Foot and Leg Injuries with Horses

Anyone who is involved with competition horses at any level will have experienced the frustrations of having their horse suffer from lameness. Treating sport horse injuries is a specialized area of equine veterinary work since many of the underlying causes of lameness are difficult to accurately locate. The animal’s conformation and action in addition to the terrain can all play a part in determining the concussion that has to be absorbed.

Foot Problems
The tremendous impact forces incurred during fast work can result in a variety of injuries. It is vital that the horse be well shod and that the shoes are refitted every four to five weeks. The farrier must ensure that the foot is well balanced with a straight foot-pastern axis and that the shoe is fitted so that it has no contact with the sole, especially at the seat of corn. This will allow all the concussion to be transferred to the hoof wall and will help to prevent bruising. Bruising on the sole at the junction between the hoof wall at the heel and the bar is termed a corn and is a common cause of foot lameness.

Joint Sprains
Soft tissue injuries to the lining can result in painful tense swellings within equine joints. The most susceptible joints are the coffin and fetlock joints of the front limbs but other joints, such as the large mobile joint of the hock can also be affected. The swelling frequently appears very rapidly following strenuous exercise. First aid for such injuries involves ice wrapping the affected joint for 30 – 60 minutes before applying a snug well padded stable bandage. There are many ice bandages available but if you do not have one available a simple solution is to bandage a pack of frozen peas into position around the affected joint.

Tendon Injuries
There are four main tendon structures in the lower limb:

  • the superficial digital flexor tendon is the most common area of damage.  During fast work, the digital flexor tendon is functioning close to its maximum strength.
  • deep digital flexor tendon
  • the inferior check ligament, located just below the back of the knee
  • suspensory ligament.

Inflamed tendons are at risk of being overstretched.  The horse has no muscles below the knee and hock.  These tendons are protected by sheaths or tendon bursae.  Constant irritation of the sheath will result in excess fluid (edema) buildup.

Veterinary attention should be sought immediately if a tendon injury is suspected because it is vital that the inflammatory process within the tendon is suppressed.  Up to 50% of the damage in a strained tendon occurs after the injury and is the result of the inflammation which develops during the first 12 hours in response to the strain. Bandaging will help reduce tissue swelling which is also vital and is combined with strict box rest in the early stages after injury.

If a veterinary is not available for some reason you can use a Swelling Technique to reduce the edema (see below). Apply hydrotherapy before using the Swelling Technique. This will induce vasoconstriction and numbing of the nerve endings. Choose the most practical device (hose or ice cup).  With acute swellings use cold water.  With sub-acute cases, use hot/cold water to create a vascular flush.

The Swelling Technique
Swellings on your horse are the result of trauma, which include OVERWORKING your horse. The temperature will be higher than normal and you must use light pressure, (1 to 3 pounds).
The technique starts with light strokes over the body to relax the animal and help him accept your work.  When the initial tenderness seems to be relieved you can use a vibration movement to stimulate the circulation.  Then resume the stroking, around the outside of the swollen area, draining toward the heart. Not having the right saddle, might also cause severe swellings and irritation.

Next, proceed with a very gentle double-thumb kneading massage at the edge of the swelling, going clockwise around the area and draining excess fluid toward the outside of the area. Always start at the outside.  Using just a light pressure will be sufficient to drain the swelling.

When you have completed this technique, use light stroking, draining away from the outside of the trauma and move towards the heart.
Repeat, using the kneading technique in a spiral fashion toward the center of the area, alternating with light stroking.
AFTER the massage apply cold water to reduce nerve irritation. Take also a look at this page with some great Horse Training Tips.

Fractures
The very nature of the work that we ask horses to perform carries risk of injuries from collisions with fences or other obstacles. Fractures are, thankfully, a relatively rare consequence of such injuries but are seen occasionally. The term fracture means any damage to a bone in the skeleton which can range from tiny fragments inside a joint to complete disruption of a major long bone such as the cannon bone. Any severe lameness associated with joint swelling should be investigated by X-ray to determine if a fracture fragment is involved.

DJD, or degenerative joint disease, is causing lameness in an affected horse. The condition will develop when the cartilage (protecting the bones of a joint) is destroyed. It can develop in any of a horse’s joints, but the most commonly affected areas include the front fetlocks, upper knee joint, coffin joints in the horse’s forefeet, and hocks. Degenerative Joint Disease may be the result of loose joints, injury, abnormal growth patterns, or an inherited factor. Over time, all of the cartilage may have eroded entirely, which will result in painful bone-on-bone grinding and, eventually, further disability. Though DJD may affect any of the horse’s joints, it usually has the greatest effects on the hocks (ankles). Then the disease is commonly named Bone Spavins.

Because excess weight will put more stress on a horse’s weight-bearing joints, obese horses and heavier breeds are generally more prone to this condition. Injury and repeated overuse of a specific joint may well damage the cartilage severely and so become a contributory factor. What often helps are some good horse stretching exercises. Read more here.