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  • Kate - Aspire Clinic WA

Your horse might have DOMS! - But what is it?

We’ve all heard or read something similar. This could have even happened to you!

“I’ve had my horses back checked by (insert vet, chiro, therapist) and they’ve said he’s fine, so it can’t be that.”


“I’ve bought a new saddle/had it fitted, so it can’t be that.”

People are riding more now than ever if they have access to their horse over this period of social distancing. With more time on our hands and for many, less work and social commitments, we are pushing our horses to "make use of our free time". Especially with the scorching summer coming to an end, the milder weather is calling us equestrians outside for much needed horse time. I am all for making use of the great weather and free time. But in our enthusiasm, it's easy to forget how our horses body might be responding to the increase in activity. It's a point I haven't seem much awareness around recently and one that is so easy to overlook when much of our normal routines have changed.

We may be feeling a bit sore after extra riding and chances are so is our horse. We all know that soreness can have a huge impact, and often pain or soreness show up as behavioural shifts in a horse’s work mentality and performance.

Lets look at 2 common scenarios:

Scenario 1

Day 1- Your horse is generally happy and does his best, and you feel happy with the ride.

Day 2- Your horse feels amazing today and you are a very happy rider.

Day 3- Your horse wasn’t keen on being ridden today and just isn’t listening like day 1. So you get firm and tell him to stop being naughty and lift his game.

Day 4- Your horse REFUSES do as he is told (which you know he knows because day 1 and 2 were great!) So you call it a day feeling deflated, annoyed, and a bit confused.

Day 5- You give your horse a 2-3 day break.

Day 7- Your horse feels like himself again, and you wonder if he was just having a few bad days.

Scenario 2

Day 1- Your horse feels eager to work and full of beans. It’s the weekend and he hasn’t done much this week. So you get carried away having fun, blow the cobwebs out, and vow to take him out every day the coming week.

Day 2- Your horse is happy to work. He is still forward but listening well and beautifully responsive. You have a great ride and are looking forward to tomorrow.

Day 3- Your horse isn’t keen to get out and about. He isn’t listening or being as responsive as yesterday. So you get firm and tell him to stop being naughty and lift his game.

Day 4- Your horse REFUSES do as he is told (which you know he knows because day 1 and 2 were great!) So you call it a day feeling deflated, annoyed, and a bit confused.

Day 5- You give you horse a break because you can’t be bothered arguing with him. You have a busy weekend anyway so you’ll find some time to ride in the following week or weeks.

Day 7- It’s been over a week since riding. There is a social riding event on this weekend and you want to go. He’s a bit hot, but good, and you have a great time. Wondering what his problem was the week before, you put it down to him having a bad day. You are excited because you have a week off and decide to ride every day the coming week.

The cycle repeats until you end up concerned and probably frustrated. Or worse, consider selling your horse, and losing the fun factor and confidence.

These are just 2 examples of the many scenarios that essentially are:

· The intensity, duration, or difficulty of work your horse isn’t ready for.

· Followed by not enough warm up, rest, and recovery care.

To really dig into why this happens, first we need to know a bit about muscles and how they work.

The muscular system is composed of specialised cells called muscle fibres. They encompass every muscle in the body, from the tiny ones responsible for ear movement, to the biggest muscle in the body (gluteus maximus) and all made up the same way. Their main function (for skeletal muscles) is contractility. Muscles attached to bones or internal organs and blood vessels, are responsible for movement.

Nearly all movement in the body is the result of muscle contraction, other than a few exceptions. The integrated action of joints, bones, and skeletal muscles produce obvious movements such as walking and running. They are live and have nerve endings, can break, and are extremely sensitive to exercise. ESPECIALLY when undertaking new physical activity or intensity.

Enter DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)

DOMS is that feeling you've probably had usually 24-48 hours after a hard workout, and usually lasts for between 2 - 4 days. It’s that feeling of stiffness, muscle pain, tenderness, and sometimes intense aching pain throughout the body. The intensity of soreness is a direct result of a few variables. Including:

  • How familiar we are with the exercise or activity.

  • The intensity of exercise.

  • How the muscles are being loaded and angle of contraction.

