5 Common Sport Horse Injuries

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

You can find out if your horse is at high risk for these sidelines, including deep digital flexor tendon and suspensory ligament injuries.

How can a horse be like a NBA basketball star? He could be forced to retire from the sport due to injuries, such as bumps and bruises or torn tendon and damaged joints. Even though any horse can be hurt, eventing, dressage, hunter/jumper competition increases the chance of suspensory injuries, deep digital tendon tears, sore muscle, and other complications.

Speed work and jumping can overload the deep digital tendon, which is stretched to its maximum when the horse is galloping or landing. Amy K. Dragoo

Common Sport Horse Injuries

This article will explain five types of common injuries that can affect sporthorses, their treatment and the possible consequences for your horse’s career. These injuries can occur in all disciplines, but certain types are more prevalent in specific sports.

  • Eventers and jumpers are at greater risk of injury from speed, fatigue, uneven ground, jumping, and speed. A torn tendon, ligament or joint can result if your horse falls awkwardly off a jump.
  • Although dressage horses are less likely to sustain “bad-step” injuries than other breeds, repetitive stress can be a problem for them. They are more susceptible to muscle soreness, micro tears in ligaments, and joint problems. These injuries can be chronic and limit the horse’s ability to do certain things.

It can be difficult to bring your horse back after an injury. It can be difficult to diagnose the damage and there is no way to recover from it. You should keep your horse off the injured lists.

Suspensory Ligament Injury

The suspensory ligament runs from the bottom of the cannon bone to the front. It splits into two branches, which run around the ankle and meet at the front of long pastern bone. It serves to support the ankle joint when it is under weight, and return to normal when it is lighter.

The suspensory could be broken if your horse over-exersts the leg. Although the injury is not severe, it may cause a few tears to the ligament’s collagen fibers. Repeated stress can make it more severe. The ligament can rupture, or even break off bone if it is severely injured.

Most at Risk: Jumpers and eventers are particularly at risk from acute front suspensory tear. Speed and jumping increase the strain on the forelimbs, increasing the chance of a misstep. Because dressage horses are more dependent on their hind ends, hind suspensory injury may be more common. The ligament is also put under additional strain by the horses that are heavy. All horses are at risk due to poor footing, lack of fitness, work intensity, and work level.

Signs Suspensory Injuries can be difficult to spot. Depending on the extent of damage, lameness can be very noticeable or severe. The main body tear or branches may cause the leg to become warm, swollen, and sensitive. If the tear is very high, you might not be able to see the top of the ligament because it is covered by other structures.

Your veterinarian will be able to identify the problem by performing local nerve blocks and conducting a hands-on examination. An ultrasound scan can help locate the problem and show the extent of the damage to the ligament. X-rays can also be used to determine if there is bone involved.

Treatment: A veterinarian will assist you in determining the best treatment plan for your horse’s injury. These are the most common steps in treatment:

  • Cool down. To reduce inflammation, your vet might recommend cold therapy. This may include icing or cold-hosing multiple times per day and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as flunixin meglumine or phenylbutazone.
  • To allow the ligament to heal, you should keep your legs still. You may be advised by your vet to use standing wraps on the injured leg and the opposite leg.
  • To encourage healing, hand-walking is a good idea. Your vet will advise you to start slowly, with 10 minutes per day.
  • Gradual return of exercise. Set up a program with your vet to ease your horse back into exercise over several months. Use ultrasound exams to check the ligaments and adjust the program as necessary.

Your vet might recommend other treatments depending on your case.

How long does this all take? Ligaments heal slowly. A mild strain can heal in six to eight weeks. However, a tear may take up to 12 months. High hind suspensory injuries are often frustrating for horses because of their anatomy. It can be difficult to track healing and to determine when it is time to return to work. Remember that your horse may still be trotting long after the ligament has healed. Rushing his rehabilitation is likely to lead to a setback.

Outlook –Ligaments tends to heal poorly with fibrous scar tissue which is prone to reinjury. Although many horses recover fully, it is important to manage chronic suspensory issues. This can cause a horse to be susceptible to recurrent pain and make it difficult for you to determine the limits. Even the most sensitive rider will not be able to pick up the moment her horse feels pain.

