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Horse Disease Focus - Problems With The Suspensory Ligament

Updated on March 6, 2013
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What is the Suspensory Ligament?

Words no horse owner wants to hear from her vet: "It's his suspensory."

The suspensory ligament is a vital part of the horse's leg. It runs from the back of the cannon bone to the rear of the fetlock joint. Even at rest, the ligament keeps the fetlock in its place...it 'suspends' it and prevents it from descending. It also helps push the fetlock joint up and forward.

Injuries to the suspensory ligament are relatively common and are always serious.

How is it injured?

Injuries to the suspensory ligament are most common in competitive horses and racehorses, but are even sometimes seen in trail horses or lesson horses. They are most common in the front limbs, except in racing Standardbreds, which often manage to injure the hind suspensory.

Generally, damage is caused by overextension of the fetlock, either from wear and tear or from taking a bad step. Aged horses are slightly more vulnerable, as their tendons and ligaments are weaker and less flexible. Horses are also more vulnerable if they are fatigued or improperly conditioned.

Symptoms

Significant lameness is often observed. Horses with suspensory injuries are even lame at the walk. The injury site will also tend to swell.

One key diagnosis is if one fetlock is dropping lower than the other. This means that the suspensory has been torn or stretched. The horse will often flinch or react badly if the back of the affected leg is touched.

A vet will often use a temporary block (an anesthetic injection) above the injury site to confirm the diagnosis. An ultrasound may also be performed.

Treatment

Any horse with a suspected suspensory injury should be confined to a stall until the vet can get there. They should not be turned out or asked to move. If the horse is unable to put any weight on the affected limb, then treat it as a veterinary emergency (especially as it may be something worse, like a fracture).

Various treatments are available. Electromagnetic therapy is expensive, but has been shown to have some value. Some vets may recommend corticosteroid or glucosamine injections in the area around the ligament. It is not uncommon for horses with a suspensory injury to need to be rested for extended periods, even up to nine months. The injury should be cold hosed and iced for the first couple of weeks, and then gently wrapped.

The horse should be hand walked daily once treatment has started, or turned out in a small area. In some cases, the vet may recommend simply leaving the horse in a field for a few months. In others, controlled exercise is better. It depends on the exact injury and the temperament of the horse. Most horses make a full recovery...eventually. It is not uncommon for racehorses that have a suspensory injury to simply be retired if they have any value for breeding, due to the extremely long recovery time.

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Prevention

There is no foolproof way to completely prevent suspensory injuries, especially in horses that are competing.

However, the risk can be reduced. Never work a horse past its current level of fitness and always condition a horse that has had time off properly. Use a good farrier - an imbalanced hoof can put extra strain on the suspensory. Work horses in footing that is on the firm side and do not go at high speed unless you are sure of the 'going'. Do not keep a horse working that is obviously tired. It's better to pull up and lose that show...than lose the rest of the show season or worse.

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