Getting your Horse's Back in to the best shape possible

Horse with poor muscle development

As a general Rule, I only fit Prestige saddles, as while I have been trained by Prestige, I am not a "Qualified Saddle Fitter" & only people who have passed the QSF Exams should use that term, however I do try and help people and will come out with saddles , when i can. In the last few weeks, I have seen a number of horses with "muscle atrophy" thats wasted muscles to you and me or put simply a dip behind the withers. Now for me these horses are a worry, hard to fit a saddle to, and always the though that they have damage from a previously bad fitting saddle, but It got me thinking - how can we fix it?

I spotted this wonderful picture from and showed it to a few people, in general the reaction was "top horse is fat bottom horse is in good shape".... but look closer.. The top horse is certainly carrying more condition, but he's got a completely different muscle development. Horse on top will be much better capable of working in an outline, engage his hind end better and be much easier to fit a saddle to.

So if your horse looks like the bottom horse , or more like the bottom horse, than the top one, is it a done deal? Not at all, It is possible, to get your horse from bottom picture to top picture. Is it easy, no, fast, no & are their other things to consider ?

Yes older horses may never get to the top horse shape, but the important thing is they can improve. The benefits of this are horse becomes stronger through their backs, which will help with soundness, help with working better, in a better outline , and hopefully better results in the ring. Over all you should end up with a happier, healthier, stronger horse that performs better. 

So why has he got like this ? Most likely reason is a bad fitting saddle. However you might have seen young horses like this? True, Horses who have been hungry as a youngster and not received much feed or protein might be lacking in top line. 

Older horses can loose muscle tone as they age, and an injury which affects how the horse carries himself can also be a cause. There are also veterinary conditions, which can cause muscle wasting, but for this blog Im only going to assume its one of the above causes

For this article I consulted with Catherine from Wild Atlantic Rider blog, who is a BHSAI qualified riding instructor and Competes her own horses, and Susanne Hehle, Equine Physio and regular western Riding competitor, in order to get different points of view.

Suzannes Tips: 

1. If you haven't already done so, its worth getting a good equine physio to give your horse the once over - especially before you start any new exercise program or change of work or if your horse has been wearing a saddle that didn't fit that well. They can advise of the current state of your horses back and help show you anything that might need special attention.

2. Feed a balancer that promotes good topline. (I personally Highly recommend Blue Chip, tried and tested and Horse first Also have a new muscle supplement just launched which helps with Muscle development - Muscle Gro - Anne-Horseworld)

3. Work the horse long and low - however for this the rider needs an independant seat, keep the horse moving forward.

4.Correct lunging in a Lunging aid or whitaker training aid type of device.

5. Carrot Stretches ( Alternatives like Horslyx Mini Licks can also be used )

* The Side Stretch

* Take a bow 

* The Chest Stretch



Catherine Meenaghan BHSAI & Author of "Wild Atlantic Rider" Blog

If your horse is suffering from muscular atrophy you can improve his strength, suppleness and muscle tone by ensuring correct flatwork training for both horse and rider, as well as correctly fitted tack. This is essentially the key to ensuring healthy and correct muscular development.

Horses, unlike humans, have no collar bone. Their shoulders are supported by muscles which cross inside and outside the shoulder joint. The shoulder blade (scapula) and the humerous form the shoulder joint which flexes and extends with the movement of the foreleg. The foreleg is attached to the rest of the body by the serratus muscles, which in turn, are attach to the lower neck, the sides of the chest, connecting to the outside of the scapula. In order to build the shoulder muscles up you must incorporate exercises which first engage them.

In my opinion, there is no “quick fix” and no one exercise can “fix” muscular atrophy of the shoulder. However, once you have your horse riding in a correct frame, properly engaging his hind quarters the rest will follow accordingly (think of the chain!). Be sure to have a knowledgeable eye on the ground to help guide you and ensure that your horse is properly working “through” his back. “Pulling your horse in” or the incorrect use of training aids “to get his head down” are basically causing restriction, having a negative effect on the muscular chain by “blocking” the correct and natural movement of the muscles.

Once your horse has established a correct frame on the flat you can begin to incorporate some exercises and lateral movements in order to engage the shoulders. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Figures of 8 – in trot ride two perfectly round circles on a figure of 8 without the straight line in the middle for the change of rein. This will help to improve suppleness as well as discourage your horse from depending on the rein for balance and collapsing his shoulder on the change.
  2. Trotting poles and cavelletti – help to keep your horse focused and interested on his work as well as encourage him to stretch, improve his suppleness and athleticism. They also help rider’s fine tune their rhythm and contact.
  3. Leg yielding – engages the horses hindquarters and lightens the forehand. Start by riding down the 3 quarter line and leg yield towards the track. Play with the exercise by leg yielding away from the outside track. If you feel your horse tensing or anticipating, try leg yielding half way down the 3 quarter line onto a circle in order to rebalance and refocus the exercise.
  4. Shoulder in – engages the hocks and “frees up” the shoulders by taking the weight on the hindquarters and increasing the flexion of the haunches.
  5. Lunging – I cannot stress enough the benefits of correct lunging. You can incorporate transitions and pole work all while the horse is working without the influence of the weight of the rider.
  6. Hacking – Finally, incorporate some hacking into your schedule. It’ll make a welcome change from the school for both horse and rider, help with fittening and if you incorporate some hill work it will surely engage the muscle chain and get your horse using his hind end and shoulders.

Incorporating a variety of exercises such as those mentioned will help to improve muscle tone. Be sure to have a good coach or trainer on the ground to guide you. Ensure the work you’re doing is suitable for your horse’s age and ability and that he is getting the correct feed for him to cope with his work load. It’s no harm to research what feeds or supplements are available to help with muscle recovery.

Finally, remember that prevention is always better than cure and that by firstly ensuring that your saddle fits well is the best and cheapest method of keeping your horse, strong and supple and avoid issues such as muscular atrophy.               


Great Advice there from Suzanne & Catherine - Huge thanks for their time and suggestions.

By following the tips, stretches and riding exercise above, you can ensure that your horse is in the best muscle shape that he can be ! 

NB: The Above advice is the subjective opinion of the author and contributors and is not intended to replace a Vet or Physio and we recommend you consult them before starting any training regime, if in any doubt. If your horse does not improve you may need to consult a vet to rule out other conditions.

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