Retraining the mind and the muscle

by Hannah Ashton, Animal Physiotherapist, BSc, DipAPhys, MIAAT

Rehoming  horses who have retired from racing for one reason or another has become very popular with many horse riders. The thoroughbred is quick and nimble so can suit many disciplines, and after watching the Olympics it is evident that the thoroughbred gene is becoming more and more popular at high end competition.

Obviously a thoroughbred doesn’t suit everyone, they can be quirky, hard to keep weight on, often have terrible feet and come with an unjustified reputation of being ‘crazy’. But when you get the right one for you, there is no turning back!

Living in the Cotswolds, I am surrounded by many top class training yards. Horses of eye watering value are kept in five star accommodation and the journey from the gallops to the winners podium begins, however, not every thoroughbred has the ability or desire to win races and in these circumstances new homes and careers are sought. At the other end, horses typically retire from racing at the age of 13 or 14 and whilst they may have been very successful, they still have plenty of time left to try something new. No horse wants to stand in a field for the rest of their lives. The Spring and Autumn may be pleasant, but the winter and mud is no fun, nor can the summer and flies be, so they deserve the chance to be kept mentally and physically stimulated.

Whilst a horse can be worth thousands of pounds in racing, they are often rehomed for free or for a tiny proportion of their original cost, making them cheap horses to buy, but what people don’t often realise is they are not cheap to keep!

Being a therapist I work with horses of all shapes and sizes and one thing that frequently comes to my attention is the inappropriate muscling of the ex-racehorse. This is often merely due to a lack of education, but it can be a pitiful sight with genuine horses trying but struggling to fulfil their owners expectations. Sore backs, joint and muscle pain, poor posture and overall weakness are just a few issues I have to deal with but with the correct exercise and nutrition, all this can be improved. I don’t profess to be the expert but owning thoroughbreds myself I do understand the challenges owners come across in the transition from racehorse to riding horse, so I hope this article gives some guidance to all you wonderful people who have taken on an ex racehorse, make them as strong, fit, happy and healthy as you can.


Let us first look at the horse in race training ...

Racehorses are required to get from start to finish in the fastest most efficient way possible, enabling them to get their nose in front. The thoroughbred is typically built ‘downhill’ making their action sleek, quick and close to the ground. A horse that elevates themselves off the ground will waste valuable time in the air.

  • Other considerations include:
  • A racehorse is typically ridden by a light weight rider who spends the majority of training time out of the saddle  The tack is very minimal and unrestrictive, allowing a huge degree of movement throughout the back. A racehorse’s stride will go from the most extended to the most flexed enabling them to power forward with a huge stride
  • Racehorses do the majority of their training on fairly straight, inclining gallops made of top quality artificial material designed to protect joints and maintain soundness
  • Racehorses are trained in a strict routine of both nutrition, exercise and down time
  • Racehorses develop strong pulling muscles, typically on the underside of the horse (the opposite to top line muscles)
  • Racing engages fast twitch muscles fibres. These are anaerobic and give the horse speed


In comparison, the ridden horse;

Riders are of varying shapes and sizes compete in all disciplines and so the horse must be able to carry a variety of weights comfortably. Riders out of proportion to their horse can be either ineffective or cause gait and postural issues, back and joint pain

  • Riders sit into the horses back aiming to propel the movement upwards and forward
  • Tack is designed to fit snug. Dressage horses are required to do a number of movements including lateral, extended and collected work and they should be supple and flexible throughout
  • Schooling movements require the horse to work ‘uphill’ enabling them to sit on their haunches and be in balance, control and harmony with the rider when asked to do a multitude of movements
  • Schooling typically takes place in a 20x40 metre or 20x60m rectangular arena and involves lots of turning, circling and sideways movements
  • Ideally horses should develop their top line muscles to provide selfcarriage, suppleness, a light contact and postural ring engagement
  • Fast and slow twitch muscles fibres enable endurance, quick movements and energy

Looking at the comparisons, it is clear, out of racing, the horse has a very different job to do, it must use itself very differently and as such, we as riders must equip the horse with the correct muscling to give it the best possible chance of comfort, ability and success.

As previously discussed, a racehorse must be downhill, this gives it the best chance to win a race, however, out of racing and off top quality surfaces, a horse who is heavy on the forehand and does a lot on hard surfaces will over use their forelimb joints and could cause stiffness and degeneration from an early age.


