Here are five ideas for ridden activities that will help your horse build topline (and other important muscle groups!). Remember that a well-muscled topline cannot come about through feed changes alone. It’s all about working those muscles!
As you probably know from personal experience, climbing up a hill is hard work! Riding up and down hills can help your horse build more muscle. Avoid doing too much going downhill since it can lead to concussion of the joints. Save your fast work for going up and keep your horse slow going down – this is also a lot of effort!
Getting your horse to stretch and lengthen between exercises is a great way to loosen up all those muscles that you’re working. It’s also a good way to check that your horse is relaxed – a relaxed horse is less likely to be hollow. Take the time between exercises to ask your horse to stretch and lengthen. Not only will your horse stay more relaxed mentally, they’ll also reap the benefits of your other work more!
Correctly performing transitions both between and within gaits is challenging. Don’t feel that a transition is limited to going between halt, walk, trot and canter! Changes of speed and extension within the gaits, direct transitions that skip gaits (e.g. walk to canter), and even switching between different movements can all be considered transitions and all require the horse to work hard.
Once your horse is relaxed and responsive to your aids, doing lots of transitions can really help build all the right muscles. However, as with many of the other exercises, it’s really important that your horse is not tense and hollowing or you will find that your transitions are anything but smooth and the wrong muscles are being exercised!
Lateral work that encourages the horse to step under behind and shift their weight off the forehand a little is ideal for building those hind end muscles. Shoulder-fore is an easy way to begin if your horse is new to lateral work. Progress to shoulder-in on three tracks to push your horse’s physical limits a little more.
Poles & Cavaletti
Trotting poles and canter poles can both be excellent tools for encouraging your horse to use their body fully instead of being a bit ‘lazy’ and dragging themselves along on the forehand. However you need to take care that your horse is not going over poles with a hollow back as this will build the wrong muscles and could even cause injury.
As with trotting poles, cavaletti – and even small jumps – are a great way to get a horse more engaged and using their bodies. The higher the obstacles are, the more effort the horse has to put in and playing around with distances can also increase or decrease the difficulty.
With all exercises that require mental or physical effort on the horse’s part it is important to keep training sessions short and start easy, building up to more difficult things only as the horse improves. Ending and starting on an easy, positive note will also help keep your horse fresh and happy during work.