by Verity Beaton BSc (Hons),T.E.N. Product Manager
Pop along to any horse show at this time of year and you will see a variety of horses of all different shapes and sizes. No doubt the horse that really catches your eye will be the one who is toned, well conditioned and with excellent topline. You may already be the proud owner of such a horse, but if not how can you transform your own to look equally outstanding?
Muscle tone and topline can only be developed through an appropriate exercise regimen however if the correct building blocks for muscle growth are missing from the diet then that can adversely affect muscle health and signicantly slow down topline development. A horse with poor muscle health will not only look poor but will most likely not be performing and recovering as well as you might expect.
What are muscles made of?
In very simple terms muscle comprises muscle fibres, which are long spindle shaped cells made up of the muscle proteins actin and myosin. These cells are nourished by a network of blood vessels and controlled by nerves.
Protein is clearly important in your horse’s diet for muscle development, but not just any protein. There are particular amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) which are signicant, particularly: Essential amino acids, (meaning they cannot be made by the horse) such as lysine, methionine and threonine. Non-essential amino acids such as glutamine and arginine. These are highly utilised during exercise so supplying extra in the diet may help support muscle health and recovery.
Branched chain amino acids such as leucine, valine and isoleucine, which can be used by the muscle as a source of energy.
Ensuring you choose a high quality hard feed from a reputable manufacturer means that you should be supplying good quality protein. Even feeds which are directed at good doers should contain good quality protein sources. However when your horse is working to build muscle tone and topline or is in hard work then his requirements for protein may be higher than can be supplied by the diet alone. In this case investing in a muscle supplement from a reputable manufacturer may be benecial.
Whey protein is popular for supporting muscle building because it contains an amino acid profile similar to muscle itself. However whey protein is a by-product of the milk industry so it’s important to ensure that you choose a reliable source to guarantee that it is not contaminated with any banned substances.
Other nutrients important for muscle health
It is not only amino acids and protein which are important for muscle health. Intense exercise can increase the amount of damaging free radicals in muscles. However, the provision of dietary antioxidants can help to combat them. One of the key antioxidants in the horse is glutathione peroxidase which contains selenium. Vitamin E is also a useful antioxidant for muscles. Other ingredients which can help are grape seed which contains good levels of antioxidants and vitamin C which is a natural antioxidant.
What about horses with muscle problems?
Tying up (also known as equine rhabdomylosis syndrome) is a disorder affecting muscle function that can result in stiffness ranging from very mild and barely noticeable to a complete inability to move. If you suspect your horse has suffered with tying up you should seek veterinary advice. It may also be helpful to consult with a nutritionist as it is imperative that you check your horse’s diet. Muscle supplements also have their place for horses with tying up as the muscle can be damaged during the attacks and supplementing the diet with good quality amino acids and antioxidants might help with recovery. Horses with muscle damage due to injury or ill-fitting tack may also benefit from a muscle supplement to help with the repair of the muscle.
Remember that good nutrition is vital for good muscle tone and topline, however nutrition alone will not build muscle. Don’t mistake fat for muscle; an overweight horse is not a healthy horse. Horses that do carry too much fat are more prone to disorders such as laminitis and insulin resistance and although not always the case, in the show ring the judge should be looking for a fit well-muscled horse rather than a fat one!
In summary your plan for improving your horse’s muscle should be two-pronged: first you will need to regularly exercise the muscles you’d like to build up and secondly you will need to provide the necessary building blocks and supporting ingredients for muscle building in the diet.
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