Muscle stiffness, also known as ‘tying up’ or Monday sickness is an illness. It is not just a bit of stiffness. The horse’s muscle metabolism has gone haywire with muscle weakness. You need to treat muscle weakness immediately. How do you recognise muscle weakness, what can you do about it and how do you prevent this serious condition?
Tying-up usually occurs about 10 to 15 minutes after a horse has been in motion. It is a total acidification of the muscles, especially the muscles of the upper line (back, loins, buttocks). The symptoms sometimes look somewhat like colic. Tying-up is not always easily recognisable. An important clue is that muscle paralysis mainly occurs after heavy exercise, preceded by several days of rest during which the same feed was given. Lameness starts with stiffness, hard muscles and an unwillingness to walk. The muscles of the hindquarters are often stiff, swollen, hard and painful. Sometimes the horse is trembling. A severely muscular horse will stand wide-legged or with its front feet stretched forward. It does not want to move. The urine may be reddish-brown in severe cases.
Call the vet!
Tying-up is a serious condition. Therefore, always call your vet if you think your horse might have tying-up. A horse should not move when it is sore. It will only make it worse. That is why it is so important not to confuse muscle pain with colic, because then you often have to walk! So get good advice.
Stable with blanket
Do you suspect your horse of having tying-up? Then put him in the stable, without feed and with plenty of drinking water. Blanket it and provide soft bedding so it can lie down. Do not allow the horse to move. Try to avoid transporting the horse. The vet can give painkillers and do blood tests.
How does tying-up occur?
To prevent tying-up, it is important to know how it occurs. There are two causes: too much concentrate and sudden exertion. Often, tying-up arises from a combination of these two causes. When a horse has been resting for a few days, but has still eaten the same amount of concentrate as when he is at work, a lot of sugars and starch are stored in the muscle cells. During a sudden intense effort, such as a competition or a long ride outside, that surplus energy is suddenly drawn on. So-called anaerobic combustion then takes place in the muscle cells. This means conversion without oxygen. This creates lactic acid in the muscles. A little bit is no big deal, but if a lot of energy is stored, a lot of lactic acid is also produced. This acid damages the muscle cells, which is very painful. A kind of acute inflammatory reaction occurs in the muscles. Under normal conditions, muscles have aerobic combustion (with oxygen), in which no acid is produced, or only briefly and in small amounts. In a muscle-tired horse, anaerobic combustion is completely out of control. Incidentally, a lot of tension or considerable excitement can also lead to a lot of lactic acid in the muscles. Nervous horses can therefore be more susceptible to muscle weakness.
Preventing tying up
The two most important things you can do to prevent tying-up in your horse are a good feed policy and a sensible training schedule. A good feeding policy is appropriate for your horse. The basis always consists of several times a day (or unlimited) high-quality roughage (preferably unpackaged hay). In addition, your horse needs vitamins and minerals, which you can give in the form of a balancer. Especially for horses that only do light work, this is often sufficient. Horses that are running high in sport can also be given concentrate, tailored to the work they do. Never give a horse standing still or doing little work large amounts of sugars and starch. Besides a sensible feeding policy, a responsible training schedule is important. That means alternating days of heavier training with free exercise and light training. On days when your horse works less hard, he also needs to take in less energy. Vitamins and minerals do matter.
Supporting muscle health
You can support muscle health with supplements containing magnesium, silicon and vitamin E. Make sure supplements are easy to absorb, preferably in liquid form. Magnesium allows muscles to relax after exercise and also helps nervous horses. Magnesium chelate and magnesium citrate are easy for horses to absorb. In addition, the mineral silicon is very important for healthy tendons, muscles, ligaments and joints. This is best given in hydrolysed, liquid form, otherwise it is not absorbable for horses. Vitamin E is abundant in grass and does not need to be supplemented if your horse is grazing in the meadow for half a day or more. But in winter (or when your horse is in a paddock), it is wise to give your horse an easily absorbable form of vitamin E, preferably with a little oil. In addition, for horses that need to develop more muscle, a high-quality protein can be a good supplement. For example, pea protein, rice protein or specific grass mixes with a higher protein percentage. Essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine and threonine can also contribute if a horse struggles to build muscle.