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Equine Fitness: How to Build MuscleBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 14, 2016

Twiggy, John Candy, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. What do these three people have in common? Infamy perhaps, but definitely not muscling! And neither do most horses and ponies. Nonetheless, maintaining appropriate muscling among individual horses is vital to overall health and athleticism.

“Athletic horses need appropriate muscle mass to support their rider’s weight, perform the task at hand, and protect their joints and support soft tissues, such as tendons and ligaments,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a Kentucky Equine Research (KER) nutritionist.

Amino acids, which make up proteins, are the basic building blocks of muscle. Horses must consume at least nine essential amino acids in their diets, and the remainder they can make on their own.

Feeding to build muscle, however, does not mean that we feed excessive protein to horses, attempting to flood their systems with the essentials to maximize muscle building.

“The daily amount of protein intake recommended by the National Research Council currently is relatively low, a minimum of 10.6% protein in a horse’s daily ration. Excessive protein does not benefit the horse, but may have adverse effects on performance and negative environmental consequences, such as eutrophication,” explained Crandell. “Horse that consume too much protein often drink more water, which can cause messier stalls.”

Quality pasture, hay, and well-made concentrates are more than adequate at fulfilling the essential amino acid requirements of the average horse.

“When performance demands increase the protein requirement, whether through exercise or reproduction, consider supplementing protein. This can be accomplished with a concentrated feed if extra calories are needed as well or topping off with a high-protein supplement like a ration balancer, which is fed in small amounts and does not add very many calories to the diet,” recommended Crandell.

In addition, various nutritional supplements marketed for supporting muscle building are available. Choose these products carefully because concerns regarding hidden ingredients and contaminants abound, including anabolic steroids, which are illegal in most equine competitions.

Finally, remain cognizant of other causes of poor muscling at various ages that supplemental protein won’t address. Some of these include white muscle disease, polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying-up).

“Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids with potent anti-inflammatory effects facilitate skeletal muscle repair, as well as  vitamin E and polyphenols, found in yeast fermentates and green tea extracts,” Crandell shared.