DDFT Damage

The deep digital tendon attaches to the bottom bone of the coffin bone, which is the bone that supports the front hoof wall. It flexes the leg and supports the heel. The tendon fibers extend to the top of the navicular bone.

Sporthorses are more likely to sustain injuries in the lower portion of the tendon. These tendon injuries can be anywhere from the midpastern to the foot. When your horse weighs his foot, the tendon is taut. At the moment of breakover (when his weight crosses over the toe, the heel begins lifting), the tendon becomes taut. Fibers can pull or tear from the coffin bone if the stress is too high. Tendinitis is a condition where the tendon becomes chronically inflamed and thickened by repeated stress.

The most at risk:Jumping or work at speed can overload tendon. Because the DDFT stretches as the horse pushes at the gallop, after landing from a jump, or pushing off at the gallop, the tendon will stretch to its maximum. Poor shoeing or conformation may also contribute to this problem. A horse with long toes and high heels places extra strain on the tendon’s lower end during breakover.

Signs Lameness can vary. You may feel heat, swelling, and sensitivity in the area above the heel or at the back of your pastern. However, you might not notice these signs if the injury has been deep below the heel.

Tendon injuries in the feet can be difficult to spot. Your vet will inform you that your horse has a sore heel, but not whether it is the tendon or the navicular bone. Ultrasound scans can reveal tendon damage in the upper part of the foot, but not within the hoof capsule. These injuries can be seen clearly with magnetic resonance imaging (available at major clinics).

Action Tendons behave a lot like ligaments, and heal the same way–that’s slowly.

  • Follow the steps in the suspensory Section: Cool down, rest, hand walking, and gradual return to work. This is based on what your veterinarian has prescribed.
  • Programs may include shoe changes, such as rolling or rocking toes to reduce breakover.
  • Your veterinarian might recommend an injection of anti-inflammatory medication into the tendon sheath to treat tendinitis.

To improve the healing of torn ligaments and tendons, regenerative therapies such as stem cells or platelet-rich plasma are used. Although these treatments may make the tissues stronger, they do not reduce the rehabilitation and layup time.

Outlook – Horses can be sidelined for different periods of time due to DDFT injuries A mild strain may mean that your horse can return to work within six to eight weeks. A tear can last for months. Horses are often left in a coma for up to eight months. Overdoing it too quickly can lead to reinjury.

Like a ligament that has been healed, a tendon healed from injury is not as strong as before. The question is: Will it last? It all depends on the severity of your horse’s injury, how quickly it healed, and your expectations for his future performance.

Bone Bruise

Sporthorses can break bones in the ankle and foot joints – the coffin bone and the ends of the long and short pastern bones, as well as the lower end and bottom of the cannon bones. The ankle and foot are subject to tremendous pressure. This force is concentrated on the tiny areas where these bones meet.

A bone bruise isn’t as severe as a broken bone, but it can cause microscopic bone damage. As with all bruises, there is internal bleeding and swelling. However, in this instance the fluid builds up inside the bone.

The most at-risk: Bruising can be caused by an impact landing from a jump, or on hard ground. Eventers and jumpers are the most at-risk.

Signs Bone bruising is painful and can cause pain in your horse. Although nerve blocks can be used to isolate the problem area, it may require sophisticated imaging techniques to determine the source. Although X-rays will not show microscopic bone damage in the pet, a bruise might be visible on a nuclear bone scan. MRI is a useful diagnostic tool to identify the bruise.

You horse may need to be off for three or four months depending on how severe the bruising is. An extended course of anti-inflammatory medication may be beneficial to your horse. Equioxx (firocoxib), a NSAID, could be a good option. It belongs to a group of drugs called cox-2 inhibits. When used for longer periods, these drugs have fewer side effect than other NSAIDs.

Outlook Broken bones heal slowly but are usually as good as new after healing. As your horse returns to regular work, good shoeing and footing are important.

Inflamed Joints

Acute synovitis refers to inflammation that suddenly appears in a joint. It is most commonly found at the ankle, coffin, or hock. These joints are protected by a capsule of soft tissues. The capsule lining (synovial Membrane) creates a thick fluid which lubricates the joint. The lining of the joint and the capsule can become inflamed if there is too much stress. This can cause fluid to build up and turn watery. Repetitive joint stress can lead to osteoarthritis.

