Muscular aches, pains and stiffness impact on a horse's performance and his attitude. Caught early, they can be managed effectively. If undetected, muscle pain robs your horse of comfortable, free movement. Just think of how you feel if you've overdone it and have muscle pain or injury. It's not fun.
Signs of Muscle Pain
Muscle pain is a form of lameness, a problem that influences how the horse moves. A localized serious injury is fairly easy to detect if you look for it. The damaged muscle feels hard and is tender to touch. When you examine the area, the horse will flinch and try to move away from you. The muscle may twitch. Depending on the location, there may be an obvious lameness.
Muscle pain may be more difficult to recognize in the horse that is "sore all over" from exercising longer or harder than he should have for the level of conditioning. The horse may be somewhat depressed, may be a little off feed, and may resent grooming, touch and saddling. Movement is stiff and stride length may be shortened. Instead of the gentle, rhythmic sway when riding, you'll feel a bit like the saddle is sitting on a fence line.
There are many variations on the theme with muscular pain. It may be present only in limited areas. The back is a common area, as are the pectorals in the chest, the hamstrings, the inner thigh muscles, quadriceps above the stifles, triceps of the upper front leg and also the neck.
Muscle strain or injury is an occupational hazard of any athlete, but protecting your horse's muscles begins with correct conditioning. Build duration and intensity of work gradually, vary the type of exercise, work equal times on both leads and diagonals. Allow as much turnout time as possible, so the horse has a chance to stretch, roll, bask in the sun and work the kinks out. Doing this can greatly decrease muscular pain and strain.
Your horse's reactions when being groomed are an important clue to areas of muscle pain. Skin twitching, flinching, ear pinning, tail swishing and kicking indicate sensitive areas. Examine the area with gradually increasing hand pressure if you notice this. Use the heel of your hand, as if you were kneading dough. Normal muscles are pliable and, after an initial normal response to move away from pressure, the horse should relax, even lean into the pressure. Sore muscles will feel unusually hard and often spasm further with pressure. The horse will obviously resent it.
If you locate tender areas, an anatomy book comes in handy. Trace the muscle to find the extent of the soreness. Pain may be localized to one area, involve the whole muscle belly, and even involve the areas where the muscle is attached to bone by the ligaments at either end.
Put It To Use
• Have your vet see any horse with severe pain.
• Combine liniments, heat, massage, gentle stretching and turnout for muscle pain.
• If massaging an area that bothers the horse, stop doing it.
Severe injuries should be examined by your veterinarian, possibly ultrasounded to determine the extent and nature of the injury. Your vet will then outline a treatment plan. Otherwise, topical treatment, heat, massage, gentle stretching and turnout are the keys to handling muscle problems. The best rule of thumb for massage and stretching is simple. If it obviously hurts the horse, don't do it. Gentle massage and manipulation will help the muscle relax. If you're doing it wrong, the spasm and pain will get worse. If in doubt, stick to light rubbing, warmth and a good liniment. (See our article on massage on page 16 in this issue.)
Liniments, often with formulations dating back a century or more, are mainstays in many performance barns for good reason. A good liniment can relax and soothe muscles after work, helping to prevent the development of stiffness and pain. Coupled with light massage and usually warmth (see sidebar on heat and cold therapy) they can also greatly relieve existing pain and stiffness. A brisk rub before work or competition helps relax and warm up muscles and tendons. NSAIDs-nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like bute-simply aren't effective against muscle pain, so the old-fashioned topical liniments still have an important job.
We've field trialed liniments before, but it's always in connection with lower-leg problems. This trial focused on muscle effects. We looked at "day-after" muscle tension in horses that were worked hard and had liniments in their wash water versus those that received no treatment, as well as the response to liniments in horses that were already muscle sore.
To help you pick a product based on your actual needs-from a routine body brace in wash water to maintenance and therapy on hard-working horses or treatment of actual muscle injuries-we've assigned a rating of mild to strong to each product (see chart).