The health and function of our horses muscles is essential to ensure that they can perform at their very best, whether that be international level or local riding club.
For hard working horses especially, additional and enhanced nutritional support might be needed to support muscle recovery and repair after activity.
Muscle development during training is also dependent upon the appropriate ‘building blocks’ being available and both nutrition and targeted conditioning are essential to support that process.
Muscle health is also important for our less active horses. For example, we must not forget our older equine friends who might show signs of changes in their musculature and need some additional support too.
Sometimes our horse’s genetics mean that their muscle health has to be considered carefully too and a number of conditions can affect muscle form and function. Awareness, diagnosis, treatment, and careful management of diet and exercise is often key in such cases.
Let’s consider muscle biology and what it means for how we can best support our horses’ muscle health.
What do muscles consist of?
Muscle tissue predominantly consists of protein. Indeed, protein is a major part of most bodily tissues, in addition to hormones, enzymes and substances critical for immune function.
The development of muscles, whether during growth or as a result of training and conditioning is dependant on a suitable level of dietary protein being available. Notably however, it is actually amino acids that are needed to support muscle development, meaning that while we talk about dietary protein requirements, it is actually amino acid requirements that we mean.
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are essentially the ‘building blocks’ of protein. In nature, proteins are found in different forms, and this is a consequence of the different types of individual amino acids that can be combined to form a protein, as well as how they are combined. You just need to think about your horses skin, hair, and hooves to get a feel for some of the variety of protein structures and forms that are possible.
How does my horse obtain amino acids?
There are typically twenty amino acids commonly found in nature and they are classed as either ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’. Our horses will obtain amino acids in their diet from grazing and any supplementary feeding. Different feed types and ingredients will provide different protein types and as a result, slightly different levels of individual amino acids too.
For leisure horses, their protein (amino acid) requirement will typically be met via their standard diet. However, for performance horses, older horses or those with certain conditions, additional support might be needed via protein or even specific amino acid supplementation.
The essential and non-essential amino acids
Non-essential amino acids represent those that might be provided in the diet but are also produced in the body at levels that meet demand.
Conversely, essential amino acids are those that must be supplied in the diet because the body cannot produce them in the required amounts or at the required level to meet demand.
The essential amino acids for horses include arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine and valine.
If the amount of an essential amino acid supplied in the diet is less than required, then it can limit the synthesis of proteins, including muscle development. Lysine in particular is often noted to be a limiting amino acid, although levels of methionine and threonine are also critical.
In feeding our horses, we need to provide dietary protein at levels to meet the individual amino acid requirements to support the form and function of their whole body, including their musculature.
Which amino acids are important for muscles?
Evidence indicates that certain amino acids are particularly important to support muscle development and includes lysine and leucine. Lysine is especially limiting when it comes to the development and repair of our horses’ muscles.
Consequently, targeted nutritional support for muscle health should include lysine and leucine. Interestingly, human sports science has identified that the so-called branched chain amino acids (BCAA), leucine, isoleucine, and valine, can support performance and recovery from athletic output, including muscle repair. Leucine in particular is credited as a key BCAA in muscle health and remains a critical amino acid to consider in supporting muscles nutritionally.
Are there other substances worth considering for muscle health?
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, commonly abbreviated to HMB, is produced when leucine is metabolised in the body. HMB is an active metabolite and is associated with supporting muscle health during training but reducing levels of tissue breakdown.
This means that HMB has gained attention as a supplement for use after activity to support muscle development and assisting the recovery process, for both humans and horses, although it is important to provide adequate amounts if supplementing.
Vitamin E is also a critical nutrient to support muscle health and is best combined with the mineral selenium. Both nutrients work synergistically together and ideally should be supplemented as a pair for this reason. Vitamin E functions as an important antioxidant and supports a range of body functions including the immune system and muscle health.
Vitamin E is especially important because our horses must have a dietary source of it and cannot synthesise it themselves. If a horse’s diet includes poor quality forage, they are in hard work, fed high levels of dietary oil are older, need support for their muscles or are reproductively active, enhanced levels of vitamin E are needed, so supplementation is often beneficial. Ideally look for natural vitamin E rather than synthetic sources in any supplements. This is because natural forms of vitamin E have enhanced biological activity than synthetic forms.
What else is important to support my horses muscle heath and development?
Diet alone will not build muscle. Indeed, if you simply feed and supplement, you are more likely to have your horse develop fat stores than solid musculature. Exercise and targeted conditioning are critical alongside diet and supplementation. Muscles develop through miniscule tears and injuries during activity, that then repair and regenerate. This process cannot occur in the absence of conditioning and training.
It is also important to note that rest is essential for muscle repair and development. It can be very easy to get so wrapped up in diet and training that we forget how important rest and recovery is, not just for muscle development, but for our horses’ overall health and wellbeing too.
Science Supplements offer a range of high specification equine supplements that are carefully formulated to support your horse’s health and wellbeing. Muscle health can be supported through using Muscle Builder to support muscle development, or Muscle Aid for comprehensive muscle support.