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Tendon damage in horses: bringing your horse back to fitness

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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Whether caused by running in a muddy field, competing, or simply by an accident in the stable, tendon damage in horses can be quick and catastrophic. It can even result from poor riding and training or faulty shoeing. The outcome, a sprain or tear of the outer and deep flexor tendon, will probably require months of treatment and rehabilitation.

It’s the injury that every horse owner dreads. The horse will almost certainly need a period of box rest, and there may be permanent damage and scarring to the tendons, accompanied by inflammation. Sometimes the tendons will be permanently swollen to some degree, creating a condition known as bowed tendons. Even so, the horse may eventually become sound and pain-free, while exercise may later assist in reducing swelling and heat in the limb. However, it’s unlikely a horse with major tendon damage will ever be able to compete at an advanced level again.

Tendon injury in the horse – the truth

It’s important to be aware of the limitations of tendon healing, whether the damage is caused by stretching or tearing. Tendons do not stretch to the degree that muscles do. Once damaged, they are prone to further damage afterwards. Galloping puts a greater strain on tendons than trotting or walking.

Serious tendon injury means the horse may need to be retired or semi-retired to grass. Tendons that have been badly damaged are often permanently swollen even if the horse is sound. This can inhibit the horse’s movement, certainly while competing. The tendon is prone to further damage in other places, creating a vicious circle of damage, healing and more damage. Before it reaches this stage, think seriously about whether you should simply retire or part-retire your equine partner and only take part in gentle exercise such as light hacking or going for walks together. At all costs, the horse should be spared from suffering permanent pain and lameness.

Tendon damage in horses: action you can take

Be aware of the other effects of tendon damage in horses. Healthy horses usually spend a great deal of their time on their feet moving around. Tendon damage will cause the horse to move differently even in the confines of its stable, leading to tension and pain elsewhere in its body.

Damage to the tendons in the forelegs almost invariably results in strain on the muscles of the upper leg as the horse tries to compensate, which in turn leads to stress in the shoulder area. Eventually, this can extend over the whole body. A qualified equine physiotherapist will be able to help through massage and other treatments. Massage helps by loosening the muscles and encouraging blood flow.

The rehabilitation process: work with your vet

Bringing horses back to health after a tendon injury, beginning with gentle exercise, should only be carried out in consultation with your veterinarian.

It can be a very tricky period, since the horse may be extremely lively, whether it has been confined to a stable or out in the field while recuperating. Stopping the horse from overdoing things on their first ventures out can be very difficult.

When your horse is ready to be ridden again, it’s important to encourage it to lower its head and reach for the bit while working on a loose rein and minimal contact, rather than attempting any collection. Keep things relaxed and open and only build up more focussed work slowly and with care. The horse should be working straight without any circling at the start. Make haste slowly, as the saying goes.

Relaxation is key to the whole process. If the horse has been resting, it will take time for suppleness and fitness to return. When you and the vet feel it’s time for some more advanced movements, work on big, not tight, curves, keeping your serpentines and figure 8s as large as you can. Build to smaller circles very carefully. Your primary goal is to keep your horse sound and pain-free, rather than winning top-level prizes.

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