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How to recognize muscle soreness in horses and treat it

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Is the muscular discomfort your horse is experiencing primary or secondary in nature? Find out what the differences are between the two, as well as what symptoms to watch out for and what treatment options are available.

After a lengthy ride, many of us accept that some degree of physical soreness is inevitable; but, what about our horses? Do they experience the same aching in their muscles as we do? How can they show that they are uncomfortable, and what kinds of treatments are available for it?

Symptoms and potential causes of muscular pain in horses

Muscle discomfort in horses may be caused by a wide range of different issues.

• The first stage of muscular pain will often show quite a severe manifestation. The patient may experience muscular stiffness, perspiration, reluctance to move, strong tremors, a tucked-up belly, or even collapse as a symptom of the condition. Most of the time, issues with the primary muscles are caused by an inappropriate function of the metabolism of the muscle, which is occasionally connected to a hereditary component.

• Foot discomfort, arthritis, and incorrectly fitted equipment are all potential causes of secondary muscular pain in the body. Changes in behavior, such as reluctance to go forward, bucking, tail swishing, and changes in general temperament might be indicators of the presence of symptoms. First things first, make sure you distinguish between major and secondary issues with your muscles.

What are the factors that contribute to primary muscle soreness?

A muscle disorder such as Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Type 1 or 2 or Equine Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis might be the cause of primary muscle discomfort (HYPP).


In the most recent couple of years, PSSM has been reported in over 20 different breeds. It takes place when there is an abnormal accumulation of extra glycogen (the stored form of sugar) in the muscles. This might lead to muscular cramps. Muscle stiffness, perspiration, a reluctance to move, tremors, and a tucked-up belly are all indicators of PSSM Type 1 or 2, respectively. These symptoms often start manifesting themselves between ten and twenty minutes into the ride. Your veterinarian should do a blood test to check for a high CK level, and a muscle biopsy should be performed to check for extra glycogen storage. In addition to this, a genetic test may be performed on hair roots or blood. PSSM2 has the same effects on horses as PSSM1, however, animals affected by PSSM2 will not have a positive test result for the gene present in PSSM1. The biopsy of muscle tissue is still the most accurate method for diagnosing both PSSM1 and 2.

HYPP HYPP is caused by a genetic abnormality that has been seen in Impressive's ancestors, who are the sire of quarter horses. Excessive amounts of potassium or stress may create disruption within the sodium channels in the muscle, which can result in severe tremors, weakness, or even collapse. In contrast to PSSM, these symptoms do not appear after the horse has participated in physical activity but might appear when the horse is resting, being transported, or experiencing a stressful event. Genetic testing may be done, and treatment options include lowering the amount of potassium consumed in the diet, increasing physical activity, and perhaps taking medication to maintain stable levels of both potassium and glucose.

Pain in secondary muscles may be caused by a variety of factors.

Even though secondary muscle pain is more prevalent than primary muscle pain, it may be very difficult to determine the root of the problem (see below). The plethora of contributing variables includes, but is not limited to low physical fitness, nutritional inadequacies, wrong saddle fit, shoeing issues, or changed mobility owing to joint discomfort. However, these factors are not the only ones. This kind of discomfort often manifests itself as a little hesitation to go forward; changes in behavior when under saddle, such as bucking, spooking, or excessive tail swishing; or changes in behavior while being groomed or shod. Keeping this in mind, you can often address and fix some of these issues before making an appointment with the veterinarian.

There are three possible causes of secondary muscular discomfort.

1. Saddle fit

Muscle soreness along the back, withers, and shoulders may be caused by an improperly fitting saddle, which can be a key contributing factor. Is your horse now the same weight as it was previously, or has it lost or gained weight, muscle, or seen a change in its fitness level? Because of this, the fit of your saddle will be altered, which may result in discomfort beneath the seat, at the withers, and along the stirrup bars. A saddle that does not fit properly or one that pinches might throw off the rider's symmetry across the shoulders and back.

