What are Muscle Strain and Soreness?
Strains that cause soreness can happen to a muscle, or a group of muscles, in various locations of the body. Often, an accident or strenuous exercise can damage leg, adductor or groin muscles, while a badly fitted saddle can affect back muscles. While some symptoms are mild, others can be as severe as trembling when faced with a painful situation, or lameness.
A muscle strain is often due to an injury or an overworked muscle that can swell, tear, and become a source of pain. Often, performance issues, or a reluctance to be ridden or exercised, are clear signs that your horse is experiencing discomfort and needs attention. Noticing subtle changes in your horse’s behavior can help to diagnose a muscle strain early, and prevent further damage.
Book First Walk Free!
Symptoms of Muscle Strain and Soreness in Horses
Signs of a muscle strain involve pain and changes in attitude or performance, and can vary depending on which muscles are affected. Symptoms can include:
- Poor or altered performance
- Pain upon palpation
- Tender areas
- Lump or gap in muscle
- Muscle tightness
- Muscle spasm
- Loss of condition
- Attitude changes
- Lacerations or bruises
- Dragging hind feet
- Forceful tail movements
- Stiff tail
- Grinding teeth
- Jumping refusals or changes
- Changes in gait
- Poor gait
- Abnormal back and pelvis movements
- Abnormalities under the saddle
- Shorter strides
- Refusal to be mounted
- Sinking when mounted or saddled
- Reluctance to canter or trot
- Elevated breathing rate
- Reluctance to move
Muscle strain can be divided into four categories.
- Traumatic injuries – These kinds of muscle injuries occur from a direct impact, and can include accidents such as running into another horse, hitting rails during a race or while jumping, or falling down; injection site myopathy is also considered a traumatic injury, and involves a vaccine or intramuscular injection that causes the injection site to swell
- Performance and stress injuries – These occur through overuse of a muscle, or group of muscles, and include back pain, isolated muscle strain, and chronic strains
- Exertional rhabdomyolysis – Also referred to as tying-up, it is the breakdown of muscle cells due to exercise
- Muscle wasting – This is a secondary condition of the loss of muscle mass caused by an illness or disease. Some diseases that can result in muscle wasting include Cushing's disease, equine degenerative myelopathy, and equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, as well as conditions of the liver, kidney, or gastrointestinal tract; nerve damage can also be a factor
Causes of Muscle Strain and Soreness in Horses
Causes of sore muscles in horses include:
- Injury or damage to muscles
- Accidents causing direct impact to horse
- Overuse of muscle or muscle group
- Repetitive or strenuous exercise or movement
- Ridden exercise
- Tack or saddle that does not fit properly
- Poor condition
- Poorly executed jumping
- Chronic leg lameness
- Damage caused by an uneven rider
- Injection site myopathy
- Sports activities
- Kissing spines, or the rubbing together of vertebrae
- Illness or disease causing secondary muscle damage
Diagnosis of Muscle Strain and Soreness in Horses
Diagnosis of muscle strain in horses can be complicated, due to the fact that many of its symptoms are similar to other conditions. Also, some muscles, such as the groin or adductor muscles, are difficult to isolate in a diagnosis. Your veterinarian will need a complete history, including any injuries or symptoms you have seen. A complete physical exam will include palpating different muscle groups to look for areas of pain, assessing muscle symmetry, and evaluating the range of motion of the legs and neck. Your horse may be observed walking, trotting, jumping, or performing certain movements. A lameness exam may also be used to rule out other diseases.
Blood and serum testing can check for muscle enzyme levels, and help to rule out other conditions. Various imaging techniques are used to locate injuries and muscle issues, as well as to see the extent of the damage in order to create an appropriate treatment plan. These can include nuclear scintigraphy, or a bone scan, X-rays, ultrasounds, and thermography. An adductor stress test can be performed to further locate specific muscle injuries. Further testing may be needed if a primary disease or illness is suspected to be causing the muscle strain.
Treatment of Muscle Strain and Soreness in Horses
The goal of treatment for muscle strains and soreness attempts to relieve the pain and provide therapies that can help your horse heal, and will depend on the severity of your horse’s condition. Most muscle injuries are treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to relieve pain, and alternating cold and hot compresses on injured muscles. In cases of trauma, wounds are treated appropriately. Muscle relaxants can also be effective to relieve pain, as well as local anti-inflammatory injections. Some alternative therapies that may be suggested include massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment, magnetic blankets, or extracorporeal shock wave therapy.
Next, box rest is often prescribed for several weeks, along with physiotherapy. This consists of a gradually increasing exercise plan that needs to be monitored by your veterinarian, as a return to activity too soon can cause a re-injury. Ultrasonography can be used to assess your horse’s progress during treatment.
If your horse suffers from back pain, the saddle fit may be evaluated and adjusted. Surgical treatment may be recommended in some cases, such as with kissing spines. Any underlying condition needs to be addressed and will be treated appropriately.
Recovery of Muscle Strain and Soreness in Horses
Recovery in cases of mild to moderate muscle strains is good, while severe cases can take longer to heal and may result in muscle scarring. Your veterinarian may send home pain medications, and a treatment plan for rest and exercise. A visit for an ultrasound to check on your horse’s progress may be scheduled in 3 months.
Prevent muscle injuries with regular exercise, a properly fitting saddle, sitting balanced when riding, keeping your horse healthy with a consistent feeding program, and avoid performance demands that are beyond your horse’s abilities.
Muscle Strain and Soreness Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My horse pulled back and when're rope snapped fell to his butt then flipped over. He got up immediately sore and groaning. It's been two weeks he's had some chiro work, but still seems uncomfortable, stiff and still is groaning a bit. I've walked him out just three times. Should I be riding him to keep him supple or give him stall rest.
Add a comment to Lefty's experience
Was this experience helpful?
My horse is tender to the touch over his Triceps Brachii Muscle and Latissimus Dorsi muscle. Ruled out hoof and front leg problems no inflammation, heat or soreness in joints. Is in work (is an endurance horse) covering 18kms every second day at just 11km/hr steady over relatively rolling terrain. Was hooning around paddock a week ago and I noticed when he cooled down he was lame. Someone told me regular exercise will help so have kept him in work. Would like your suggestions on pain relief and exercise plan. At rest he will stand with knee bent on the sore side.
Add a comment to Micky Blue Eyes's experience
Was this experience helpful?
I had my big 17.2hh gelding seen Robby abbey today, due to unknown mild lameness. Turns out he has strained his muscle (at the point of shoulder). He had a mad 5mins play around the paddock and seems to be now stiff in that area until he walks out of it. I have him on 800g of rolled oats daily, would this have an effect on his muscles at all? Should I avoid feeding a high energy feed? He's currently had 2 wks off any work and having a further weeks off.
Horses shouldn’t be kept on a high energy feed whilst not at work; working horses used to get Monday Morning Disease (Equine Exertional Rhabdomyolysis) when they had a break during the weekend but continued to be on a high carbohydrate diet which lead to muscle damage (and kidney damage). I would cut down his energy content in feed until he is ready to start activity again. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
Add a comment to Billy's experience
Was this experience helpful?