The benefits of strength training in human endurance athletes is now widely reported. The research is clear that strength training has a positive impact on endurance exercise performance in terms of maximal power, exercise efficiency, improvement in lactate threshold and importantly in injury prevention.
It is a common error for endurance riders to ignore the importance of strength and power for performance, particularly with the idea that bigger muscles are not relevant to the type of work we ask of our endurance horses. However, it is not about gaining bulk, it is about increasing the strength of the individual muscle fibres (making each contraction more forceful), enhancing fatigue resistance, improving neuro-muscular co-ordination and hence the economy/efficiency of movement. In summary, you’re not looking turn our horses into huge sprinters but to make their lean muscle mass as strong as it can be.
Strength training is probably one the most effective tools for injury prevention for endurance horses for a variety of reasons. This is because it improves the strength of the muscles and tendons and stronger muscles and tendons help hold the body in proper alignment and protect the bones and joints when moving or under impact. The bones also become stronger due to the overload placed on them during training and the ligaments become more flexible and better at absorbing the shock applied to them during dynamic movements.
In addition to reducing the risk of injury, strength training actually makes our horses fitter (a win-win) by increasing the fatigue resistance of muscle fibres (Mikola et al., 2007) i.e. increasing the lactate threshold. This is achieved due to the combination of improved exercise efficiency and increased muscle fibre-recruitment during the exercise which reduces the overall work performed be each individual muscle fibre. This means at a given intensity a greater level of work can be performed before reaching the point of fatigue.
The best thing is that improvements can be seen with as little as 10-15 minutes of strength exercises several days a week. Even a few focused exercises each day can help improve muscle balance and reduce injuries.
Strength building exercises
So what exercises can you do to improve your horses’ strength? Well the good thing is, you may find that you already do a lot of strength training without realising it! If you’ve ever ridden uphill, your horse has performed some strength training. Uphill gradients help improve cardiovascular fitness whilst simultaneously improve strength in the hindquarters. Walking uphill is very effective and particularly encourages your horse to step under himself and round his back. When riding downhill, implement a series of transition, halts, rein backs which all improve strength and balance.
Riding on loose or deep surfaces such as through snow, water or deep sand helps to strengthen specific muscle groups, while also increasing cardiovascular loading and encouraging active joint flexion through a wide range of motion.
Lateral exercises strengthen and stretch muscles and help our horses to develop balance, coordination and to take a more rounded frame. You don’t need an arena to do these and can be performed in-hand or ridden. Consider leg-yields down quite lanes. They encourage the horses’ hips to rotate in the opposite direction from the shoulders which in turn encourages the spine to twist freely and to engage the core. When opening a gate, think turn-on-the-forehand. Make a point of really asking your horse to step around as it is a tremendously helpful exercise for stretching and engaging those powerful hind quarters.
If you have access to poles these are the most excellent way to strengthen your horses’ abdominal muscles. Whether on the ground, ridden in walk, trot or canter, poles teach your horse to pick up his feet, stay in rhythm, be coordinated and learn to negotiate obstacles on the track that you may come across on a ride.
There are a number of other strength improving techniques which most people will not have access to use daily such as vibration plates and water treadmills however you can still improve your horses strength with the techniques previously mentioned which require no special machines or facilities.
Strength training is brilliant at preventing injury but if your horse becomes injured doing the strength training it obviously defeats the purpose. With all things new and especially if you haven’t been doing much strength training with your horse, build up slowly. Over a few weeks, increase the repetitions, intensity and time spent on the exercises. Avoid overworking particular muscle groups by covering a variety of different methods.
Make sure you do a thorough and correct warm up to prepare the muscles and tendons before starting any strength exercises. Never work your horse to the point of fatigue, you want to stress the muscles enough that your horse feels the benefit but not so much that you injure your horse in the process. Efficient warm ups and cool downs are essential.
On that note, REST your horses more. If you overwork the same muscle groups without adequate rest between training sessions you will overtrain and risk injury. The muscles need time to repair properly and be ready for the next session. Remember, the muscles become stronger during the rest period, not during the workout.
Finally, make sure you keep proper form when doing the exercises. Keeping the body in proper alignment while exercising will minimize the chances of injury. If your horses’ muscles and tendons are tight and stiff it is quite easy for those muscles and tendons to be pushed beyond their natural range of movement. Keep an eye on how your horse is changing, know when to back off and know when to seek professional advice whether that is in the form of a physiotherapist, osteopath or veterinarian.
The more strength your horse can generate, and the longer he can do it for, the faster he will ultimately travel over distance. You cannot help but to perform a certain amount of strength exercises in your normal endurance training but by taking a more targeted strength-based approach to your training you should see improvements in speed, fitness, strength, agility and muscular endurance whilst also reducing your horses' risk of injury.