  • How much a muscle has been stretched under resistance. How much preparation/warming up you've done

Delayed onset muscle soreness is caused by a number of small myofibril tears (what muscle fibres are made of). The micro tears result in an inflammation response with intramuscular fluid and electrolyte shifts. When not acknowledged and cared for, DOMS can continue to progress, and more tears occur creating more pain and stiffness. This also means the muscle becomes more susceptible to injury.

How to prevent DOMS

To some degree there is no completely preventing delayed onset of muscle soreness. When ever we are building or growing muscle, there will always be some degree of soreness. However, it’s the severity and duration we can manage.

The golden rules to minimise Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

1. Warm up first. A good warm up is as important as cooling down. Don’t start with fast or intense work.

2. Take it slow and gradually to build up the amount of exercise you do. Remember Rome wasn't built in a day.

3. Be aware of the amount and time of high intensity exercises you are including in your rides without breaks between to allow the muscles to relax.

4. Ensure you do a thorough cool down following your ride or work. We’ve seen athletes jogging or doing gentle cool down drills after their sport. This is also important for our equine partners as they are athletes too.

Cool down examples:

  • If out for a long trail ride with lots of trotting or cantering, walk the 10 or 15 minutes home. This is also a great training exercise if your horse wants to rush home back to paddock mates.

  • If riding in an arena for dressage or jumping, leave the last 10 minutes for walking around on a loose rein to let them stretch out. You can even mix it up by doing some equitation/agility games at a walk. This helps their mind relax and shift gears, helping to prevent boredom and arena sour.

Now my personal favorite! Getting off your horse and doing the cool down with them.

  • Great for sore knees, numb butt cheeks, and loosening up stiff ankles. Let the girth out a little and let your horse lower his head and relax.

  • If out trail riding, jump off the 10 minutes or so from home and walk with your horse. You can even practice your ground work or liberty cues as you are heading home. Just keep you horse on lead to stay safe.

  • If in the arena, dismount somewhere your horse isn’t expecting and if possible, walk to somewhere different on the property before going back to the tack shed.

Mix it up a bit.

Everyone gets bored doing the same thing the same way every time.

  • Get out of the round yard or arena and go for a walk. Take the time to introduce them to anything new on the property and use it as part of your training.

  • If you usually work in a round yard, set up some new obstacle in the arena and practice walking through them.

  • If you usually work in the arena, have a go at something new at a walk in the round yard. This could be working equitation, liberty, obstacles, or other ground work.

  • Before you dismiss the idea of walking, groundwork or trying something new as boring or unnecessary, I would encourage you to give it a go. We need to cool our horse ( and ourselves) down anyway right? So why not use that time to build a better connection with our horse, learning something new together, and keeping our horse time fun and fresh.

How to manage DOMS

  • Assuming you are following the golden rules of preventing the severity of delayed muscles onset, here are some management tips.

  • Treat initially with active rest (light work).

  • Use anti-inflammatory measures such as ice, gentle soft tissue work (this is where I help!)

  • If in regular serious work, investing in pressure garments have been shown to reduce the duration and severity of DOMS.

  • Please DO NOT use deep tissue massage in the first 24 hours. Also avoid excessive muscle stretching in this early phase to avoid furthering muscle ruptures.

What to remember

Avoid intense or aggressive exercise during recovery. This is due to the muscles reduced capacity to cope with shock absorption, coordination, altered muscle recruitment patterns, reduced strength, and balance. If your horse has DOMS, it will struggle to do basic things he was doing the day before. He could potentially be aching from head to hoof! He is not being naughty, he is not confused, he is sore and can't manage what is being asked.

So, as excited as we are to get as much horse time in as possible at the moment, don't forget the golden rules to minimise DOMS, and it’s effect on your horse.

If you would like to find our more about how you can help your horse with DOMS while in training, you can get in touch at our website or in our facebook group

Happy Horsing!

- Kate

Advice is general in nature and provided as informational in good faith. Consult your vet or medical professions.

All rights reserved. Copyright by Kate Retallack Aspire clinic WA 2020.

(Black et al 2008, Cleak et al 1992, Bleakley et al 2012, MacIntyre et al 2001, Cheung et al 2003, Valle et al 2014, Hill et al 2013, Nelson N. 2014, Dutto and Braun 2004, Paschalis 2007, recognising healthy body systems 2016).


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