Now you might think from that title that I am going to talk about developing the correct muscle tone, top line and core strength in our horses, but there are hundreds of good articles and excellent trainers we can turn to for that. In fact I want to bring something else to your attention…. good muscle tension for optimal performance and how to achieve it….
Muscles contain a certain amount of tension at all times in order to function. Within the muscles are small structures called muscle spindles which measure the amount of stretching going on within the muscles and stimulate the nervous system to increase or decrease muscle tension as a result. The nervous system is constantly adjusting the levels of muscle tension depending on the responses of the muscle spindles so this is an ongoing process, not just during active exercise.
This process also occurs in people, and you would probably notice it most if you had been sitting for a prolonged period of time. As you get up, you feel the tension in your leg muscles which then eases off as you get moving and your nervous system reacts to readjust the muscle tension to normal again. So why is this important for competition?
We can manipulate the levels of muscle tension in our horses to enable them to give us the best performance. High muscle tension gives a bouncy, off the ground, powerful movement pattern producing the most explosive forces when jumping big fences, or performing complex dressage movements. Clearly high muscle tension is desirable in racing horses too. However, high muscle tension also produces muscles which are less efficient over time and some may argue, puts the horse at greater risk of injury.
Low muscle tension results in a slower contraction time in the muscles, and in cases of very low tension may produce movement which is sluggish and heavy. However, low muscle tension is good when exercising gently as it encourages a better recovery response after more intense exercise and enables the muscles to become more efficient again.
So how to find the right tension for competition? To achieve optimal tension during training you should aim to produce high tension in muscle preparation for high intensity sessions or competitions, and a lower tension state when recovering from those sessions. You can manipulate muscle tension through using specific workouts and additional management techniques. For example, to increase muscle tension use interval training (for the racehorse, Eventer or all-rounder), or strength training (for the dressage, showjumping or show horse), electrolyte supplements and hacking on hard surfaces. To reduce muscle tension, use longer rides at a steady pace, massage and working on softer surfaces. Clearly, achieving an optimal state of muscle tension is reliant on planning your training for competitions so you can compete your horse at his best.
To monitor your horse’s muscle tension levels, you will need to regularly feel his muscles and compare the tension you feel. At first it helps to do this daily, perhaps as you change the rugs or before riding and after riding, so you get very familiar with your horse’s responses. There shouldn’t be any indication of pain or soreness and if there is, then get this checked out by your vet or local therapist. Generally the easiest muscles to feel for muscle tension are the big gluteals of the upper hindquarters, so use one hand to gently press into the muscles between the point of hip and point of croup, (make sure you are standing to the side of your horse, not behind it!). High muscle tension will feel very firm through these muscles with little “give”, whereas low muscle tension will produce a soft wobbly muscle which is easy to push into without much pressure.
There is a certain amount of variability between individuals and as a therapist I have seen horses with naturally high muscle tension who simply never seem to relax. On the other end of the scale, there are horses who always have low muscle tension and struggle to achieve their potential. You also may have a horse who tends towards one extreme or the other, but by regularly checking your horse’s muscle tension, you can tailor your training and management to help your horse achieve his best…..
Perhaps the clearest example I have seen of a dramatic change in muscle tension was a very good but always extremely tense endurance horse who began a competitive 160km ride with high muscle tension. It was a tough ride with some big climbs and slippery conditions, but at the end of the 160km, his muscle tension felt great….. the prolonged exercise had effectively lowered his muscle tension to that seen in most horses…. And he was all ready for his recovery period!!!