Horses Inside Out – The Anatomy of Muscles

Part 3. By Gillian Higgins


087Gillian is an equine sports and remedial therapist specialising in muscles. With a background in human therapy her ethos is strongly based around muscle function and balance. “To enable good performance, expression of movement, suppleness, flexibility and range of movement muscles need to be working together in balance. Muscles need to be appropriately strong and supple for ideal movement and way of going.” Says Gillian. “To help balance the muscular system we need to have a good understanding of the muscles, their anatomy, function and biomechanics. Muscles that have a tendency to become tight and sore require regular stretching and muscles that have a tendency to be ineffective, slow to support, long or weak benefit from regular strengthening exercises. Knowing what to strengthen and what to stretch comes from study of the musculoskeletal system, movement and experience.”

This is the last in a three-part series about the horse’s muscular system, where in her usual applied and practical style, Gillian introduces us to this fascinating subject using her unique painted horse photographs. Gillian spends hours painting horses with different anatomical structures and systems, often colour co-ordinating muscles per their action, to help bring anatomy and biomechanics to life in a way we can all easily relate to.

In this last part Gillian will look at how we can apply the anatomical information about the muscular system to training for the good of our horse’s comfort and performance.


The Benefits of a Well Conditioned Muscular System

Strong, healthy and well defined muscles

Strong, healthy and well defined muscles enable the horse look good, feel good and perform with ease, accuracy and flair. This improves posture, power, balance and precision, makes the horse gallop faster, jump higher and sustain pace for longer all with a reduced risk of injury.


How Muscles Adapt to Training

Muscle is the most adaptive tissue in the body. It adapts to training and contractions become more efficient by:

  • increasing the number, size  and type of muscle fibres
  • increasing the number of capillaries within the muscles  which increase blood flow and nutrients
  • increasing the storage capacity of oxygen and efficient removal of waste
  • increasing the number of mitochondria within the cells which provide the power for the muscle fibres to contract
  • increasing the number and activity of muscle enzymes required for respiration
  • increasing the ability to store glycogen.
  • improving aerobic and anaerobic respiration capacity which allows the horse to work longer and faster
  • engaging in exercise which incorporates isometric, concentric, and eccentric muscle contractions.

This will lead to improved muscle coordination, strength, speed and endurance.


Muscles Develop Slowly

A strong muscular system goes hand in hand with a well conditioned cardiovascular system. One cannot be improved with out the other. Conditioning muscles relies on a consistent progressive planned programme. Muscle changes occur slowly, taking 4- 12 weeks depending upon age, breed, fitness and condition. Asking too much too soon in the form of speed, distance and carrying weight for long periods, results in fatigued, sore or damaged muscles which delays the conditioning programme and is counterproductive.  Once established muscle condition usually last for several weeks. Missing 1 or 2 weeks training due to minor injury does not affect overall muscular fitness in the same way as it does with human athletes.


Muscles must be trained for:


HXF06_9514_EnduranceLong slow distance work (LSD) using aerobic respiration develops muscular endurance which enables muscles to sustain performance at sub maximal levels. This is essential for all horses in all disciplines especially for eventing and endurance horses. Time and distance must be extended gradually, moving on to the next stage only when current targets are met. This ensures progressive muscle loading without overtaxing a muscle. For a horse coming back into work, 15 minutes a day walking is a good starting point. Add 10 minutes a day gradually introducing trot and some canter work. The aim is to achieve 45 minutes of mixed gait work easily. It is important at this stage to condition all muscles equally to avoid putting strain on any particular part. LSD can take place out hacking or in an arena. Correct nutrition in the form of a balanced high energy diet is essential in supporting the muscles and the prevention of muscle disorders.


_MG_4556Muscular strength is important for stability, balance, posture, weight carrying capacity, control, accuracy of movement and performance. Strengthening exercises result in joint stability, improved muscle tone and an increase in number of muscle fibres which increases muscle bulk, power and strength. Strength training should be part of a structured conditioning programme. In order to avoid fatigue and allow muscles time to recover it is important not to perform strength training sessions more than 2 or 3 times per week.

General muscle strengthening is accomplished with short bursts of a varied high-intensity exercises such as:-

  • Hill work, including transitions, lateral work and rein back both up and down hill
  • Raised pole work progressively increasing height at walk and trot.
  • Performing half steps, piaffe and passage.
  • Gymnastic jumping including grids, related distances and progressively widening and heightening the obstacles.
  • Working on a loose deep surface. This must be approached gradually to reduce the risk of injury to muscles, tendons and ligaments.
  • Riding through water or long grass which encourages the horse to lift the legs clear and make the muscles work harder through the effect of drag

Following a general muscular fitness programme, discipline specific movements are the most effective form of muscle strength training.


