The Dangers of Tight Muscles
With such a dense set of muscles and a constantly active musculoskeletal system, it is imperative that horses are kept in optimal condition. With many horses performing in competitions of all calibres with vigorous movements and controlled positioning, it is important to keep these muscles as limber as possible to aid in their performances and to avoid injury. When muscles tighten they become shorter causing strain and tension on muscle origin sites. This type of pulling on joints and tendons can often lead to higher probabilities of injury.
In addition to increasing susceptibility for injury, it can cause muscle tears, soreness, pain and lower quality performance due to lower muscle contractile capability. What is the science behind a muscle tear or pull? To explain what a muscle tear does, one must start by understanding how muscles function and what they are made up of. Muscles are made up of thousands of tiny elastic fibres known as myofibrils who are all tightly bundled together (Department of Health & Human Services, 2010). Myofibril fibres are a mix of protein blocks called myoglobins and molecules that deliver energy and oxygen for muscle contraction. When a muscle is signaled by the brain to contract, myofibrils fold together, which in turn shortens the muscle being used. As you have probably already guessed when the muscle is signaled to relax, those folded myofibrils unfold lengthening the muscle.
A muscle pull or tear usually occurs when either the muscle is overused or tight making it unable to keep up with the demands of the exercise. When a muscle is overused or becomes tight, the muscle fibres are unable to contract and lengthen properly (Department of Health & Human Services, 2010). They will stay in a state that causes overstretching beyond it’s physiological limitations causing damage to the fibres and muscle tissue (Pontchartrain Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, 2022).
In order to heal a tear the body forms something called scar tissuing in order to patch the affected area (Napier, 2019). Although this does repair the site of damage, scar tissue does not function in the same way as myofibrils, they do not have nearly the same amount of elastic properties. If the muscle heals in a contracted state, it can severely impact the muscles ability to elongate (Department of Health & Human Services, 2010). If a tear is significant enough, this can permanently affect the muscles ability to perform a task.
Other than the muscle damaging itself during times of strain or overuse, they can affect the joints and tendons around them too. In order to connect systems together there are different types of attachment sites in the body, when it comes to attaching the muscle to bone, the attachment point is called a tendon (Wilson & Lichtwark, 2011). The literal definition of a tendon is a connective fibre to attach muscle to bone. Tendons are significantly less elastic than muscle and can be easily strained. Having a basic understanding of how the muscle works, it is not hard to surmise how injuries to joints and tendons can occur when the muscle fibres are not functioning properly. Tight muscles can cause inflammation within joint spaces and tendons due to pulling on the areas. This is more commonly known as tendinitis (tendon inflammation) or arthritis (Joint inflammation). Both of which cause discomfort and pain.
As stated previously in my hydrotherapy article, inflammation is caused by a build up of fluid, which impacts locomotion. Inflammation causes such discomfort due to it pushing on nerve endings and filling up a space that already has no room.
An analogy to visualize this, imagine you have a conference room of people and there is only 20 chairs for the people who RSVPed. All 20 people are already in their chairs when more and more people start coming into the room until it’s so packed you are above fire code. Now the room feels small and you can barely get around. This is what inflammation does, it is the people who keep trickling in and unless someone removes them, it just continues to get more and more cramped inside. To help your horse relieve swelling and discomfort do to injury or severe muscle tension, check out my article on hydrotherapy!!
To avoid injury, muscles need to be kept flexible, allowing good range of motion around the joints. A horses flexibility depends on the muscles elasticity and ability to lengthen. Not only does it count on internal variables but also external. Have you ever noticed for yourself that when the weather gets colder movement becomes a bit more difficult?? This is because the temperature affects muscles and joints!! Although we know that temperature affects the body with more aches and pains and less flexibility, we haven’t quite figured out the correlation as to why that is (StretchZone, Admin, 2021). At this time,what is known is that the higher the temperature the more flexible you are and vice versa. Flexability can be manipulated to a certain degree with regular movement of a targeted area. Having the ability to achieve full range of motion without restriction or discomfort is known as suppleness. The ultimate goal as riders is to have suppleness in our horse when asking them to preform tasks whether that be in competition, trail riding or just moving around in the pasture.
How might you as an owner lower the risk of tight muscles, as well as increase flexibility and suppleness in your horses??
One can start by creating a consistent fitness/exercise regime for your horse. Whether your horse is in competition or just a pasture pony, regular movement is important.
Work your way up to the hard work. What I mean by this, don’t just get on your horse and start cantering and galloping around without any prior warming up. Start at a walk, get them warm and go from there