Managing Pain in Equine Athletes
If your horse is riding in a trailer, standing in a stall, running their heart out, and riding back in the trailer - they are going to come home a bit stiff.
No shade, no tea, it’s simply a fact of the matter of cause and effect, and no difference to when I get on a plane, fly to southern California and go for a hike the next day.
After a weekend competing or hiking, neither the horse or myself are injured, but the level of intensity exerted in our respective weekends away, both horse and human will experience mild inflammation that results in some pain and stiffness.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t compete, but it does mean we should incorporate preventative pain management into our horse’s competition regimes.
Why? Because the majority of actual injuries are the result of repetitive strain. Compensatory patterns adopted by the horse in order to avoid an area of stiffness can, over time, lead to the breakdown of the compensating area and/or the originating site.
Now, why is the compensating area more likely to break down and not the originating site?
This is because the area of the body compensating is not meant to do the job it is being tasked with. A good example would be the hocks taking extra load to alleviate lumbar back pain. By not managing general soreness we are allowing these patterns to develop, resulting in injuries popping up.
Once the compensation breaks down, its important to keep in mind we are now fixated on rehabbing the acute injury, whereas you’re only just beginning as unless you find the root cause of the compensation, either the region you’re doctoring, or a different one subbing in for the job of pain relief will assume the burden, and that is where “mystery lameness’s” can come in and you’re down the proverbial rabbit hole of diagnostics.
We continually preach that prehab is cheaper than rehab, and this is just another example of how so.
Now that we know better, we can do better, so what can we do about managing pain in our equine athletes? There are many options, and some may be best discussed with your attending vet – but to get you started on questions to ask, I will share my personal pain management protocol with you all!
1. Bodywork. Do not wait until your horse is sore before calling your bodyworker. By the time they show you they are sore, they are breaking down. Horses are prey animals and are bred to cover any signs of weakness by all means possible. This includes smoking a run while operating on pure adrenaline (adrenaline deactivates pain receptors).
My horse sees a professional body worker about once a month, which I do my best to schedule directly following our heaviest competitions. I rotate between an expert in massage & acupressure to an osteopath. In between, I do daily baited stretches, Balanced Through Movement pillar work, weekly microcurrent therapy, kinesiology taping and Trace loves the massage gun (stay tuned for our next video about how to properly use a massage gun).
2. Pain management on the road. Just like a lot of people will increase their gut health and ulcer prevention protocols before travel, I start my pain and inflammation management protocol the day I leave and carry through to 1-2 days post returning home. Below I will share my protocol, but please note this does not substitute for veterinary advice and choosing the correct pain management system for your horse.
Joint pain support – Legend & Recovery EQ. Trace is on Recovery EQ daily which is undoubtedly one of the best and results-driven oral joint supplement on the market. Both preventative and regenerative, it also contains anti-inflammatory properties which help the whole body, not just joints. Legend is hyaluronic acid, a lubricating substance that improves the quality of joint fluid by decreasing the production of inflammatory responses (aka: reducing pain and friction). After the loading dose, Legend is given once per month via IV.
Optional joint health and pain support: Adequan, Pentosan, Summit.
Anti-inflammatories, anxiety & immunity – CBD oil, MSM & Omega 3. Have you ever got a sore neck because you were stressed? Horses can experience muscle tension due to anxiety too. CBD has been shown to assist horses with anxiety, pain as well as gut health. CBD can intervene early in inflammatory responses and even prevent degenerative changes. Unfortunately, it is not able to be used during competition in some sports, so be sure to review your association rules.
MSM is almost a miracle supplement. It helps relieve joint pain and helps maintain healthy connective tissues like cartilage, tendons and ligaments. It also helps minimize oxidative stress and is a potent anti-inflammatory. This helps our equine athletes recover more quickly from competition and heavy exercise. My MSM is provided in Recovery EQ but it can be fed stand-alone as well.
Omegas are a hot topic on the market and there are a lot of options out there, but it is important to ensure the correct ratio of Omega 3’s to 6’s. Omega 3 is an anti-inflammatory and Omega 6 is a pro-inflammatory. Both are required (in correct ratios), and Omega’s can’t be synthesized by the horse so must be consumed in the diet.
The ideal ratio is 4:1 Omega 3 to 6. So, four times as much O3 as O6. This ratio comes from the fact that fresh grass has a 4:1 ratio, and being that’s what horses have consumed for centuries, is the recommended amount. If you want a complete breakdown of how much Omega’s are in each of the oils on the market, be sure to grab our Simplifying Supplements guide to help you decipher what’s in your feed.
Alternative general pain, and anxiety supplement options: Magnesium, Devils Claw, Tumeric. These are some of the more tried and tested supplements, although there are a number of additional herbs on the market. Herbs definitely can work, but absorption rates are highly individualized – so what works for one horse may not work for another. Trial and error becomes an important part of whether a herb will work for your horse.
Circulatory & Muscle Support - Hansbo Sport, EqStreamz and Kinesiology taping. Utilizing ceramic and magnetic support as part of prehab and pain management is a staple in my protocols. Both ceramic and magnetic therapy work by promoting circulation to areas of
strain, and increased blood flow assists in decreasing inflammation which reduces pain.
Kinesiology taping works by turning off pain-receptors as well as bringing increased blood flow to an area. It can also promote proprioception and relaxation. Plus - it's not hard and you do not need a professional to use it! Check out this course: Equine Kinesiology Taping for Horse Owners to learn this technique at your own pace from anywhere!
Alternatives: Back on Track, Prof Choice Theramic line, Benefab.
3. Balance your horse’s diet. Too much calcium can turn soft tissue inflexible bone-like tissue, and too much phosphorus can weaken bones. When it comes to pain management in our athletes - ensuring their foundational forage is supporting their body is pinnacle. You can’t out-supplement incorrectly balanced feed. I highly recommend testing your hay and pastures, a proper test costs about $150 and can save you much more than that in excess supplementation. If you’re not sure how to balance your hay, check out our FORAGE CALCULATOR and if you still have questions, I offer 1-1 nutrition consults.
4. Ensure there is not a structural reason your horse is in pain. One of the biggest culprits here – is improper hoof balancing. This is a section where I could go on and on, but instead will keep it short. We have an epidemic of horses with long-toe low-heel syndrome. Trim and reset cycles are too long, and we are failing our horses when it comes to hoof care. If you want to take a deep dive into this topic check out our HOOF CARE FOR HORSE OWNERS course.
5. Pre and Post-Season Check-Ups. Just as with bodywork, don’t wait until your horse is sore to call your vet. At a minimum, schedule pre-season and post-season wellness exams with your veterinarian so you can catch any brewing repetitive strain before it becomes an acute injury.
Our horses don’t ask to be rode much less competed on, although many of them obviously love it. We as their owners have a responsibility of ensuring they are set up for the best success of a long and healthy career and that starts with proper pain management. Just as with humans, no pain, no gain – horses can benefit from strength and muscle building and repair/recovery after intense workouts. But the adage “if you don’t use it you lose it” also applies here too. If our horses turn on compensatory activity to avoid pain, they will lose the function of the structure they are guarding. This makes injuries worse and rehabs longer, and if we’ve said it once we’ve said it a hundred times – choose prehab over rehab for your equine athlete!
Now, let’s finish the last half of this season strong!