Horse Injuries in Sports Horses
What are 'Sports Horses'?
A sport horse is a type of horse, rather than any particular breed, who competes in a certain discipline. The term is usually applied to horses bred for traditional Olympic equestrian sporting events - dressage, 3- day eventing, show jumping, and combined driving, but also includes high speed disciplines such as barrel racing, racing and so on.
Many horses live an active lifestyle and just as with humans, strenuous activities and exercise of any kind can lead to a variety of horse injuries, strains, tears or bumps and bruises.
An injured horse often means high veterinary costs which can sometimes include MRI scans, X-rays and physiotherapy. A period of recovery and rehabilitation will be required alongside treatments and medication.
Although all horses face the risk of injury, the demands put on sports horses who are competing in disciplines such as 3-day Eventing, Showjumping and Barrel Racing are obviously greater.
In this article we look at the most common forms of injuries found in sports horses and how they are traditionally treated.
The majority of injuries found in horses are caused by impact or by repetitive stress. Impact injuries are more common in sports horses as their disciplines demand speed and often running or jumping on uneven ground. Many impact injuries are caused through misplacing their feet and landing awkwardly often resulting in strained or torn tendons or ligaments. Repetitive injuries are more commonly found in dressage horses due to the strenuous movement on their joints and commonly lead to soreness and joint problems later on in life. In most cases the equine community is well aware of managing their horse on an ongoing basis and applying preventive measures to support their horses along the way.
The discipline and nature of the sport your horse competes in will dictate in most cases what common horse injuries to look out for.
Jumpers can cause injuries through the forelimbs as they land, often creating issues with the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) either through inflammation or as an actual tear in the tendon. Many jumping horses also experience suspensory ligament injuries as well as issues in the navicular bone and ligaments in the hoof. Due to the nature of their movements jumping horses are highly prone to foot injuries, hind leg injuries and knee swelling.
Dressage horses often experience injuries more related to repetitive stress but the nature of the sport does create injuries to the legs, neck and spine. In the discipline of dressage the animal must hold its own weight which can be associated to joint and muscles issues and lead to degenerative joint disease (arthritis) in the fetlocks, hocks, neck and spine.
Racing horses which include a variety of disciplines such as horse racing, barrel racing and so on experience a plethora of horse injuries. Research published by the National Estimate of Economic Costs Associated with Animal Events indicate that over 70% of barrel racing horses experience inflammation of the sesamoid bones (Sesamoiditis) with inflammation or scarring of the synovial pad (Villonodular synovitis) also being common. This is thought to be down to the repeated trauma and extension of the joints leading to a third of barrel racing horses developing some form of Osteoarthritis.
Whatever discipline, bringing your horse back from injury and providing the most effective rehabilitation period is of significant importance to horse owners. No case is the same and each horse reacts differently to varying forms of treatments. Our recommendation is that any injury to a horse should be examined by a veterinary professional..
For decades there have been a variety of alternative solutions available to the equine community, not clinically supported but providing a wide range of devices and treatments which support your horses recovery. As a medical device which creates no heat, EQU StreamZ bands can be used 24/7 and as a complimentary device. Hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, infrared treatment, laser therapy and other holistic approaches are also now common.
To ensure a happy and healthy sports horse it is paramount to provide continuous levels of care. Good exercise and fitness levels are vital. Maintaining core strength and improved posture, building muscle tone and increasing stable strength are also important factors in ensuring a horse with the correct balance and coordination which leads to a horse with a happy mental state.
Suspensory Ligament Injuries
This is a common injury found in sports horses. The suspensory ligament is a strong fibrous ligament which runs down the back of the cannon bone and divides into two branches which attach to the inside and outside sesamoid bones, on the back of the fetlock. Its main purpose is to support the horses ankle joint which with many sports horses go through significant impact.
A strain, sprain or pull often relates to overloading the leg leading to the suspensory ligament to give way. In severe cases the ligament can rupture and even fracture bone as it tears away from the ligament.
Sports horses competing in eventing and jumping are most at risk due to the speed and increased load on the forelimbs and joints. Hind suspensory ligament injuries are more common in dressage horses due to the nature of the added strain on their hind end.
Suspensory ligament injury sign horses can be difficult to spot. Lameness levels can vary from severe to barely noticeable. If the pigment is torn then the leg may be warm, will be swollen and sensitive to touch. In the majority of cases a veterinary professional is required. Local nerve blocks and an ultrasound may assist in pinpointing the exact location of the ligament tear and X-rays are sometimes used to confirm whether any damage to the bone has taken place. As ligaments are fibrous they tend to heal poorly and can be easily reinsured.
I all cases a significant rehabilitation period will be required, often with a minimum of 12 weeks box rest but in some severe cases up to 12 months.
Deep digital flexor tendon Injuries (DDFT)
The flexor tendons, both the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) and the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) run down the back of the limb from the level of the knee/hock and are common injuries found in sports horses.
Active and strenuous exercise can cause injury to these tendons but knocks or cuts to a tendon (such as within a fall or from another horses) can result in bruising or rupturing of the tendon. If a tendon sheath is damaged this can sometimes lead to a significant life threatening infection.
Initial treatment is most commonly a bout of box rest and anti inflammatory medications to aid inflammation reduction and provide a level of pain relief. Many horse owners resort to ice packs and reducing heat along with alternative tack products such as magnetic boots and rugs. Most importantly the horse must have a controlled exercise regime which does not allow them to repeat the injury.
‘Bone Bruise’ Injuries
With sports horses their foot, knee and ankle joints are subjected to tremendous force and with these joints that force is focused on where these joints meet. This often leads to many sports horses experiencing ‘bone bruise’ created by the impact of the landing or running on hard ground. Ever had a bruised heal? You’ll know what it feels like.
Bone bruising is not serious but can result in a lameness and obvious pain for your horse. Commonly treated using nerve blocks and located using MRI scans, treatment can be expensive so in many cases most horses are given a period of rest of around 12 weeks and anti inflammatory medication.
Stress on any joint can trigger inflammation and over time repeated joint stress can lead to osteoarthritis. Extremely common in many sports horses (particularly barrel racing horses) due to the nature of impact on various joints from an active lifestyle.
Inflamed joints are found in horses competing in most disciplines and often when there is a significant change to the horses work level or intensity. The horse will likely show visible signs of being sore, particularly at the beginning of work and you may notice heat around the joint and swelling. Your veterinary professional will be able to identify the issue with an examination and may take X-rays to establish the severity of the condition. In most cases synovial fluid will be taken to ensure no infection is found within the joint.
Most horses diagnosed with joint inflammation will make a full recovery and respond best to a bout of rest and recuperation and a gradual reintroduction of exercise regimes.
Soft Tissue Injuries
Soft tissue injuries in horses are a common reason for lameness in sports horses. Often difficult to diagnose and manage, the healing process can be substantial and require considerable patience.
Soft tissue injuries are generally either from an external trauma or from a mechanical overload. When a mechanical overload occurs the tendon or ligament is stretch above their capacity. Initially the horse will have an inflammatory response creating significant swelling. External traumas can occur from blunt impact such as on a gate post or getting a leg caught in a fence.
These types of tissue injuries happen to horses across al disciplines and can occur from one particular incident or from regular minor incidents. In most cases when a soft tissue injury is diagnosed an ultrasound can be done to ascertain the damage and length of box rest. Recovery is long and should be rested until a full recovery is seen.