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Horse Disease Focus - Tendon Injuries

Updated on March 6, 2013
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Tendon Injuries

Racing fans faced grave disappointment as I'll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont Stakes and then retired with a tendon injury.

Unlike other high profile 'break downs', the horse's problem was spotted during works and he was pulled from the race rather than risk more serious injury (or simply a bad run that would have made bettors and mare owners question the horse's talent).

His injury was a swelling in the left front tendon that was diagnosed as the beginnings of tendonitis. How common are tendon injuries in horses?

The answer is very, and racehorses are more prone to them - just as a human track athlete is more likely to injure a leg than your average office worker. The chances are that I'll Have Another simply took an unlucky step and sprained his tendon.

Sprained, Pulled, Bowed

Most often, horse owners will say a horse sprained or pulled a tendon. When we say a horse 'bowed' a tendon, we mean the tendon was torn or stretched, which generally causes the tendon to appear like a 'bow' from the side.

A bowed tendon is generally considered to be more serious than a mere sprain. (The only reason I'll Have Another was retired was because the vet predicted an extremely long recovery time). Some horses that bow tendons never return to work, but I also know a thirty year old gelding who bowed a tendon, took a year off, and then worked for three more years before being euthanized due to the effects of old age.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The layman's diagnosis of a tendon injury is swelling or heat on the back of the leg. This is why you will sometimes see a horse trainer run his or her hands slowly down the back of each of a horse's legs - they're looking for anything that might be wrong.

A horse with a tendon injury will generally walk sound but show lame at the trot. The majority of tendon injuries are in the front limbs as the front limbs carry more of the horse's weight. The severity of lameness often directly relates to the severity of damage to the tendon. Some horses may have a swollen tendon, but not be in enough pain to come up lame (and some horses won't come up lame even when in significant pain - particularly common in Thoroughbreds, who's work ethic is not always good for them).

The vet will do a physical examination of the affected leg and may do an ultrasound. This will help determine the severity of damage and exactly which tendon is affected.

Treatment

The old school treatment for tendon injuries was just to turn the horse out at pasture for six months and see what happens. It is not uncommon to resort to this even now for low value horses that might not warrant a lot of expensive veterinary care.

However, there are newer treatments that can be very effective. The first line of attack is to ice and cold hose the affected area. (Just as you might reach for an ice pack for a sore leg, your horse benefits from an ice pack too. Equine ice packs are simply larger than human ones and a slightly different shape, but otherwise identical. In fact, I've used an equine ice pack on myself before when there wasn't a human one available). The leg is usually wrapped between icing, and some people use some kind of poultice or a magnesium gelcast bandage.

Stall rest is often recommended for a period of time, followed by hand walking. However, if the horse concerned gets too upset or bored in a stall, then turnout in a small pasture might work out better.

A severe tendon injury may take six months or even a year to fully heal. While many horses do make a full recovery, some are never quite the same again and may have to be monitored to be sure they have not silently reinjured the damaged tendon.

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