It’s nearly December, which means the days of No Stirrup November are almost behind us. You and your horse are probably both thanking your lucky stars that you made it through the month! But even if you didn’t participate in this grueling yearly right of passage, muscle tension and musculoskeletal issues are bound to develop in your horse throughout his career. One of the most common issues we see as an equine massage therapists is the existence of trigger points in the belly of the muscles. These sensitive points are painful and, if left untreated, can cause your horse to develop incorrect posture, muscle spasms, weakness, irritability, and even dysfunction.
HOW TRIGGER POINTS DEVELOP
So what is a trigger point and how do they develop? Let’s break it down…
The first step in the formation of a trigger point is to have a muscle that is already exhibiting hypertonicity. A hypertonic muscle means that it is tight, dehydrated, and literally has “too much tone”. This can be caused by muscle fatigue, overuse, lack of hydration to the muscle, incorrect posture, and a number of other various reasons. Since the muscle fibers are already hypertonic, when they contract they can get caught on nearby fibers as they move, causing a snag in the muscle that can be felt as a knot or lump. This is the early stage of a trigger point. As the muscle is repeatedly asked to contract and extend through movement, the sarcomeres (muscle fibers) continue to snag onto the trigger point, causing the area to grow. Once a trigger point is developed, the area remains in continual contraction, even when the muscle is at rest. This causes the segments in the trigger point to be closer together (basically snagged on top of each other), and the fibers on either side of the area to be stretched further apart.
WHAT MAKES TRIGGER POINTS UNIQUE
One of the most interesting aspects of a trigger point is that once it has developed, a referral pattern of pain will develop as well. This means that, although the area of the trigger point will be sensitive, it will also affect other areas of the body. For instance, a trigger point in the Tricep (the muscle attaching the bones of the shoulder to the bones of the upper leg) will cause the horse to exhibit pain in his back muscles, chest area, and even instability in the limb as far down as the pastern. Because the whole body is connected it is not surprising that the musculoskeletal system functions in this way.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Unfortunately, trigger points are extremely common in horses, whether they are in work, on stall rest, or happily retired. There are some common trigger points that therapists see often depending on the horse’s discipline and training, and I highly recommend anyone who wants to offer a release to their horse to book a session with a massage therapist. The good news is that once the trigger point is treated, it should only take one session for it to disappear and the horse to find its fluidity of movement again! Just keep in mind that as you are asking your horse for activity, it is likely that trigger points will continue to develop. If you are in Western Washington and would like to schedule a session for your horse, email Kara at email@example.com. Here’s to happy, healthy equine partners!