Exploring the Causes of Equine Stiffness

There could be many reasons your horse is experiencing stiffness. From inactivity to injury, let's look at some of the most common causes.

This article is part of our Comfort Awareness Campaign brought to you by Bute-Less.

Your trusty, go-to horse is saddled and ready to ride. Maybe it’s been a little while since you two have been able to hit the road together. Perhaps he’s an older horse that has been out to pasture, or he’s just been on the backburner for a while. You swing a leg over, and begin warming him up, and you notice some stiffness. Maybe a little bit of reluctance to do common tasks. A horse can experience stiffness during exercise for various reasons, ranging from temporary factors to underlying health issues. Let’s take a look at some common reasons your horse might be exhibiting stiffness or discomfort. And when it’s time to take it more seriously.

Improper Warm-Up

If you’re climbing aboard and jumping straight into the difficult maneuvers without giving your horse a proper warm-up, that could very well be the problem. Think about stepping out of bed and running a marathon without a chance to stretch, limber up, and warm-up your muscles. You’d be miserable!

A proper warm-up serves your horse in a variety of ways. It increases blood flow to his muscles and organs. A warm-up allows him the chance to stretch his ligaments. It gently take his joints through a full range of movement. It even helps focus his mind so he can concentrate on what you’re asking.

If he is showing signs of stiffness, do not underestimate how beneficial a period of long walking can be. Walk him around for at least 10-15 minutes before asking for faster gaits or difficult maneuvers. Encourage him to use his body correctly and ask for him to stride out in an extended walk as well, to use his joints in a full range of movement. Continue to warm him up thoroughly at a trot and lope if he is comfortable and balanced. Be aware of his level of stiffness. If he appears to warm-up out of it, that is common in horses that have been inactive and just need to get back in the swing of things. If his stiffness increases the more he moves, this could be the sign of a deeper problem.

Walking for 10-15 minutes at the beginning of your warm-up can set your horse up for success.

Poor Body Condition, Unbalanced, or Out of Shape

First things first, if he is severely underweight or in poor body condition, hard exercise is a hard no. If he is just simply out of shape, he might be stiff coming back into work. This is where your patience is going to come into play. It’s up to you to implement an exercise program appropriate for his level of condition and fitness. Don’t pull him out of his pasture after a 3-month hiatus and expect him to be performing sliding stops the same day. Bringing your horse back into condition is a lengthy process and requires your attention to ensure he comes back to work safely.

If you’re unsure of where to start, consult your veterinarian for an exercise regime to help him build up his strength. Walking or trotting over poles, walking uphill, and long trotting in straight lines are great ways to build up the hind end. Groundwork that involves flexing and extending, back lifts, and pelvic tucks are beneficial for building his core strength. 

Groundwork can be a valuable part of bringing your horse back to exercise. Annabell Gsodl/adobe.stock.com

If he is unbalanced in his movement, or lacking confidence, this can also contribute to stiffness. This can be seen in horses that are missing fundamental training elements and are rushed through the process. If he is unbalanced or uncomfortable at the lope, picking up leads, or not using his body correctly, it can present as discomfort or stiffness.


When arthritis sets in, it can take a toll on a horse’s mobility. Stiffness is often the initial sign, appearing as resistance to movement or a reluctance to fully extend his limbs. The stiffness can be especially pronounced after a period of rest, like in the morning or following a period of inactivity. This occurs because the synovial fluid, which normally lubricates and nourishes his joints, becomes less effective due to inflammation.

Now sometimes, as a horse with arthritis begins to move and engage in exercise, the stiffness might ease to some extent. The gentle movement helps to stimulate blood flow. This encourages the synovial fluid to provide a better lubricating effect for the joints. This is why you might notice an improvement in his mobility after a proper warm-up. The increase in circulation helps to reduce the discomfort temporarily and allows him to move more freely.

However, this relief is often short-lived. Once your horse rests or remains inactive for a while, the inflammation and degradation within the joints can resurface, bringing back the stiffness. This post-exercise setback can be challenging for both the horse and rider. The intermittent nature of the stiffness can make it challenging to pinpoint the cause initially. But with time and consistent observation, patterns become clearer. Be aware of his baseline health. If you notice consistent stiffness that returns after time off, or inactivity, it might be time to work with your vet. There are many great options to manage comfortable movement for your horse, including those that use natural and safe ingredients.


Although we don’t want to jump straight to worst case scenario, he might be moving differently because he is injured. Sometimes injury doesn’t present as head bobbing lameness and can be more nuanced. If he doesn’t warm-up out of his stiffness, or this has come on overnight, put in a call to your vet. You know your horse, so be on the lookout for new behavior. If he begins to refuse tasks that he was doing a week ago, this could be cause for concern. If your Steady Eddy humps up his back and throws a buck at you suddenly, look into this deeper.

Weather, Tack, and Your Riding Position

Cold weather can exacerbate existing problems such as arthritis. If it’s the first cold day of the year and you notice some slight stiffness – in an older horse especially – the temperature might be to blame. The cold can cause his muscles to be tight and contracted, leading to stiff movement until he is warmed up.

An ill-fitted saddle can not only lead to hindered or stiff movement, but serious health issues. If your saddle is pinching, rubbing, or rocking, it can throw him off balance, or even damage his back. If you just bought a new saddle and notice your horse moving differently, check the saddle fit with an experienced saddle fitter.

Another reason your horse might be moving with stiffness or discomfort could fall squarely on your shoulders. Our body position affects his movement, and we can get in his way when we’re not riding correctly. Even the way you position your feet can have an impact on his movement. If you’re unsure if you’re riding correctly, seek out a professional trainer in your area to take a few lessons. Have a friend video your ride to see if you look out of balanced. Even if you’ve been riding for ages, we should always seek to continue to be the best we can be for our horse.

[Take Stomach Comfort Seriously]

Take it Seriously

Even slight stiffness should grab your attention, especially if it’s new. Although it might just be a case of sore muscles from a hard workout the day before, or inactivity, it’s important to be tuned in. Discomfort and stiffness attributed to arthritis, age, and other life factors are things that can be managed with the proper care. Work with your veterinarian to decide on a course of action. This might involve a special exercise regime, a supplement formulated for daily use to support comfortable movement, or further intervention. Either way, don’t disregard stiffness without diving in deeper to determine the cause – and keep your beloved horse comfortable for years to come.

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