Most at Risk: Inflamed joint are common in all disciplines. This is usually caused by a sudden increase or decrease in work intensity or speed. For example, a dressage horse may be asked to go up too fast or a hunter will do more at a show that he used to. Jumping, tight turns, tight gaits and tight circles, are all very hard on the joints. Another risk factor is unfamiliar footing.

Signs You will notice a stiffness or soreness in your horse, particularly at the beginning of work. A mild case may cause him to appear less fluid or more forward in his gaits. The inflammation of the joint may cause heat, pain, swelling and discomfort.

A physical exam can help your veterinarian determine the cause. To rule out infection, X-rays are used to check for damage to bones and cartilage. Synovial fluid can also be taken and analysed.

Action Lowering inflammation can reduce joint pain and increase the risk of degeneration.

  • Give him some rest. This could be hand-walking, stall rest or controlled turnout in small paddocks. It can last from seven to ten days up to a month, depending on the case.
  • In the initial stages of pain, cold therapy may be helpful. A short course of anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed by your vet. Topical treatments–poultices, DMSO or Surpass (diclofenac sodium) may help reduce inflammation.
  • Horses suffering from severe or persistent synovitis can be helped by joint injections. Injections of anti-inflammatory agents are delivered directly to the joint, usually a corticosteroid or in combination.

IRAP therapy, a new treatment that injects interleukin-1 antagonist protein into the joint. This is a substance derived directly from the horse’s blood. It targets the specific inflammatory pathway that is responsible for joint degeneration.

Outlook Most horses suffering from acute synovitis will respond well to resting and taking steps to reduce inflammation. Recurring episodes can lead to osteoarthritis. To prevent this, increase your horse’s activity gradually. Make sure your horse is in good shape and give him plenty of time to rest between shows and work.

Sore Muscles

Overwork can cause strain and pain. Sporthorses’ drive train is made up of large muscles in the back and hindquarters. They can become strained if they are asked to work hard for too long. Although most muscle strains are minor and cause little to no damage, it is common for horses to sustain serious injuries that can prevent them from performing at their best.

Most at Risk: Dressage horses that are required to maintain and collect a frame during their work often experience soreness in the back, hindquarters, and gaskins. The problem is exacerbated by heavy muscling and general weight. Jumpers and hunters may experience similar issues if they are forced to draw reins for extended periods of time. The horse is unable to relax his neck and back, and the muscles become sore.

Signs Back pain signs can be both mild and vague. When you mount your horse, he may stiffen and feel your weight on his back. He may have difficulty balancing on his hind legs, and may not be able to lift his legs above his body. He might resist the temptation to bend, round and collect. You can tell by his ears and how he holds his head that he is anxious and worried. These signs could improve when he gets warmer.

Give your horse a few more days to check if any mild symptoms have disappeared. Ask your veterinarian to examine him if the mild signs don’t disappear or if they return when he returns to work. To improve his back, you will need to address any underlying causes.

  • A poorly fitted saddle could be the cause of your pain.
  • It could be under the muscles or in the sacroiliac joints, which is the junction of the spine and pelvis. This joint is subject to a lot stress from jumping, galloping, tight turns and circles.
  • It could be from another place entirely. Horses with hock problems can develop sore back muscles if they work too hard to save their hocks.

Most horses respond well to rest and exercise, even if the problem is simply muscle strain. Your veterinarian will help you determine the best amount of rest and exercise for your horse.

  • A short course of muscle relaxants, acupuncture, or chiropractic treatment can help horses recover.
  • Massage can also be helpful.

Do not overlook the benefits of thorough currying. This is an excellent massage.

Outlook Good management can prevent sore backs. Before you ask your horse to do any collected work, give him a chance to get to know you. You can let your horse stretch his neck and back by walking up and down hills or riding “long and lower” (on a long reign). Varietate his work, whether it’s ring work or hacking in the field. And don’t repeat the same moves over and over again. Give him enough turnout time to keep his back strong.

Duncan Peters DVM, MS is an FEI-certified veterinarian. He heads the Sporthorse Program at Hagyard Equine Medical Center, Lexington, Kentucky.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!