Equine stiffness is the bane of the horse riding world, being detrimental and frustrating for both the horse and its rider. It not only impacts on the health of the horse but is also likely to get in the way of your training and reduce your performance, so you'll no doubt want to tackle the problem and get you and the horse back on form ASAP.
First thing's first: don't panic. While you have every right to be worried, and getting emotional at the sight of your horse in discomfort is only natural, stiffness is actually much more common than you might think and may not be as serious as it looks. Plus, as it is such a big problem that so many riders experience, there is a wealth of useful information out there about how best to treat and prevent it, along with medical aids for quick relief.
Identifying equine stiffness
Many riders find it hard to recognise the stiffness at all, with many forgivably mistaking the pain for stubbornness or unwillingness. While you should be familiar enough with your horse to know its personality and habits and therefore be able to tell the difference between it being slightly bratty or actually being in physical discomfort, it is not always obvious at first.
There is always a possibility that the horse could simply be in a tenacious mood, however recurrent instances of equine stiffness - that is, an apparent reduction in muscle movement stemming from an acute inability to bend or flex - are much more likely to be caused by pain, with the horse being unable, rather than unwilling, to co-operate as usual. Keep notes of any unusual behaviour so you can search for symptoms and advice from fellow horse riders online.
Understanding the cause
Stiffness isn't actually an illness in itself as such. It is an offset, or symptom, of an existing condition, and what you are seeing is simply the horse reacting to some kind of pain. There are many conditions that can lead to this, some more severe than others. Arthritis and bad teeth are just two of many, and it can even result from something as simple and easily fixable as a badly fitted saddle. However big or small the cause is, though, identifying the root of the problem and treating it quickly is essential. The quicker the better, and the less likely the injury is to worsen or become a long term problem.
Treatment and prevention
As well as seeking treatment and diagnosis for the core problem, you will probably first want to treat the stiffness itself so that you can continue your training and relieve the horse of as much discomfort as you can. Finding out what is wrong can take a long time, as like most things in the medical world, it is most often a process of elimination. Below are some treatment ideas along with tips on how to prevent it in future.
1. Warm up, and then down - like humans, horses also benefit greatly from warming up before they engage in strenuous physical exercise. Try and fit in at least 10 minutes before you ride, and then another 10 afterwards to allow the horse to stretch and cool down.
2. Don't overwork it - recovery days are more important than anything, and the horses' muscles need time repair themselves after long rides. Avoid training on consecutive days, or at least dedicate one or two days a week to giving it a well deserved rest. Contrary to what many think, this will actually improve its performance more than constant training would.
3. Give the horse a massage - grooming the horse will relax it and help loosen any tensions. In severe cases, you may want to consult a professional in equine massage who can carry out something more complex.
4. Use joint supplements - there are various different joint supplements available, all aimed at targeting different things. It is best to go with scientifically tested and all natural supplements. Some aid the general health, flexibility, mobility and significantly reduces joint injuries in young, competition, and older horses. Triflex is one of them. Glucosamine has been shown to halt the progression of arthritis and relieves the associated pain which can be a cause of stiffness. MSM is another joint supplement that aids general health, flexibility and mobility in the veteran horse, and addresses pain and stiffness related to arthritis. (for the building of joints). Check with a medical professional if you are unsure of which one is suitable for your horse, or if you have any questions.
5. See a chiropractic - depending on the nature of the stiffness, your horse and its joints could benefit from a chiropractic session, though these are expensive and it could require repeat visits to get the results you are looking for.