Spotting muscle atrophy in horses, and how to avoid it

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Muscle atrophy at the loin area - paradoxically caused by an incorrectly fitted gullet plate, which seated the rider too far back, creating excessive pressure in this area. This may also happen if the panel is too long.
Muscle atrophy at the loin area – paradoxically caused by an incorrectly fitted gullet plate, which seated the rider too far back, creating excessive pressure in this area. This may also happen if the panel is too long.

When a muscle has been trained for more than it would have normally developed naturally, and then not used for a while, it will naturally ‘atrophy’ back to its normal shape.

It takes four times longer to develop a muscle than it does to lose muscle, which is why illness resulting in bed rest can have such a drastic effect on your muscles.

Muscle atrophy also occurs when an unbalanced saddle puts too much pressure on a particular muscle, and the horse tries to avoid this pressure. He goes into ‘defensive mode’ by contracting the muscle in the area (as well as the surrounding muscles) and can even alter his gaits. Under the point of pressure where circulation is impacted (thus reducing nutrients and oxygen to the affected area) the muscle will ‘undevelop’ or atrophy.

Abnormal muscle development caused by a saddle that was too long.
Abnormal muscle development caused by a saddle that was too long.

As explained by veterinarians, atrophy will occur under severe instances of constant pressure which will first damage the hair follicles (resulting in hair loss and/or white hair). This can be reversed only when the cause is addressed (i.e., the pinching saddle), which will allow the muscle to regrow although the white hairs remain.

Muscle memory will help in the rebuilding of atrophied muscles if these were properly trained. It will take significantly longer to build up untrained muscles or incorrectly trained muscles.

Muscle definition can actually be a form of atrophy – but it is negative definition in this sense. Positive definition is development of muscular conformation as expected during proper training; negative definition happens when defensive contraction occurs to counteract a poorly fitting saddle.

The trapezius muscle can be inflamed from an incorrectly angled tree point/gullet, resulting in this bulge and nearby hollow behind the withers.
The trapezius muscle can be inflamed from an incorrectly angled tree point/gullet, resulting in this bulge and nearby hollow behind the withers.

This negative muscle definition is considered ‘hypertonic’ which means the contraction phase of the
muscle(s) is unnaturally long and in a state of abnormal tension. This results in tight, cramped, and painful muscle development – which can look like atrophy.

 

Jochen-schleeseJochen Schleese was certified as the youngest Master Saddler ever in Europe in 1984, and in 1986 was asked to be the official saddler for the World Dressage Championship.

He received a patent for a revolutionary saddle design in 1996 and is recognized as an authority on saddles.

For more information, visit www.schleese.com, or read Suffering in Silence: The Saddle Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, by Jochen Schleese.

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Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of "Suffering in Silence" and "The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses".  Visit www.schleese.com

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