Customers often comment, "It's the same saddle I've always rode in!" when they get a new saddle. As riders, we have a need to recognize that horses constantly alter their conformation and the tone of their muscles, which makes the proper saddle fit a continuous challenge. The many different types of saddles only serve to complicate matters further. There is almost no limit to the variety of tree sizes, shapes, flocking types, and seat designs that are available for English and Western saddles.

When shopping for a saddle, you should search for one that can be adjusted in case your horse alters the curvature of his back over time. This may entail having the saddle fitter come out once a year to make sure there are no adjustments that need to be done. One preventive measure that can be taken against muscular soreness is to have a bespoke saddle made so that it not only fits your horse but also fits with your horse.

2. Dietary deficiencies

You would be surprised to learn how often horses suffer from dietary inadequacies. In order to fully recuperate and repair, our four-legged athletes need a diet that is balanced in terms of vitamin and mineral content. A diet that is not properly balanced is always detrimental to a horse's health and may be a contributing factor in the muscular soreness that occurs after a ride. It's possible that you believe that since your horse maintains a healthy weight, his nutrition must be enough. Not in every single instance.

Feedbags that contain complete feed will have a reference chart that details the quantity of each nutrient that must be consumed to achieve a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in the appropriate vitamins and minerals. Measure the amount of feed your horse will need using a weight tape, and then calculate how much feed it will take to establish a balanced diet using the grain that you have chosen. Finding the right quantity of feed to put in your pet's bowl may be accomplished with the use of a food scale or baggage scale.

If your horse is eating less feed than the quantity that is advised but is still at the correct weight, you should investigate the possibility of including a daily ration balancer or vitamin-mineral supplement in his diet. There are a lot of feed businesses that will be pleased to walk you through their suggestions for the requirements of your specific horse.

3. a corrective or compensatory action

By a wide margin, one of the most important reasons for secondary muscle pain is the discomfort that results from making up for a musculoskeletal problem that is located lower on the leg. Your horse's gait will be altered as a result of a compensatory movement, which will result in muscular discomfort in the regions of the lower back, deltoids, pectorals, and gluteal region. Because of the discomfort in the lower leg, the muscles in this area will either get larger as a result of excessive usage during the process of compensation or smaller as a result of muscle wastage from inactivity.

When customers ride, slipping saddles is one of the most common things that they have to complain about. It's possible that the horse is suffering from a musculoskeletal condition lower in his leg, which is causing him to shift his weight to one side while you ride him. This might be an indicator of this. Take a step back, make sure your horse is standing straight, and search for symmetry in these areas.

If any of these symptoms seem similar, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian to be checked out as soon as possible.

Providing relief for painful muscles

The primary focus of treatment for PSSM is environmental and includes making stringent dietary adjustments (such as feeding animals high-fat, low-starch diets), instituting exercise regimens, providing turnout, and providing ration balancer supplements with high doses of vitamin E. Over seventy-five percent of horses who have been diagnosed with PSSM1 or 2 may go back to work if the condition is properly managed.

Finding the cause of the issue and finding a solution to it are both necessary parts of treating secondary muscular discomfort. After this, other treatment options may include spinal manipulation (also known as chiropractic), acupuncture, massage, or muscle relaxants. After the source of the pain has been determined, therapy is essential in order to alleviate it and stop it from occurring again. Your horse will be able to move through his usual range of motion again thanks to the non-invasive treatment alternatives such as spinal manipulation/chiropractic and acupuncture. These treatments also open the channels that allow for recovery. In conjunction with the aforementioned treatments, muscle relaxants may be administered to the horse in order to interrupt the pain cycle. Keep in mind that these therapies are intended to repair and preserve a horse's health, but they will not solve the problem if there is still an underlying problem that has to be addressed.

Every horse has a unique level of tolerance for pain and may exhibit signs of discomfort in a number of different ways, regardless of whether the horse is experiencing primary or secondary muscular soreness. Pay attention to what the horse is trying to tell you. Take note of the changes in his conduct, and investigate the source of the issue.

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