3-Day Eventing | Common Injuries & Treatments

What is the equine discipline of 3-Day Eventing?

3-Day Eventing (also known as horse trials) is an equestrian event where a single horse and rider combination compete against other combinations across the three disciplines of dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. The trials take place over a period of 3 days. Eventing is generally considered the most all-round test of a horse’s athletic ability.

Injuries often experienced in eventing horses

The discipline of 3-day eventing demands a lot on the competing horse. Each discipline within 3-day eventing uses differing techniques which all have a varying physical impact on the horse. Not just from competing but the fact that many horses travel long distances to attend horse trials also raises the issue of supporting the animal when travelling.

Foot pain in eventing horses is a common problem. Bruising of the sole is commonly diagnosed as the source of foot pain following the cross country phase, especially in Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred cross horses with flat and/or thin-soled feet. It is widely known that ‘shoe loss’ often occurs more in eventing horses than experienced in other sports horses. Shoe loss can often lead to the hoof wall breaking up creating further problems for the horse.

Foot imbalance often contributes to foot pain. Because of this, regular and high standard farriery is incredibly important in maintaining the soundness of an eventing horse.

To compete at high levels Eventers spend considerable time in cardio training with their horse; allowing them to complete cross country courses in the fastest time possible. With regular training, injuries are experienced more often than with other less demanding disciplines. Prevention and wellbeing is key to keeping horses in the best shape possible.

The lower limb joints of event horses, in particular the coffin and fetlock joints, are commonly affected by osteoarthritis (OA) symptoms in the forelimbs. Inflammation and swelling of a joint, and an increase in the horse’s lameness following flexion of that joint, are factors that indicate that the joint may have osteoarthritis.

The discipline of dressage as part of the eventing competitions lends to issues also experienced in competing horses in dressage. The harmony between the horse and rider requires the equine athlete to have balance, suppleness, power and focus. To enable the 3-day eventing horse to be collected, have balance and freedom of movement, extra load is taken onto the hindquarters, which in turn increases the strain on the skeleton and soft tissue structures in these areas. 

The most commonly reported issues are damage to the suspensory ligament in both the fore and hind limbs particularly in the upper area (proximal suspensory desmitis or PSD), problems associated with the coffin joint, osteoarthritis of the hock joints, and thoracolumbar and sacroiliac pain.

Unlike many disciplines, event horses are often prone to traumatic lacerations (cuts and wounds) during a competition, with the most common injury being overreach injuries to the heel bulbs, as well as abrasions and lacerations to the stifle and carpus (knee joint). This is usually as a result of direct trauma from jumping and touching cross country fences.

Occasionally, direct trauma to the surface of a bone can lead to the horse being severely lame as the result of bruising to the bone. This lameness often resolves quickly following a few days of rest and in some cases using anti-inflammatory medications. Treating wounds is of paramount importance.

Bone spavin is a term used for osteoarthritis and pain in the distal intertarsal and tarsometatarsal joints of the hock and is often found in 3-day eventing horses. Bone spavin may cause overt lameness or poor performance. Horses with this condition may have an expressive free trot, but a poor canter, and in particular have problems in more collected gaits, where there is increased loading of the hock.

Traditionally used treatments supporting eventing horses

Many sport horses including eventing horses report regular swollen fetlocks both in front and hinds legs from their horse ‘standing around’ for long periods of time, often seen after long travel times between trials. This often referred to as “filling” and is very different from “inflammation”. The filling, which is usually around the fetlock or cannon bone area, is not a direct cause of stiffness but it can restrict joint movement; it is however associated to the natural healing process of the horse and as such should be carefully investigated before using products or medications. If the fetlock swelling is hot to touch then this could indicate more serious underlying issue such as acute synovitis; inflammation that appears suddenly in a joint.

Providing eventing horses with recuperation, rehabilitation and rest is the foundation of ongoing treatment for eventing horses. This includes cooling down after competing, often resulting in riders using cold or ice products. Traditional magnets should not be used at this point in a horses recovery as they produce heat. In some acute cases, vets will sometimes prescribe anti-inflammatory medications. Many eventing horses will be issued a different on stall rest and slowly brought back into action with hand walking and light work.

Many hock and fetlock issues found in sports and jumping horses are treated using medications, wraps and bandages. Anti-inflammatory medications are often used, although this can be an issue when treating a horse who competes.

Medicating before 3-day eventing competitions is a complicated process due to rules and regulations within the sport. If a horse needs anti-inflammatory medications and is scheduled to compete in a competition, the rider must discuss the options with their veterinarian beforehand. Different drugs or medications take different times to clear from the horse’s living system. If a concoction of drugs are used at the same time the detection periods can often be unpredictable and can lead to disqualification. With the exception of the permitted medications allowed by, a horse must be “clean” at the time of competition. Because of this many 3-day eventers look for alternative and natural solutions to support their horse.

The pain associated with suspensory ligament injuries is often transient and short-lived. It is common in short term injuries that the horse may “look and feel better” and may be returned to work only to have the lameness return. A rest period of three months would be typical for relatively moderate injuries. Horses with more chronic or severe injuries may require longer periods of time off, in some cases approximately a year. In cases of acute injury where there are no definite ultrasonographic abnormalities of the ligament, the horse may respond reasonably well to anti-inflammatory medications, with the purpose to reduce inflammation or swelling of the ligament. Shock wave therapy is now widely used to treat ligament issues with a view to reducing the recovery period. Horses affected with proximal suspensory ligament injuries in the hind limb appear to have the worst prognosis, often suffering from chronic lameness or re-injury after returning to work. The prognosis remains poor even with other forms of treatment. This challenge has led to the development of surgical operations and holistic and natural alternatives where possible.

As with any wound which occurs during the competition season, there is usually pressure to get the wound healed and to get the horse back into training and out competing as soon as possible. Therefore, aggressive early management of lower limb wounds with a bandage or a cast, over a period of weeks, depending on the severity and location of the wound and the decision of the vet is often applied. There are various supplements used to help aid this recovery process, along with new holistic technologies.

In most cases, treating eventing horses can be a long and expensive process with a strong emphasis on recovery and rehabilitation. Many horse owners search for alternative therapies to support their eventing horses, with ‘prevention being as important as cure’. 

Magnet therapy, being a natural alternative to many other prescribed treatments, is becoming increasingly popular within 3-day eventing horses and has produced positive (yet mixed) effects for decades. 

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