Published: June 2022 | Updated: August 2023
Hard-working equine athletes are prone to many of the same issues that their human counterparts experience–including muscle fatigue, soreness, as well as injuries like muscle strains and tears. Knowing what your horse needs for complete muscle recovery after intense workouts or competition is an important factor in keeping them sound and healthy.
But first, let’s discuss what occurs when muscles are working during exercise.
Horses have approximately 700 different muscles in their body that enable movement of the limbs and keep the internal organs, such as the heart, functioning as they should. Any time a horse is exercising, they are using vitamins and minerals to fuel their body.
They also burn energy–glycogen and fatty acids–in order to facilitate muscle contraction and propulsion. When glycogen is burned, however, lactic acid is produced, and this is what leads to soreness and fatigue.
The harder a horse works, the more likely they are to experience muscle fatigue. Likewise, horses that aren’t properly conditioned are more likely to suffer from not only fatigue and soreness, but also muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries during intense exercise.
The good news is that there are several things that you as the horse owner can do to improve your horse’s muscle recovery rate and help prevent injuries. It begins with how your horse is managed.
Conditioning Your Horse
Proper conditioning is critical for increasing muscle strength and endurance which will, in turn, lessen the severity of muscle fatigue in horses and damage. Horses that have been adequately conditioned for the type of work or competition they do will require shorter recovery times.
For horses that aren’t properly conditioned, exercise can lead to increased inflammation which ultimately redirects energy that the horse could be using for exercise to healing damaged tissues and supporting the immune system instead. Any kind of inflammation, but especially chronic inflammation, will serve to slow a horse’s muscle recovery.
So what type of conditioning is needed to support quicker muscle recovery?
The answer will depend on the type of work your horse does. However, the basic goal of any conditioning program is to enhance both psychological and physical response to exercise.
Psychological responses include boosting confidence to perform specific tasks, while physical responses include greater strength and endurance, enhanced skills, and minimized soreness or injury as a result of exercise.
A good conditioning program will increase aerobic capacity, which will also increase the amount of time before lactic acid accumulation and fatigue occur. Proper conditioning will also increase muscle size, strength, and even induce beneficial changes in muscle fiber type.
Your conditioning program should be specific to the event your horse performs in and usually include both slow speed and high speed conditioning in order to promote both aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen/increased demand for oxygen) production of ATP (adenoside triphosate) for energy.
Again, the better conditioned your horse is, the better they can cope with muscle recovery and therefore, the less recovery time they will need.
Horses need approximately 3-7 liters of water per 100 kg of body weight daily (4-9 gallons for a 1,100 lb. horse). Interestingly enough, they typically meet this need by drinking for only 5-10 minutes per day. Therefore, when your horse is thirsty, it’s important that you have a readily available supply of clean water for him.
Proper hydration can make a difference not only in how a horse performs, but also how they recover from intense work. If a horse is dehydrated, blood circulation can become compromised and nutrients do not get where they’re needed to help with muscle healing, repair, and recovery.
Water requirements also change depending on the horse’s level of work, with performance horses needing 1.5 to 2 times as much water due to fluid losses in sweat, respiration, higher feed intake, and increased urination. Keep in mind that horses can also lose a significant amount of hydration during long trailer trips. Therefore, it’s recommended you stop at least every four hours to offer your horse water during long distance transport.
It should be noted that water requirements change with the season as well. The hotter or more humid it is, the more water your horse will need. On the other hand, when temperatures drop, water intake typically decreases. This is when many horses are at increased risk for impaction colic. Keeping a warmed water source and feeding loose salt will help to keep your horse drinking during cold weather.
Your Horse’s Diet Plays a Role in Muscle Recovery
Diet plays a key role in muscle recovery and horses lacking in certain nutrients will likely have a slower recovery process. The more physical activity a horse takes part in, the higher their demand for nutrients.
The trace minerals zinc, manganese, copper, and selenium are all important for muscle strength and need to be included in the diet in sufficient amounts. Trace minerals help to slow muscle damage as well as speed up the recovery process, and though they’re only needed in small amounts, they are involved in many enzyme systems needed to repair muscle and reduce oxidative stress.
Speaking of oxidative stress, vitamin E is an important vitamin that works with selenium as an antioxidant, helping to reduce free radicals, which are released in the body when muscles are overworked and/or don’t get enough recovery time.
The major minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium also play an important role in muscle and nervous tissue function, and of course, we can’t forget protein, which is needed to build and repair damaged muscles and tissue.
Lysine, methionine, and threonine are often the most limited amino acids in the equine diet and need to be examined. However, with protein, quality is more important than quantity; overfeeding protein is discouraged as it can reduce muscle glycogen (energy) stores.
Different Diets for Different Disciplines
The basis of any performance horse’s diet should be forage, but carbohydrates (sugar and starch) from cereal grains can be used to create ATP and use it as energy immediately or store it within the muscle as glycogen. Then, when the horse needs that stored energy, his body turns it back into glucose. While carbohydrates are great energy sources and appropriate for some types of work, they should be fed in moderation so as not to lead to hindgut acidosis which can then lead to colic and/or laminitis.
Fats are another key energy source for horses, providing a slower, more energy-dense fuel for endurance and sustained activity. Fat is a safe energy source for horses in heavy work and contains 2.25 times more energy than carbohydrates.
The process of changing food into fuel occurs in one of two ways: the first is through aerobic metabolism which uses oxygen to break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein and convert them into glucose.
The second is through anaerobic metabolism which produces energy using glucose in the absence of oxygen. Anaerobic metabolism is a faster process than aerobic metabolism, but the energy produced is short-lived and won’t sustain the horse for as long as that produced by aerobic metabolism.
Your horse’s body relies on anaerobic metabolism when a sudden burst of energy is needed in a short amount of time and the fuel, in this case, is solely carbohydrates. Anaerobic metabolism is also the form that produces lactic acid, however.
Different types of work require different equine diets. Endurance horses need aerobic energy to go long distances and can benefit from a diet with more digestible fiber and some added fat. Race horses and those in cutting or speed events, however, need anaerobic metabolism for quick bursts of speed. Horses in other disciplines such as three-day eventing use both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism.
Horse Recovery Supplements
Though commercial feeds contain most if not all of the nutrients a horse needs (if fed at recommended rate), supplements can provide additional nutrients specifically included to aid with muscle recovery. Fullbucket’s Medical Muscle is one such supplement.
Made with the super antioxidant, astaxanthin, which is 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C, this highly concentrated formula also contains L-Carnitine and vitamin E, both important nutrients in muscle function. Medical Muscle supports your horse in the following ways:
- Supports muscle and joint health by helping remove free radicals associated with exercise
- Energy and endurance
- Recovery after exercise
- Muscle, tendon and joint health
- Antioxidant protection
- Provides muscle support in horses that are at greater risk for:
- Tying up (rhabdomyolysis)
- Muscle exertion
- Stress from performance & training
Muscle Recovery Time
Muscle recovery time will depend on the level of exercise, the conditioning of the horse, as well as the amount of muscle fatigue that has occurred. In most circumstances, a horse can fully recover in 24-48 hours.
However, for three-day eventing horses or elite show jumpers with a heavier workload, closer to a week may be needed in order to fully recover. During the muscle recovery phase, it’s important that your horse is able to rest so he can be at the top of his game for the next performance.
When considering muscle recovery for your performance horse, remember the three key components: proper conditioning, hydration, and a balanced diet. Then use muscle supplements for horses, such as FullBucket’s Medical Muscle for added insurance that your horse will continue to perform at the top of his game.