Rehabilitation Strategies for Treating Muscle Atrophy in Horses

Our first topic is muscle atrophy in horses. This 3-part post discusses the causes of muscle atrophy, how atrophy is diagnosed and how it can be treated. In this post, we will explore treatment and rehabilitation options for addressing muscle atrophy in horses.

Muscle atrophy in horses can negatively impact posture, core stability, and movement. An individually tailored treatment plan is required to prevent further muscle loss and to help regain strength and mobility. Treatment options vary widely depending on the cause – such as reversing the effects of prolonged stall confinement, poor nutrition, injuries, or genetic disorders that affect muscle development.

Treatment
A comprehensive evaluation will help to assess the extent of muscle loss and to identify the underlying cause. Based on these examination findings, an effective treatment plan can be tailored to the horse’s specific needs.

  1. Oral and dental health: Any source of mouth pain or dental irregularities can prevent adequate chewing and ingestion of food. A thorough oral examination and routine dental care is necessary, and it’s important to monitor your horse’s food intake.
  2. Nutritional management: Ensuring a balanced diet with adequate protein and vitamin E supplementation is critical for muscle development. Consultation with an equine nutritionist can help to assess the quality of feed and to design a suitable feeding program.

Rehabilitation
Once potential nutritional deficiencies have been adequately addressed, the treatment is then focused on rebuilding muscle mass, enhancing strength, improving flexibility, and promoting functional recovery. We will talk more about some of the specific aspects of these rehabilitation approaches in future blog posts.

  1. Pain management: Initial rehabilitation efforts should always consider the detrimental impact of pain and inflammation on neuromuscular function. If pain is not controlled, then any rehabilitation efforts to increase muscle mass will be hampered. Anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants may be indicated with severe muscle pain.
  2. Manual therapies: A diverse array of manual techniques may be applied to help reduce muscle pain and support overall musculoskeletal health, which include myofascial work, acupressure, gentle stretching, and chiropractic care.
  3. Controlled exercise: Exercise plays a vital role in rebuilding muscle mass and restoring strength. Initially, low-impact exercises, such as hand walking, may be recommended to improve soft tissue mobility, restore joint motion, and stimulate muscle development. As the horse progresses, controlled lunging, long lining, ground exercises, and targeted strengthening routines are recommended to gradually rebuild muscle mass and improve overall fitness.
  4. Hydrotherapy: Underwater treadmill exercise can provide low-impact exercise by controlling speed and weight bearing. Depending on the water level, buoyancy can reduce stress on the joints and support soft tissue while increasing the resistance needed to move the limbs through the water. These combined effects allow horses to engage their muscles without an increased risk of injury.
  5. Physical modalities: Techniques such as acupuncture, electrical muscle stimulation, or hand-held vibration can be used to target specific muscles, improving muscle function and promoting healing.

Developing a structured rehabilitation program tailored to a horse’s specific needs is crucial. Appropriate nutrition, regular exercise, proper management of injuries, and ensuring a correct fit for saddles and tack are essential steps in mitigating the risk of developing muscle atrophy and for regaining strength and overall performance.

Read the complete 3-part series: Muscle Atrophy in Horses

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Resources

Want to learn more?

Browse our RACE-approved catalog of online learning modules.