Last week I bumped into the erroneous assumptions that for reasons I can’t fathom remains prevalent in the horse world: the idea that you can FEED muscle on to your horse. In last week’s instance, a student showed up with a bucket of magnesium for her horse. She read or heard someplace that feeding magnesium would add muscle bulk to her horse. Within weeks, her horse would have a big strong hind-end and the mare’s hollow spots would all fill in with muscle tissue – or so my student thought.

Not only does this thinking undervalue the role of correct exercise and gymnastic training for athlete development but it also misses a critical point about equine physiology. NOTHING we do or feed our horses will add muscle fibers. Horses are born with all the muscle fibers they will ever have, they do not add more at any point in their lives.

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What we can do, however, is improve or enlarge this finite supply of fibers through training that recruits their contractions at varying rates of contraction. Improved muscles come, not from supplement buckets, but by progressively increasing the load or strain of exercises in order to force adaptation from tissues involved. They also come from balancing and straightening an asymmetrical horse, remedying postural misalignments, removing discomfort such as sore feet or joint impingement. Muscle hypertrophy does not come from feeding scoopfuls of powders promising magic results.

Let me be clear. Good nutrition is absolutely critical for the equine athlete. When malnourishment has been an issue, this must be corrected before a body is in a state to make strength adaptations. Good nutrition, though, is much simpler and more pared down than most horse owners acknowledge. We should aim to feed horses as close to their natural states of grazing/foraging as possible. This means feeding lots of roughage, natural salts and minerals (thank you, Redmond!), and clean water. Most horses need only this. Correct training and horse-keeping will put muscle on them.

In my lifetime in the horse world, I have witnessed various nutritional supplements enjoy their moments of fame. Years ago, buckets of Vitamin and E and Selenium were flying off shelves with the assumption they could cure nearly every training pitfall. Then along came joint anti-inflammatories. Right now, Magnesium seems like the darling of the supplement world, receiving lots of good press. Let me state outright that I am in fact a fan of Magnesium… WHEN it is used for what it actually does, which is to relieve muscle over-tension and soreness through its close relationship with calcium’s role on motor neurons. During my own training for marathons and endurance events, I will take magnesium as needed when soreness crops up. I do not, however, assume that I can take magnesium and quit going to the gym yet somehow still end up with chiseled quadriceps. Let’s do our horses a favor and remember the same for them.

By Jec Aristotle Ballou