Understanding the Muscles during Dressage Training - Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS

Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Posted by Betsy LaBelle


Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS gives a workshop on Dressage Training and the Horses Muscles in Wellington, Florida  Photo: Betsy LaBelle
Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS gives a workshop on Dressage Training and the Horses Muscles in Wellington, Florida Photo: Betsy LaBelle
Do you have an understanding of the muscles in your horse as you train each day? You should spend a moment to learn what builds strength in the muscles, joints and tendons of your horse. Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS flew from Mason, Michigan to Wellington, Florida to give the Florida International Youth Dressage Championship participants an education in all things he’s learned as a veterinarian from Holland and an FEI rider, trainer and judge. A world class vet, he's watched and learned from Rien van der Schaft, Alex van Silfout, Reiner Klimke and Klaus Balkenhol. With great insight, Dr. van Wessum shared successful steps in dressage training in order to not need the vet - titled: Dressage and the Vet - Do They Have Something In Common?Starting in 2005, Dr. Van Wessum practiced at the McPhail Lameness and Sports Medicine. An expert at Michigan State University, he clearly has always been interested in the dressage horse and the training. 

Starting in 2010, owner of the clinic in Mason, Michigan called Equine All-Sports Medicine Center, Dr. van Wessum trains as an FEI dressage rider, trainer and judge, and he also worked as the 1997 official team vet for the Dutch Young Rider Championships.

With loads of insight, he explained what builds strength in the muscles, joints and tendons on the horse and what you should know about THAT ONE HOUR you ride 5-6 days a week. 

First, the dressage rider must exercise (really work) their horse to get any strength. There must be a sequence, like building a house with the Pyramid of Dressage (Dressage Training Scale). The sequence must always be in the mind of the rider if the rider skips a step, the horse will need a vet. 

Second, the dressage rider must understand muscle development. How to build muscles. How to load the muscles to get them engaged.

Muscles are: bundles of cells, arranged in fibers, and they contract and relax, requiring sugar or fatty acids to burn as energy source.   

Many muscle cells are dormant (resting), they only activate when triggered by appropriate training. Muscles require oxygenation from the blood vessels that wrap around the muscles. There are two types of oxygen metabolism for muscles: aerobic = with oxygen and anaerobic = without oxygen (lactic acid). In order for muscle development to happen the rider must work the horse hard enough to trigger muscle development through short times of lactic acid build-up. A rider must know that to get to that anaerobic or lactic acid build-up the horse must load their hind legs through contraction or half-halts or collection for a short period of time during the ride.

There are two types of muscle fibers, fast twitch (white fibers) and slow twitch (red fibers). The fast twitch muscles are the powerful, fast contraction muscles that quickly fatigue. The slow twitch muscles are slower to contract with large endurance capacity.

Every horse has a very specific amount of both fibers for each muscle group - genetically determined, but training can help compensate or build up whichever may be the weaker for that horse. Some horses have the capacity to be ridden all day long (slow twitch type) and some can sprint easily with in a ride but will fatigue easily (fast twitch type).  

Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS gives a workshop on Dressage Training and the Horses Muscles in Wellington, Florida  Photo: Betsy LaBelle
Dr. Rob van Wessum DVM MS gives a workshop on Dressage Training and the Horses Muscles in Wellington, Florida Photo: Betsy LaBelle
There are three types of contraction:

Concentric = when the muscle gets shorter when contracting, like lifting a bottle with one arm and the elbow angle gets smaller and the biceps bigger. 

Isometric = when the muscle does not get shorter or longer during contraction, like holding a bottle with a stretched arm.

Eccentric =  when the muscle gets longer while contracting, as when you let your arm go with a bottle in it but decelerate the extension of the arm.

For the horse, acceleration is an concentric form of contraction of muscles, when a specific posture is kept the horse is delivering isometric contraction, and when decelerating and with collection there is eccentric contraction. The more collection and uphill frame, the more eccentric contraction, though one needs acceleration to get into collection. 

It’s important for the rider to work on endurance exercises with their horse as well as exercises in power building. Endurance includes: circles and shoulder-in, stretching exercises, in walk, trot, canter. Power building exercises include energy explosions, extensions/collection, transitions between and within the gaits with relaxation periods. 

The rider must work the horses muscles, but not overdo it. 

When a muscle works too hard, it will get fatigued and will not be able to contract anymore. Especially when the muscle cannot work any longer, a joint to be overstretched (like the fetlock when landing) and gets tired, trauma to joint, joint capsule and surrounding tendons is at great risk.

For instance, there are muscles that keep the superficial and deep digital flexor tendon under tension, thus protecting the fetlock joint from overstretching. The Suspensory Ligament, another tendon which supports the fetlock function, does not have a muscle attached to deviate overstretching. When the muscles of the SDFT and DDFT are tired, much more strain is now put on the Suspensory Ligament, which can lead to an injury of the Suspensory Ligament.

Training Tip: Ride with your head and your feel, don’t overdo it, repeat an exercise 2-3 times, and if there is no improvement change your plan. Be sure to warm-up the horse, then move to: low intensity work, high intensity work, easier exercises, stretching and relaxing and then a cool down (walk and trot). 


Training muscles while protecting tendons is a tough job: be sure that the intensity of the everyday workouts are not too low because the horse will not build muscle, be effective or help you progress. Or that the intensity of the everyday workouts are super high and may damage the tendons. If you are not sure, you must ask for help. Watch professional dressage riders at a show, in your barn or during an apprenticeship. Stay critical and ask questions. 

For more information: http://www.equineallsports.com/