The large muscles of the hind end are critical for most performance sports, but many
horses have difficulty developing these muscles correctly. Even without exercise, the muscles of the hind end should all be in similar shape and tone, but this is often not the case.
Aside from conformation irregularities, one of the most notable traits in horses incorrectly using the hind end is the over-development of the semitendinosus and biceps femoris muscles and the lack of development of the middle gluteal muscles, particularly the medial gluteal.
The neurological communication to the hind end is limited compared to muscles in the front end, making it more difficult to target specific muscles. While the horse’s nose, eyes, and ears have specific muscle fibers per motor neuron communication, the large gluteal muscles of the hind end may have thousands of muscle fibers relating to one motor neuron.
Thus, it is difficult for the horse to be aware of what muscles it is using in the hind end. If there is discomfort, lack of balance, poor conformation, or injury, the horse can easily compensate by overusing some muscles and under-using others. This compensation pattern is very common for dressage horses, jumpers, and racehorses where you see the overdevelopment and tension of the biceps femoris and the semitendinosus as well as atrophy of the medial gluteal and deeper muscles.
Unfortunately, you cannot “make” a muscle do something when there is no communication. No amount of tack will engage a muscle that is shut down. All that will happen is resistance in certain muscles and atrophy in others. Trying to “engage” a horse’s hind end when there is poor communication will result in resistance both physically and behaviorally. This resistance often will be communicated through behaviors such as bucking, rearing, grinding teeth, lead swapping, refusal in picking up a particular lead, head tossing, pulling, and “getting quick.” All of these reactions demonstrate the horse’s discomfort in trying to communicate that he cannot engage the muscles the rider has asked him to use.
If balanced hind-end muscle development is not correctly achieved, the pelvis may start to
tilt forward or to the side causing imbalances to be felt in the low back. Standing your horse up square and measuring from the point of the hip to level ground on both sides will give an indication of whether any compensation is taking place with the pelvis.
This abnormality is common among many sport horses and gives the appearance of being “strung out” behind. Horses seem to be able to function, but they do so with various degrees of discomfort, primarily in the low back, although stifles and even hocks can become sore.
Because it is easier for a horse to run forward than to engage upward, even without the encumbrance of a rider, some horses do not have balanced muscle groups. Therefore, it is not only important to condition all the muscles equally before starting any sport but also to maintain comfort and proper muscle function. Weak back muscles may be related to a tipped sacrum, so building correct communication and strength in the hind end—to hold the sacrum upright in place—will allow the back to come up and develop strength. Thus the energy to the spine will stay open and move freely to the hind end preventing potential problems from developing.
Although hill work can help develop hind-end muscles, not all people have hills to work their horses on, and such work is not always muscle specific. Horses with overdeveloped semitendinosus muscles will still tend to push forward and limit the use of their middle gluteal muscles. Thus, after years of research conducting various muscle exercises with horses, one exercise seemed to hold and assist almost all horses with
related low-back and hind- end disorders. I’ll walk
you through it here.
To get started you’ll need the following equipment: ankle boots, soft 1-2
pound sand weights, polo wraps, two 12-foot poles; a two foot bucket or jump standard. (Optional equipment: kinesiology tape)
This method of developing targeted muscles is similar to weight-training for bodybuilders. By isolating the muscles and telling the brain to pay attention to these muscles, the body engages physical muscle, neurological memory, and mental memory. The object of this exercise is to encourage your horse to lift its leg up and over a pole, while lightly bending in the direction of the circle. This engages the deep gluteal muscles, which are difficult to activate and essential for balancing the hind end.
First, set two poles on opposite sides of a bucket or jump standard. Poles should be no higher than two feet at the high end, allowing the opposite end to slope to the ground. Depending on the condition and comfort of your horse, you may want to start off with a simple leg boot to get your horse used to both the feel and the exercise. Any tactile stimulation on only one leg (not both) will create awareness in the brain and direct neuron to pro-preceptor connection. You could also use taping to activate the brain’s awareness. If your horse has difficulty walking up and over the poles, then do
not add any weight until the horse can step up an over easily.
Note: Start off with the non-weight “tactile” exercise first, and on
ce your horse is used to the exercise and doing it well, then add a small amount of weight. Be careful to apply the weight along the leg and not just around the ankle. Too much too soon can stress tendons and ligaments.
Sand-filled weights are soft and flexible, and can be found at any s
tore that sells weights for people. Use a 1–2 pound ankle- or wrist-weight to start, especially if your horse is weak. Use a leg wrap to attach the we
ight to the hind leg you’re working first. Hold the weight parallel to the leg and wrap securely. You do not want your horse to pull anything, so recognize the lower the weight is positioned on the leg, the more difficult the lift will be.
Start off with three minutes in both directions, with the weight applied only on the hind leg in the direction you are turning (i.e., if you walk your horse left on
the circle, then the weight should be on the left hind). Begin by walking your horse at the far outside of the circle, where the pole touches the ground. As your horse becomes stronger, you can work up over the inside part of the circle where your horse will have to lift its leg higher. If your horse has difficulty at the low part of the pole, assess its body for imbalance, and do not ask for higher stepping until the horse is able to do the lower level. You could also start with less bend to make it easier.
The object of the exercise is to engage the deep muscles of the hind end, which attach to the sacrum. For optimum muscle development, your horse’s head should be rounding in the direction of the bend. This will also help the back muscle.
It is critical that your horse lifts, bends and breathes during the exercise to have the most benefit. You can do this exercise on the ground or on your horse and help your horse by visualizing what you want and breathe and lift as well. If you want to add more “communication,” you can tape a paper plate or adhere kinesiology tape to the middle gluteal muscles to give more recognition to the brain about which muscles need to be engaged. Again, be careful to introduce your horse to new exercise carefully as you want your horse to be as fully aware and engaged in the exercise as possible.
When starting the exercises, you may noticed soreness in the middle gluteal muscles. If this case, try supportive therapies such as massage, or arnica homeopathic, or Sore-No-More to help prevent further soreness or fatigue as the muscles develop.
Two weeks of exercising 5–15 minutes a day should yield noticeable results in most horses. Some people have even referred to their horses as “apple bottoms” after only two weeks of consistent exercise. By strengthening the hind end, this exercise helps to hold the sacrum in place and takes some of the pressure off the stifles and hocks as well. By developing the middle gluteal muscles, the exercise yields a more round and balanced hind end, and relief of back pain.
Mary Ann Simonds, an international clinician and author works with building confident performance horses through better mental and physical conditioning. Her “Body & Behavior” program helps to identify and support common compensation patterns often communicated through behavioral issues. With over 35 years of professional practice, Mary Ann has development a number of rehab and conditioning program s for various sports focused on both mind and body. She lives between her West Coast farm and Wellington, FL. For more information she can reached at www.maryannsimonds.com or 360 907-4591