Apply eight strategies to keep your horse’s muscle soreness at bay.
As with any athlete, horses are prone to sore muscles due to the physical exertion they undergo during training and competition. Exercise essentially strains your horse’s muscles, causing them to break down. The body then heals itself and produces an adaptation—it increases its fitness! While soreness doesn’t equate to an effective workout, a little bit of tenderness is usually inevitable.
You can take steps to prevent and care for sore muscles in your horse to ensure they are recovered, comfortable, and can perform.
Know the Signs
If you’ve been riding intensely, you may already suspect that your horse is sore by the way they feel under you. But it’s always a good habit, especially when you’re riding consistently, to look for signs of soreness during your regular routine.
When you’re brushing your horse, notice if he flinches or moves away from pressure he normally doesn’t mind. When you tack up, tail wringing or pinned ears can suggest tack-specific discomfort (like a poorly fitted saddle) or overall soreness. Decreased range of motion, soreness, swelling, tender skin, dents in the skin, or the sudden appearance of white hair, especially on the withers, suggest that something doesn’t feel right to your horse. It doesn’t necessarily have to be intense soreness. It can simply be the general soreness that comes from regular exercise.
Preventing and Managing Sore Muscles
While you can do prevention and maintenance anytime, your horse may need (and appreciate) more focused TLC when he’s sore.
Fit your tack.
It doesn’t matter how conditioned a horse is, if tack doesn’t fit well, it’ll cause soreness. Saddles are typically the primary culprit. They can cause soreness in your horse’s back and elsewhere as your horse may compensate due to poor movement impingement and decreased range of motion. If you’re unsure if you have a good fit, have your saddle fitted by a professional.
Leg them up.
Horses, like people, are most likely to become sore when they exercise harder than they’re accustomed to. Usually, this is at the beginning of the riding season because they’re de-conditioned. It can also happen to fit horses after an intense ride or multiple consecutive days of riding. For this reason, the best way to prevent muscle soreness in the first place is to make sure your horse is fit. If you anticipate a long ride in the future, start to leg them up ahead of time. This’ll ensure that your horse’s muscles don’t fatigue so quickly during the event, which is better for you and more comfortable for him.
Food and water.
Nutritious feed and plenty of water cannot be overlooked when helping your horse recover. Without proper energy and hydration, he’ll have difficulty healing to avoid soreness in the first place.
Warm up, cool down.
Movement creates heat. By allowing your horse’s muscles to warm before exertion, you prepare him for performance. Along with reducing soreness, an intentional warm-up also decreases the likelihood of injury. Similarly, a cool-down routine allows his body temperature to come down while moving, helping him retain his range of motion and reduce muscle stiffness.
Hot and cold therapy.
Heat increases circulation, bringing nutrient-dense blood into the tissue, and cold reduces swelling. When hot and cold therapies are alternately applied, they can speed up the healing of sore muscles. Compresses with or without straps may be applied to most areas of your horse’s body.
A gentle massage can increase blood flow to your horse’s muscles to promote healing and reduce pain. This could be as simple as applying light pressure on the affected area or the use of a massager. Using a percussive equine massage gun, apply pressure to increase circulation and ease discomfort. Unless you’re a professional, avoid deep tissue or intense massages, which may cause additional damage or injury.
Liniments or poultices can reduce pain and promote healing in sore muscles. However, it is essential to ensure that the product is safe for use on horses, and that it is applied correctly and for the appropriate amount of time to avoid damage.
Rest and recovery.
Rest is essential for recovery, whether your horse is sore or not. After intense exercise, be mindful to allow his body time to heal. This can be through time off or light exercise such as walking. Horses, like people, can experience delayed onset muscle soreness when they overexert themselves so watch for signs of soreness up to a couple of days after intense exercise.