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Muscular Fatigue in Horses

Remember to watch out for Muscular Fatigue in your horse.

Image 1

Have you ever felt this before? 

It reminds me of a very talented Lusitano and  Connemara I used to ride. Both horses were given to me to take on, as they were “bolters”. 

In other words they would gallop flat out in any direction without stopping. These two were totally unrelated but came to me, because they had had an episode and bolted, the rider came off and fractured their back!

To me there is no winner in any of this, not the riders or horses because in my opinion a horse only “bolts” like this as a survival instinct to escape a predator. It’s a flight or fight response. For a ridden horse to express this behaviour, I believe it’s SIGNIFICANT TRAUMA, and even though you can over time slowly gain their trust and teach them to allow trust, rapport and relationship, they never forget.  

I adopted this focus and goal with both these horses when it came to riding them. If I’m honest, I actually spent more time doing groundwork than riding. My aim was to build a rapport of acceptance and connection again, working with their mind and using groundwork exercises to help me. 

Both these horses were used to being ridden in macular fatigue. I believe their tolerance was so much higher than any other horses. Many people before me, tried the technique of “riding them until they are tired” 

In other words, breaking there spirit! It’s awful to even write this! But I saw it! I will never un-see it, and it’s probably why I have such a passion for horse behaviour today. 

Any subtle signs or changes in behaviour that a horse shows me, is a way of communication and should not be ignored. 


Muscle fatigue causes blockage of the neuro-sensory system, with the main muscle groups becoming spasmodic and painful. You loose all “finesse” in their movement with overwork. 

In other words- horses are not machines, that simply builds muscle in order to carry us and compete. Horses should be seen as ballet dancers, endowed with harmony of movement.   

Image 2 Dusty

Image 2 was one of the bolters that had previously fractured his owners back. Unfortunately and fortunately I had the opportunity to retrain Dusty. This goes back to the “horseman” days where because I was the lightness rider and had a softer touch, he was given to me. Now the technique applied to getting Dusty retrained started off with me being told to canter him, until he bolts in this very open and large canter ring. 

That was the longest time I had ever been on a horse. We were out there for a while, cantering up to 10 laps of this ring. This little horse was not going to stop. I felt his body get tired and he slowed down, but he wasn’t going to stop. I totally relate to people when they say how tough and hardy Connemara ponies are. 

I remember the moment so clearly, I had barely any rein contact, was in a light jockey seat (no weight on his back) and I remember thinking “mate when are you going to stop”.

He didn’t stop, I had to pull him up. 

This really brought home the idea and understanding of muscular fatigue, in other words blockage of the neuro sensory system. It was like his body was tired but his mind wasn’t.

To be honest it was that moment, that day that I never ever cantered a horse like that for that amount of time again. Luckily the owner had no time constraint and I was allowed to “play” with him. This meant do what you like basically. 

I spent weeks doing groundwork - walking exercises with him. I never pushed him away, my door was for him and I allowed him time and space to come in and start to rebuild his relationship with humans, with me. 

We spent 6 months together, and even ended up competing low level dressage together. 

By the way, do you want to know what the cause of both these horses bolting? 

The starting process involved a “dummy” rider which had gone wrong. 

Never will I start a horse like this- EVER.  

Image 3: Dusty and I building up our relationship.

So, do you know what muscle fatigue looks and feels like?

Below is a list of common signs to watch out for:

  • Slowly down - this is obvious but can so easily be overlooked! How many times have you heard someone say "my horse is so lazy"

  • Decreased responsiveness to aids- again this is obvious, however in my experience is often overlooked

  • Unwillingness or inability to increase speed or change gait. Have you ever ridden a horse that feels very one paced? This could be a sign of weakness

  • Loss of motivation- commonly seen in young horses that are exercised too often.

  • Reduced coordination- which can feel like a loss of balance, wandering around the arena

  • Overreaching- due to a loss of balance and coordination

  • Constantly changing leads in canter

  • Hitting fences or obstacles

  • Tripping

  • Increased head and neck movement

  • Changes in their breathing pattern

The list above is only a guide. My best piece of advice is spend time getting to know your horse both from the ground and from a ridden perspective.

If you found this blog interesting, please share it or comment below.

Thanks for reading,

Nika x

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