Untie the Solution

Proper exercise and a change in diet can help prevent your horse from tying up.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Everyone knows what it feels like to have sore muscles. You climb out of bed the morning after a long workout, and the thought of moving makes even the hair on your head hurt. Pulling your boots on feels like lifting anvils, and climbing stairs is not even an option.

Now, imagine feeling that sore and having to carry a saddle on your back and a rider who doesn’t understand why you’re moving so slowly.

Muscle pain is commonplace with athletic horses, and for years, veterinarians and researchers have tried to pinpoint exactly what causes it. An early theory was that it was a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, but research has proved that wrong. In fact, some of the earliest research done in Quarter Horses was to show that when horses tie up, they do not have an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. Most of the time, horses tie up when they are doing light exercise, not at a high enough rate to generate lactic acid.

Define Tying Up
Exertional rhabdomyolysis, or tying up, is a symptom of muscle pain, a problem in horses that are exercising and develop stiff, painful muscles. Muscles become knotted and tight, and horses can’t use their hind ends normally. Sometimes they even lose the ability to walk forward.

Exertional rhabdomyolysis can be broken down into two categories: sporadic and chronic. A chronic condition is due to specific inherited abnormalities and can be further broken down into two specific types: polysaccharide storage myopathy, which affects Quarter Horses, warmbloods and draft breeds, and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis, which has been connected to Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds and Arabians. Since 1995, AQHA has funded research to determine a cause and solution to the problem of tying up.

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Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy
PSSM is a glycogen-storage disorder in Quarter Horse-related breeds. Horses with this disorder tie up because of the abnormal way they store and use sugar in the muscle tissue.

“We’ve learned that these horses store too much sugar in their muscles, because they are sensitive to insulin and don’t seem to regulate energy metabolism properly in their muscles,” Dr. Stephanie Valberg says.

Horses that have PSSM are commonly heavy-muscled and usually calm. One condition known to cause these horses to tie up is a lack of regular exercise.

Diet Solutions
One of the best ways to manage PSSM is to decrease the amount of starch in your horse’s diet and to add fat. Providing the proper balance of hay and high-fat concentrate is important in preventing horses from becoming overweight.

A diet for PSSM horses should contain 1.5 percent of their body weight in hay and a fat supplement substituted for grain or sweet feed. Even a small amount of fat added to a hay ration can have a beneficial effect by providing a source of energy the muscles can use.

A diet providing 15 percent of calories from fat is more than adequate. It is important that horses with PSSM do not become fat, and levels of fat intake of more than 20 percent can promote obesity. There are specially designed feeds for horses that tie up.
What to Know
Dr. Valberg has been researching equine muscle disorders for more than 20 years and has been involved with the AQHA PSSM research project since its inception. She answered some questions every Quarter Horse owner should know.

Q: What causes a horse to tie up?
A: The first thing to remember is that tying up is a symptom. It’s not a disease in itself, and there are many different things that can give horses sore muscles, just like there are many things that can make a horse cough.

There are disorders that can affect the muscle due to inadequate training, just like in people. If you haven’t trained adequately before you do a certain physical exertion, you can get sore muscles. There are dietary imbalances that can also affect muscle function, such as not having enough body salts, like electrolytes, in the diet. This is particularly important in horses living in hot, humid conditions.

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Q: What are some of the signs of tying up?
A: When you are riding a horse that is tying up, he will start to lose his impulsion in his hind end. You might wonder whether he is lame because he is irregular in the way he is riding or stopping. Sometimes, horses will stop and stretch out as if they are going to urinate, and then when they walk forward, they take much shorter steps with their hind legs. If you keep exercising, they start to sweat profusely and tighten up and are unable to move.

Horses with PSSM are often reluctant to do the same amount of exercise as other horses right from the beginning. They are not using their hind ends and show stiff backs. They don’t have the exercise tolerance or the desire to work as much as other horses do.

What should you do if your horse ties up?
A: The first thing to do is to stop exercising. If you are in an area close to the barn, try to move your horse back there where he can stand and rest. Traveling for a long period of time when a horse begins to tie up makes the muscle damage worse.