Well coordinated muscles work consistently, efficiently and accurately, improve posture and physical performance and reduce the risk of soreness and injury; dressage movements become well orchestrated and jumping more accurate. Muscle coordination and recruitment patterns are improved by repetition. This forges neural pathways which then improve muscle coordination and efficiency in an upward spiral. It is more productive to practise a new movement for 10 minutes every other day rather than for an hour once a week. Co ordination can be improved by practising cross country jumps such as a series of steps, sunken roads, banks, offset rails and ditch rail ditch on a regular basis.


A supple horse like a supple person can move with ease, enjoy flexibility and a wide range of movement and be less prone to strain.  This feel good factor contributes to concentration, cooperation, trainability and ‘joie de vivre’. A combination of strength, coordination and suppleness results in the horse moving with relaxation, rhythm, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection, balance and flexion. This enables him to demonstrate submission, cadence and throughness necessary for well executed dressage movements, accurate and flowing jumping and symmetrical muscle development.

Suppleness exercises which increase range of movement, athletic ability and technical skills can be enhanced by:

  • Taking the joints and muscles through a full range of movement on a regular basis.
  • Spending 5 -10 minutes performing suppling exercises for warm up and cool down.  This is particularly important if focussing on strength training
  • interspersing strength and fast work with flexibility sessions
  • performing ridden active stretches
  • varying head and neck positions using a forwards and down outline and lateral flexion.
  • lateral suppling work such as leg yield, shoulder in and travers incorporating varying degrees of angle and bend
  • stretch work and flexibility exercises on the lunge
  • agility work both ridden and in hand such as bending exercises and stepping over raised poles
  • Turning the horse out where he can constantly move, roll, bite flies, scratch and stretch will enhance suppleness. Stabled horses have less opportunities to move and can be more prone to stiffness

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Fast work increases the rate of muscular contractions as well as coordination and mental reactions.

Once a horse can trot or canter easily for about an hour, this includes hill work, he is ready to start fast work. Once every 4 days is ideal. This allows the stores of glycogen used in anaerobic exercise to be replenished. It also speeds up the rate of muscular contractions and increases the number of fast twitch fibre types. Begin by galloping for about 100 yards then gradually increase the distance returning to walk through canter and trot. This also allows the lactic acid produced as a by product of anaerobic respiration to disperse. During fast work about 20% of energy from food is converted into heat which improves muscle contractions. The rest is dissipated.  If the muscles overheat due to environmental conditions or the inability of the body to cool through evaporation, or convection this will expose the muscles to fatigue, exhaustion and risk of injury.

Practical Application 

  • Maintain a good posture to encourage balance between the antagonistic muscle chains.
  • Train for strength, endurance, suppleness, skill, speed.
  • Plan a structured programme.
  • Vary work and include cross training to add variety and ensure all round suppleness, balance, rhythm and muscle development. This will avoid overuse of particular muscle groups and prevent repetitive strain type injuries.
  • Include athletic event specific training.
  • Warm-up thoroughly to allow the muscles to be at the optimum temperature for performance.
  • Cool Down slowly to reduce the risk of delayed onset of muscle soreness.
  • To promote the use of fast twitch fibres make sure all work is active and steps marching even just walking in from the field.
  • Include ridden, passive and active stretches.
  • Regular Massage is an excellent way to monitor and maintain healthy muscles as well as helping the muscles relax and reduce tension.
  • Allow plenty of time for rehabilitation, recovery and retraining following muscle injury.
  • Feed enough protein for essential amino acids important for muscle development and function.
  • Keep tired muscles warm 
  • Regular turnout reduces the  risk of muscle stiffness
  • Daily walk work is particularly important for stabled horses.

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This is an extract from Horse Anatomy for Performance by Gillian Higgins and Stephanie Martin. For this and other Horses Inside Out Books and Videos please visit .

Look out for part four of Horses Inside Out – The Anatomy of Muscles next month.











What is the title of Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer’s talk and the 2014 Horses Inside Out Conference in Gloucestershire in February?

To be in with a chance of winning, email your answer to along with your name and address by the 31st October 2013. Full details at


Forthcoming Horses Inside Out Events

5th/6th October 2013 – 2 Day Applied Anatomy and Biomechanics Course – Moulton College, Northamptonshire

13th November 3013 – Evening Video Talk – Riding from the Anatomical Perspective – Bunny, Nottingham

14th November 2013 – Evening Video Talk – Riding from the Anatomical Perspective – RAU, Cirencester

16th November 2013 – Head and Neck Dissection – Hartpury College, Gloucestershire

7th December 2013 – Spine Dissection – Hartpury College, Gloucestershire

22nd/23rd February 2014 – The Back and Beyond, Annual Conference – RAU, Gloucestershire

Details for these events and more can be found at

Author: Features Editor

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