Horse people appreciate the equine athlete who is well-muscled, fit, and strong for his activity, whether it be canter pirouettes, flying over cross-country courses, the quick turn to a show jumping combination, the spins of a reining horse, the speed of the barrel horse, the agility of the cutting horse, the stamina of the endurance horse, and the ground-covering gallop of a race horse.
Muscle contraction moves the body. Muscles anchor to bone at site of origin and through tendon attachments. As the muscle contracts, it pulls the bone to which it is attached in the direction of contraction. Building muscle includes strength and flexibility. Muscles that are too tight or strained cannot work efficiently.
Increased muscle mass allows quicker muscle contraction and greater generation of force, which can translate into increased suspension and flexion for dressage horses, increased jumping ability for hunter/jumpers and eventers, more speed for race horses, quicker spins for reiners, and more acceleration for barrel horses and cutting horses.
Muscle mass is the balance between the building up and the breaking down of proteins. Increasing muscle mass comes from a combination of increased exercise and increased protein, including the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
During exercise, muscle tissue breaks down and there is a decrease in muscle protein-building, also known as protein synthesis. Particularly with young horses or horses that have been out of work for a while, the breakdown phase is accelerated.
When the horse is at rest, post-exercise, protein synthesis increases to repair muscle mass damaged during training and competing. It is very important to provide a quality protein that includes all the essential amino acids after exercise. One of the best recovery meals is a banana (without the peel) mixed with alfalfa pellets. The sugar in the banana replaces important muscle glycogen (energy), and the protein in the alfalfa provides all the essential amino acids for protein synthesis.
Stress and muscle breakdown
Increased exercise, or a longer intense training session can increase the production of free radicals, which can accelerate muscle breakdown, resulting in soreness, stiffness, and inflammation. In essence, more cells are being destroyed than are being replaced.
Feeding for muscle mass
Horses cannot build muscle without protein. Since horses forage for 20 hours a day, let’s start with their most important food source: hay. One of the highest sources of protein is alfalfa hay. Its protein content ranges from 23-26%, making it a richer source of protein than timothy (8-10%), orchard grass (7-11%) or Bermuda (7-9%).
Pasture grasses range from a high of 17% (Kentucky bluegrass) to a low of 11% (Bermuda), with orchard grass coming in at 12%. As you can see, fresh pasture provides higher protein than grass hays. Pasture protein levels do decrease in late summer, and drought conditions will lower protein levels as well.
There are additional feeding components that affect protein amounts for the horse. Commercial feeds provide blends and ration balancers that can range from 10-16% protein. The protein sources for many of these feeds include soybean meal, alfalfa meal, corn distillers dried grains, and wheat middlings.
Whole food protein sources
Whole food protein components include:
- Cool Stance coconut meal (20%)
- Renew Gold, the blend of coconut meal with rice bran (15%)
- alfalfa pellets or cubes (15-18%)
- timothy pellets or cubes (8-9%)
- timothy/alfalfa pellets or cubes (12%)
- whole oats (12%)
- flax seeds (20%)
- chia seeds (18%)
- Speedi-Beet (10%)
- beet pulp (7.6-9.3%)
Supplemental protein sources: whey and soy
Whey protein from milk provides the essential amino acids and is particularly high in the BCAAs. These specific amino acids constitute 35% of the amino acids in muscle. There is another benefit to whey protein, in that a multifunctional protein called lactoferrin has an important growth-stimulating effect on bone. Remember, muscle moves the skeleton structure!
The common sources of whey protein are protein isolate and protein concentrate. Protein isolate is a denatured form of whey protein that provides pure protein but without the cofactors (helper molecules) found in the milk: lactoferrin, phospholipids, and lipoic acid (a carrier of enzymes and immunoglobulin). Whey protein concentrate is produced by high heat and acid extraction while still maintaining a level of fats and cofactors. Of course, the quality of the whey depends on the cows, their diet, and their lifestyle.
Then there is undenatured whey protein which is the most bioactive whey and is extracted by filtration, not heat. It is also the most expensive. In my opinion, it is the best whey for muscle building.
Soy protein is made from genetically modified soy, and because of the increase in herbicide and pesticide use, it can have one of the highest percentages of contamination. Soy contains antinutrients: enzyme inhibitors, trypsin inhibitors, and phytoestrogens. Soy provides the essential amino acids, including the BCAAs, but may not be the best choice for building muscle mass.
Muscle building, muscle breakdown
Because of the cycle of building and breakdown, just providing protein does not address the breakdown cycle. The best support for muscle recovery is found in antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium. Horses out on orchard grass for 10-12 hours per day will get more than adequate levels of vitamin E. Alfalfa, timothy, fescue and Kentucky bluegrass provide adequate amounts of vitamin E. But hay from these grasses and legumes can lose 80% or more of the vitamin E content in the course of maturing, harvesting, drying, and storing the hay.
If your horse is not on pasture, or if it is winter when grass offers little nutrition, you need to supplement vitamin E either through commercial feeds or supplements such as camelina oil, almonds, sunflower seeds, or rice bran.
The element selenium is often very low in soils, and supplementation has become a necessity. Selenium yeast is preferable to sodium selenite. Selenium yeast is more bioavailable because the selenium is chelated (bound) to an organic substance: yeast. In contrast, sodium selenite is an inorganic form used in the manufacturing of colorless glass. It is classified as an acute hazard to the aquatic environment.
BioStar’s Locomotion EQ
This is a whole food supplement addressing the muscle building and muscle breakdown process. This unique combination provides undenatured whey protein from pasture-raised, rBGH-free cows for the essential amino acids and the BCAAs. Locomotion EQ also provides:
Organic Ascophyllum nodosum, a species of seaweed that, due to its balance of amino acids, electrolytes, trace minerals and antioxidants, helps to restore and maintain healthy cell proliferation, which is essential in the recovery period after exercise.
Astaxanthin, a super-antioxidant from microalgae that provides more antioxidant power than vitamin E or vitamin C. Astaxanthin can handle multiple free radicals simultaneously, staying active far longer than other antioxidants. This is important for helping muscles recover from oxidative stress. Astaxanthin acts on five different inflammation pathways, and inhibits known inflammation mediators such as prostaglandins.
By providing the body what it needs to build muscle mass and reduce muscle breakdown and fatigue via antioxidant support, combined with consistent training and a quality feeding program, your horse can work and perform and be the athlete that is waiting to emerge.