Whilst every muscle has a vital role in the performance ability of a horse, they often work very differently in each discipline.

Looking at the pictures above I have highlighted the muscles we can clearly see are engaged and well developed. I have compared the racehorse verses the dressage horse as their job couldn’t be more different and whilst in this case they are different breeds I hope it gives you an indication on what to work on.

Firstly, the difference in build is evident. Racehorses are sleek and streamline making them light and quick. A dressage horse has more bulk, they need to be agile but aren’t measured on speed and their limbs must be able to hold a position or movement for a longer period of time.

Observing the position of withers and croup in both photo’s you can see a racehorse’s croup sits higher than the withers, making them ‘downhill’. In dressage, the withers must be higher than the croup making the movement ‘uphill’ Other comparisons to consider are the neck positioning, degree of leg flexion and riders position.

Looking at how the muscling differs, whilst each muscle is just as import to each discipline, it is often used in a different way. In racing the hind limb muscles must work in a way to propel the horse forward and down into the forelimb, enabling the horse to take the greatest possible stride but not waste time in the air. In dressage, the hind limb must allow forward propulsion up into the forehand, sustained loading to achieve collected and balanced sideways and circular movements as well as variations in stride length, height of limb flexions, extensions and multiple transitions.

Like with the flat work, race horses keep their jumping efficient, avoiding wasting time in the air. They tackle one fence at a time with distance between each fence. Show jumpers tackle courses that turn, have combinations and have a variety of fences including uprights, parallels, doubles, triples, skinnies and walls and as such show jumpers must be able to collect, extend, propel themselves upwards and clear fences from one, two, three strides.

Considering all of the above, whilst the highlighted muscles are used in all disciplines, the horse must adapt to using them in a different way. Too much change too quickly can cause aches, pains and strains so give your horse time, it will be worth it in the long run.

To highlight the difference in function of a few key muscles

The trapezius lifts the shoulder allowing upward movement, essential in dressage movements but too much upward movement in racing will make the horse slower!

The Longissimus dorsi transmits propulsion from the hind limbs. This is the longest dorsal muscle that originates at the pelvis and travels the length of the back. It is essential in both disciplines, however, the sitting and loading aspect in a racehorse will be underused. A strong longissimus dorsi continued overleaf will also support the weight of the rider and protect the vertebral column. As the race rider will spend more time above the saddle than sitting on it, a racehorse in retraining will need time to adapt to the constant weight of a rider.

The Bicep femoris muscle allows the racehorse to extend the hind limb to its full range allowing the huge stride length. In dressage, the same muscle doesn’t need such a high degree of extension but it is required to allow the hind limb to cross under the body enabling movements such as leg yields, half pass and haunches in.

The Triceps, Brachiocephalic and Digital Extensor muscles are more developed in a racehorse as together they allow the huge degree of extension when galloping.

The Pectorals are also much greater developed in racing as it is a strong pulling muscle. It brings the forelimb back to the body, completing the stride sequence. Any horse with welldeveloped pectorals suggests they work more on the forehand, right for some activities but not for others. You wouldn’t want a dressage horse with huge pecs!

Dressage horses also appear to have a much larger bottom than racehorses! Racehorses require the gluteals to extend the hip joint playing an important part in achieving the huge stride length. In the dressage, it must also support the hind limb in sideways work, sitting and holding intricate movements and propelling the horse up into the contact.

Movement of the hind limb is achieved with a sequence of muscular flexions and extensions. The Quadriceps and Psoas muscles work together to flex the hip joint, extend the stifle, flexes and lifts hind limb up and under, vital in both disciplines.

The Semitendinosus is very prominent in racehorses as it allows the hip and hock to extend. Having the hind limb ‘out behind’ would be deemed incorrect in dressage and as such they are typically less prominent.


On the ground, there are many exercises owners can do to help improve suppleness, posture and balance. Before attempting any of these exercises I strongly advise you seek the help of a therapist or vet to firstly check your horse has no underlying issues and is capable of doing the stretching. They will also demonstrate the stretches correctly and safely.

Below are a few useful examples:

The classic carrot stretch

These are great exercises. Not only to they encourage bend but they make the horse rebalance themselves and engage their postural muscles.

