Elite Equine and Sore Muscles in Sport Horses
FEI-certified veterinarian, Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, heads the Sport Horse Program at Hagyard Equine Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Here he explains the role sore muscles play in your horse’s injury, how it’s treated and how to deal with it:
“Work strengthens muscles, but overwork leads to strain and pain. The large muscles of the back and hindquarters make up a sport horse’s drive train, and they can be strained if they’re asked to work too hard for too long. Most muscle strains are mild, and the amount of damage is small, but this is a common injury, and it can be enough to keep your horse from performing his best.
Most at risk
Dressage horses who are asked to collect and maintain a frame as they work often become sore in the back, hindquarters and gaskins. Heavy muscling and general heaviness seem to add to the problem. Hunters and jumpers may develop similar problems if they’re forced into draw reins or longed in a training rig for long periods; the horse has no chance to stretch and relax his back and neck, so the muscles get sore.
Signs of back pain can be mild and frustratingly vague. Your horse may move off stiffly when you mount, and he feels your weight on his back. His hind legs may not really step up under his body, so he doesn’t really carry himself. He may resist bending, rounding and collecting. His ears and the way he carries his head tell you that he’s tense and worried. Most of these signs may improve as he warms up.
Give your horse a few days off to see if the mild signs disappear. If they don’t, or if they recur when he goes back to work, ask your veterinarian to check him. Any underlying causes will have to be addressed for his back to improve:
- The pain may stem from a poorly fitting saddle.
- It may be below the muscles, perhaps in the sacroiliac joint the meeting place of the pelvis and the spine. (Jumping, galloping and tight turns and circles put a lot of stress on this joint.)
- It may originate someplace else entirely. A horse with hock problems may develop sore back muscles if those muscles work overtime in an effort to spare the hocks.
- When the problem is simple muscle strain, most horses get better with rest and turnout. Your veterinarian can help determine how much rest and what type of exercise is best for your horse.
- Some horses improve with a short course of muscle relaxants or with acupuncture or chiropractic treatments.
- Massage also can help.
- Don’t overlook the benefits of a thorough currying, which is a massage in itself.
Good management helps most sore backs. Give your horse a chance to warm up before you ask him to do collected work. Let him stretch his back and neck muscles by riding ‘long and low’ (on a long rein) or walking up and down hills. Vary his work ring work one day, a hack in the field the next and avoid repeating the same maneuvers over and over. And give him plenty of turnout time, which will help keep his back limber.” 
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