Muscular aches, pains and stiffness impact on a horse’s performance and his attitude. Caught early, they can be managed effectively. If undetected, they rob 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.
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).
Some liniments performed better for particular situations than others, so we’re sharing these results with you here:
General Use/Body Brace: This is probably the largest use category for muscle liniments, ”pampering” after works and helping to encourage relaxation, discourage spasm in worked muscles. If there’s not much chance that you overworked your horse and just want a ”feel good” product, we suggest Sore No-More, Espree or Equi-Spa. These are as pleasant to use as they are to your horse. Espree is the best value.
For horses prone to post-exercise muscle soreness, we’d turn it up a notch and go with Arnica Rub, Bigeloil or Absorbine Original. The new Arnica Rub has a thicker consistency, similar to a shampoo, but mixes well in water for that use. Bigeloil and Absorbine are the time-honored kings of traditional liniments. Prices and effectiveness are so similar here it boils down to personal preference.
Acute Muscle Injury: This category includes actual muscle tears or things like contusions from kicks. The most appropriate products for treatment in the first one to three days would be those that contain no or minimal concentrations of counterirritants because inflammation is a prime consideration early on. Sore No-More, Brisk and the Equi-Block original or DT formula are good choices here. Sore No-More provided us the best pain relief with the least chance of reactions.
If there seems to be more spasm than actual inflammation (heat, swelling), Choate’s can be an excellent choice. Arnica Rub, Absorbine Original or Bigeloil are excellent choices, once you’re past the acute inflammatory phase, and will address any remaining component of spasm better than the products that target primarily pain and inflammation.
Massage Aids: Many of these products can be used in conjunction with massage, but you need to remember that the more you rub, the more intense the skin response to the ingredients will be. Of the products rated up to strong, only Sore No-More should be used with extensive massage work. The TimberCrest Muscle Pain Liniment is a good choice for deep muscle manipulation or experiment with one of the other mild products.
Old Muscle Injuries: Areas of previous damage with scar formation sometimes cause nagging pain and stiffness. If a brisk rub with one of the products rated moderate doesn’t do it, try one from the strong category. Savoss, Tuttle’s, the Equi-Block line or Vapco’s Bloc-It are all good choices in this situation, but if you’re using one of them before work be sure to wait about 30 minutes after application and do not use on the saddle area.
Rapid Cool-Down: For rapid cool-down of hot, heavily worked muscles nothing can beat Choate’s. The acetone base evaporates rapidly, even in hot and humid weather, while the menthol, camphor and capsicum continue to gently encourage circulation and ease pain and spasm.
Back Pain: If you have a horse with back-pain problems, Sore No-More is for you. There is excellent and rapid pain relief. It’s also suited for inner thigh muscle pulls and strains, where friction during movement greatly intensifies counterirritant effects.
We’ll keep Sore No-More on hand for treatment of acute muscular (and leg) problems where counterirritants are contraindicated. It’s also a good choice as a body brace and can be your all-purpose liniment.
Otherwise, if you prefer the traditional formulations and want a liniment that will double as a good wash water brace and for relief of post-exercise stiffness problems that may develop, Absorbine Original, Bigeloil or Arnica Rub are for you.
Arnica Rub is expensive, but the thicker consistency is easier to work with on direct application. Bigeloil and Absorbine are too close in price to really choose between.
Best Buy: If the aromatic menthol/methyl salicylate rubs are your favorites, you can’t beat Vapco Blu-It or Vapco Pink-It. Both of these liniments are economical, even used at full strength, but also work well at the 1:3 dilution with alcohol, increasing savings.