The tail pull

This is a valuable exercise that should be prescribed to every owner to carry out before exercise. By pulling the tail, you firstly encourage the horse to engage it’s postural muscles so they are not pulled backwards. The back rounds flexing the lumbar sacral region and the longissimus dorsi is stretched.

Pulling the tail sideways also engages the postural muscles as well as the quads. As well as stretching the back it also encourages lateral work so should there be a problem area through the back, the addition of lateral stretch will help relieve this! It is a great exercise for all horses, especially the weak, young and imbalanced. The sideways stretch is great for improving hind limb strength and can help resolve issues such as sticky stifles / fixating patella.

Trapezius Stretch

This stretch activates the trapezius muscle, a muscle you want to develop. Regularly stretching this muscle will give it every chance to develop and keep supple. Like the tail pull, it also pulls the horse slightly off balance and is another great way of engaging the abdominal muscles

Forelimb Extension

By extending the forelimb, you not only free up the shoulders, stretch the triceps, pectorals and lateral muscles, you also encourage the horse to take the weight back on their haunches to avoid falling forwards. This is a great way to start the re-education and gain the horses confidence in using his hind end differently.


Animal Therapy Magazine met up with Levi Hunt, Equestrian trainer and asked him those all important questions about training.

When you start training an ex racehorse, what is the first thing you typically address?

Comfort. Retraining of the racehorse will only be successful if they are comfortable. Coming out of racing, there will often be many checks and changes that need to be made. New tack, shoeing, physiotherapy and in some case checking for or managing gastric ulcers. Any horse that is stabled for long periods of time can develop ulcers however, this isn’t unique to racing! A horse that is comfortable on the inside and outside is more likely to reach their full potential.

In training, what exercises do you find most useful to build / change muscle development?

It is important that all new work is brought on slowly. Taking the time at the beginning will reap the benefits in the future. Racehorses typically train in straight lines and as such their lateral swing is limited, therefore, encouraging them to swing through their backs will really help with suppleness. Exercises such as transitions (Dressage trainers will do up to 250 transitions in a training session!), changing direction such as figures of eight, changes of rein, changing pace (collect, medium, extend the stride in the same pace). Remember, racehorses are very good at going in straight lines, so by walk, trot, cantering around the outside of the arena isn’t really teaching them anything new. Using corners and bend will start the process of shifting their centre of balance back onto the haunches. Pole work is also a very useful exercise. Starting off with them on the ground and when confident raising them at one end or both and working in all three paces is great for achieving more lift, flexion and engagement.

Give me some common challenges you come across in re-training?

Tension! Thoroughbreds work in a high intensity environment and can find it difficult to ‘chill out’. This is how most people see racehorses and believe they will always be like this! With re-education most horses will adapt to their new life and you see a completely different, relaxed, side to them.

Often, while in racing, horses associate tack with the gallops and as such don’t know how to relax and stretch under the saddle, this isn’t a negative, they need to get mentally prepared to race. For hacking, show jumping, dressage and eventing horses perform best when mentally and physically relaxed. Overcoming physical and mental tension I find to be the most time consuming part of retraining, but the most rewarding!

Do you recommend a programme to strip off the racing muscles and start to build new muscles for their chosen discipline?

Racing muscles and muscles required for other equestrian disciplines are very different. For instance, a dressage horse wants a good top-line of muscle all the way from his poll to his dock, strong thighs and a light under carriage so that he can work round through his neck and back. A racehorse is lean in every way with light muscle throughout. Not weaker, just strong in another way.

I find starting thoroughbreds off as you would a youngster is the best way to build muscle. Long and low stretching and bending in a steady rhythm will help build stronger core muscle as they learn to push from behind and make each limb weight bear and engage for longer, building strength and balance.

It is important to remember that by asking a racehorse to perform a different discipline, you are asking them to use muscles in a different way. Think of the first time you go to the gym and do a weights session, you ache, well so do they, so take your time and allow for lots of little holidays so muscles can adapt. A sore horse won’t work to their best and may show behavioural changes.

Muscle has memory and habits can take time to break. Little and often is far more beneficial than intense schooling sessions, and of course, make time for lots of stretching and relaxation.

Facebook: Levi Hunt Equestrian Training