Dressage - even if you are not a dressage rider you can find it very helpful. Dressage can be of great benefit to any horse and rider, regardless of intended discipline.


william said...

You are aware that muscles can only contract, not extend? Such that the muscles a horse uses to hold its head high are the muscles on the topside of the neck, NOT the underside?

Anonymous said...

Have you considered that all the horses with overdeveloped neck muscles need to have their teeth floated? This is a pain stance.

Andrea said...

Well, hm... interesting what you find on the internet.... the scrawny ewe-necked mare is my own, immediately after rescuing her from a starvation situation.
This is the mare when in work:
So, right.... how about not jumping to conclusions on horses you don't know, and how about NOT stealing other people's photos.

Andrea said...

Also, she's dead now, so I'd double appreciate not having her photos stolen.

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