The equine musculoskeletal system is made up of bones, muscles, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Altogether, this system not only helps to facilitate everyday movement, but also allows the capability of amazing athletic feats, whether that be jumping six foot fences, turning on a dime, or trotting for dozens of miles.
It only makes sense that we would do everything within our power to protect our horse’s musculoskeletal system, right?
No matter the discipline, the first step in doing this is conditioning your horse properly. A horse should never be asked to perform a task outside of his level of fitness.
However, diet, at-home management, and a number of other factors also play a part in promoting muscle recovery for horses.
In this article, we’ll discuss 6 different strategies for protecting this all important system and keeping your horse competing at the top of his game.
1) Warm-Up and Cool Down
Before any type of competition or strenuous workout/training session, a proper warm-up routine is crucial to increase oxygen delivery and blood circulation to the muscles and also prevent early accumulation of lactic acid in the tissues.
Likewise, warm-up enables the muscle tissues to access energy stores and improves elasticity in the tendons and ligaments, reducing the likelihood of injury.
Generally, at least five minutes of trotting and/or cantering is sufficient. Save suppleness exercises such as turning, moving in circles, and leg-yielding for after your horse’s muscles have been properly warmed up to avoid overstretching injuries.
Directly after competition, a cool down routine is just as important. Immediately walking your horse will help remove heat and lactic acid from the muscles (as opposed to standing still). Continue to walk your horse until his breathing rate has returned to somewhere around normal.
If it is hot outside, hosing your horse with cool water can help to speed up the cool-down process as well as protect your horse from overheating. To cool off your horse’s core, sponge or hose with water, scraping it away immediately. Repeat this process until his chest is cool to the touch.
If you are exercising or competing in hot and humid conditions, you can also apply water to the whole horse, but in drier climates or milder conditions, avoid hosing off your horse’s haunches to prevent cramping.
Another option is to dilute rubbing alcohol (1 pint per 5 gallons of water) and apply it to your horse’s skin. Fans, misting fans, and shade can also be used to continue to cool your horse down.
2) Care for the Legs
It’s no secret that our horses’ legs bear a huge responsibility in performing any type of athletic task and therefore, it’s extremely important that we do what we can to keep them healthy. Routine and quality hoof care is crucial but something else owners can proactively do is icing the lower legs directly after competition.
Ice will help to reduce pain and inflammation, and it becomes even more necessary if an injury has occurred.
Icing can be done several ways: using a cold creek, filling a tub or bucket, or using ice boots or wraps. However, if using boots, it helps to soak the legs in water beforehand in order to better conduct cold into the tissues. Icing the legs for at least 20-30 minutes is usually recommended.
Another option is using a cold-water salt spa which helps to decrease edema in the legs and increase circulation.
Applying a clay-based poultice or liniments can also be effective in reducing inflammation and edema and can be used after icing, if desired.
If wrapping your horse’s legs, try using traditional standing wraps as opposed to polo wraps which don’t provide as much compression.
3) Make Horse Transport as Seamless as Possible
Transport is an often overlooked source of stress on the musculoskeletal system. If going to a big competition a long distance away, it’s best to arrive a few days early to allow your horse time to recover. It’s also important to wait until your horse is completely cooled down and rested before loading up to go home.
For transport lasting longer than eight hours, it’s recommended to stop overnight to allow your horse to rest or, at the very least, stop and allow your horse to rest for 20-30 minutes every four hours.
If it’s safe to do so, unload and let your horse graze during this time. This will allow the horse to get their head down and clear the airway and also keep the digestive system moving.
4) Prevent Dehydration
Hydration is important for performance as well as regulating body temperature. Dehydration can be a concern for exercising horses, especially in hot and humid climates.
To further complicate matters, horses being transported to competitions may not drink as well as they do at home.
A horse that isn’t well hydrated can experience muscle and joint pain and has a higher chance of being injured. So how do you ensure your horse stays hydrated?
To check your horse’s hydration status, use the “skin pinch” test at the point of shoulder or on the upper eyelid; hydrated skin snaps back quickly (in 1-2 seconds) when pinched. If you notice a delay in the skin snapping back, the horse is already dehydrated.
Other signs that can indicate that your horse is dehydrated include:
- Lack of interest in surroundings,
- Poor tail tone,
- Dry manure,
- Reduced appetite, and
- Reduced urination volume or frequency.
To encourage your horse to drink, offer water at room temperature as opposed to ice cold, use hydration hay or try soaking hay cubes/pellets or beet pulp, and finally, add loose salt to your horse’s feed ration.
5) At-Home Management
The best way to protect your horse’s musculoskeletal system is to simply allow him to be a horse when you’re at home.
Turnout time helps aid horse muscle recovery by increasing circulation, clearing the body of lactic acid buildup, reducing limb edema, and preventing stiffness.
For endurance horses, it’s recommended to give one day off for every 10 miles they’ve been ridden.
For other types of performance horses, the time off needed will depend on how hard they worked. It can take several days for muscles to recover and for glycogen stores to be replenished following strenuous or prolonged exercise.
There’s also a benefit to adding slow, walking workouts into your horse’s fitness regimen, especially after competition or intense exercise, in order to give muscles more time to recuperate and prevent muscle fatigue in horses.
6) Equine Nutrition to Support Muscles
Along with feeding a balanced, forage-based diet, there are several nutrients you can add to further help support the health of your horse’s musculoskeletal system.
Fullbucket’s Medical Muscle is a highly concentrated antioxidant formula that supports muscle recovery and endurance. Containing astaxanthin, L-Carnitine, and Vitamin E, this formula is 6,000 times stronger than Vitamin C!
The Medical Muscle supplement for horses helps your equine athlete in the following ways:
- Supports equine muscle and joint health by helping remove free radicals associated with exercise;
- Improves energy and endurance;
- Aids horse muscle recovery after exercise;
- Supports muscle, tendon and joint health;
- Offers antioxidant protection; and
- Provides muscle support in horses that are at greater risk for tying up (rhabdomyolysis), muscle exertion, and performance and training stress.
Several other nutrients to ensure your horse is getting enough of include magnesium, B vitamins, selenium, and lysine.
By considering all 6 of the strategies listed above, you should be well on your way to protecting your horse’s musculoskeletal system and keeping him at the top of his game.