Archive for August 4th, 2009

Pressured to Ride the Horse

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

A friend and knowledgeable horseperson stopped by the other day.  We went out to look at the horses, and she was concerned over the muscle atrophy on Fudge’s rump.  She said, “You’re letting this horse go to waste!  He has no muscle on the rear.  You need to get on and ride, ride, RIDE.  Build that muscle back up.”

I tried to gently suggest otherwise, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  Fudge looks like he is in good health, he feels good, and isn’t in pain.  Why would I not ride him?  My friend was trying to help with what she thought was a simple problem; muscle atrophy caused by non-use.  

Fudge’s atrophy is caused by a lack of connection between the brain and the muscle.  The nerve damage limits the ability of the muscles to move correctly, or for the horse to know when to move the muscle.  This is a very different issue than loosing muscle from lack of use.  Understanding this difference is important to rehabilitating the horse.

Rehabilitation must first work on the connection between the brain and muscle, until the horse has control of that body part.  Giving the horse 24-hour turnout to gently exercise allows him to use the muscles as he is ready, and for longer periods of time.  Slow ground work exercises will also help the horse activate muscles in a safe way.  Until there is connection between the brain and the muscle, building muscle mass may not even be possible.

One article suggests that nerve damage can be repaired at a rate of 1″ per month, up to one year.  After that time, the window of opportunity to reactivate the muscle is lost, and remaining damage will be permanent.  If the horse had EPM for a length of time, the extent of the nerve damage may be too wide, and the window too short, for the body to repair.  There are also anecdotal stories of spontaneous resumption of muscle awareness two years after EPM.  The key is realizing that recovery is a slow process.

During the horse’s time-off, muscle atrophy will certainly occur due to lack of exercise.  The safety of both horse and rider must be taken into account when deciding to resume riding, even at a walk.  Don’t let someone pressure you into ridding the horse if they don’t understand the reason for the muscle loss.  If you begin riding the horse before he is able to comply with commands, you set the stage for stress and relapse.  A horse that has relapased will have a much longer rehabilitation time than one that is given time off.