Tying-up, muscle tension & spasm in horses

What is tying up?

Tying up (muscle tension/spasm) involves chronic tension in the horse’s muscles due to overwork. When the muscles are active, they produce lactate as part of their normal metabolism. Too much lactate causes lactic acidosis, a lowering of the pH in the muscles and the body in general. This impacts the efficiency of metabolism, giving rise to fatigue. The excess lactate prevents the muscles from relaxing properly following contraction. As a result, large muscle groups tend to seize up, remaining in a state of contraction. In mild tying up, the horse’s muscles are extremely sore and stiff. In full blown tying up, the horse is unable to move.

The areas typically affected by tying up include the neck, back, shoulders, zones of previous trauma and areas where other muscles have attempted to compensate for those already affected.

Prolonged muscle fatigue can, in time, affect the skeletal, circulatory and respiratory systems.

Is my horse likely to tie up?

Tying up is more common in young Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds that are either high strung or not fit. Fit, well-trained and well-bred horses are better able to deal with higher levels of lactate in their systems. However, if a horse develops a level of lactate significantly higher than his body has learned to cope with, he will be more likely to tie up.

What are the symptoms of tying up?

The following symptoms may indicate that your horse is tying up:

  • Obvious discomfort and irritability
  • Abnormally short strides
  • Profuse sweating
  • Muscle stiffness, contraction
  • Difficulty moving
  • Elevated pulse and laboured breathing
  • Brown coloured urine resulting from the kidneys filtering myoglobin (a muscle protein) from the blood. Myoglobin is an indication of severe muscle damage.
  • Inability to sleep

What should I do if my horse ties up?

If your horse appears to be suffering from tying up, you should call your veterinarian immediately. Since tying up can be very painful, and your horse may be panicky, ask what you can do to provide comfort until the veterinarian arrives.

Never move a horse that has tied up. Moving your horse even a few steps may cause the condition to worsen. Keep the horse on his feet and protect him from becoming chilled by using a blanket.

Encourage your horse to drink, as fluids will help flush the kidneys of waste.

Tying-up treatment & prevention for horses

Much of the treatment for tying up focuses on prevention. Warm up and cool down your horse properly with at least 15 minutes of walking. Don’t exercise the horse to a point where he becomes stressed. Provide turnout as frequently as possible.

Some horse owners/trainers have found that a diet that is reduced in carbohydrates (or total elimination of carbohydrates) helps to reduce tying up.

Yet another method that many horsemen have found useful is making sure that the horse’s electrolytes (potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium) are kept at optimal levels through good nutrition.


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For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse