Horses are beautiful animals with long slender legs and muscular bodies, but the conformation that makes them so elegant also predisposes them to serious limb injuries. Horses do not have any muscle below the knee on the front limbs or the hock on the hind limbs. Only bone and connective tissue provide support in these areas. In order to keep an equine athlete healthy and pain free, it is vitally important to employ correct training methods, and to provide proper nutrition. Training regimens should be rigorous, but not overzealous, and must always include sufficient time for warm up and cool down. Increase workload gradually while constantly observing for signs of strain.Bilateral inflamed flexor tendons in a horse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Horse racing is perhaps the most physically demanding equestrian sport. Very young horses are pushed to their absolute limits on the track. Conditioning must be done carefully, as training a young horse for endurance can slow their sprinting speed. However, some conditioning is required to build strength and minimize the risk of injuries. It takes a highly skilled trainer to successfully walk this line. Even under the best circumstances, most horses will retire from a racing career with long-term injuries that will affect the animal throughout its life.
The following is a list of the most common racing injuries:
1. Bucked Shins
The repeated concussion to the cannon bones sustained by racehorses in training can lead to the development of calcium deposits on the thin membrane covering these bones. Bucked shins will cause a horse to appear sore on its front limbs. Affected horses require rest and slow reintroduction to training. Some veterinarians still use a treatment method called pin firing, where small pin holes are burned into the skin over the affected bone in an effort to draw increased blood serum to the area. Unlike many equine limb injuries, bucked shins have a very low rate of recurrence if treated properly.
2. Bowed Tendons
Conformational flaws and poor shoeing combined with strenuous training can lead to bowed tendons. The flexor tendon behind the cannon bone becomes inflamed and fibrous tissue develops, causing the tendon to appear bowed out from the limb. Rehabilitation will require at least six months of rest, and many horses will never return to full form. Surgery, laser therapy, and enzyme injections are additional treatment options.
3. Bone Chips
Small pieces of bone may break from the knee or ankle joints. Depending on fragment size and location, bone chips can be quite painful or may cause no discomfort at all. X-rays are used to identify bone chips, which may then be removed through arthroscopic surgery. With surgical repair and adequate rest, the rate of recovery is quite good.
4. Bone Fractures
The anatomy of the equine limb combined with the weight of their body and the sheer force sustained in racing make horses susceptible to bone fractures in the lower limbs. Contrary to popular belief, a limb fracture does not always require euthanasia. Often these fractures are quite small and treatable. The portion of the cannon bone that articulates with the ankle and the small sesamoid bones in the fetlock are especially prone to fractures. In some cases stall rest and careful reconditioning are sufficient, while other cases may require surgical repair and longer rehabilitation.
Tears in the ligament that connects the splint and cannon bones can result in the formation of new bony growth between the two bones. This bony growth has the effect of fusing the bones together. Splints are typically a result of repeated concussion on hard surfaces. They may be treated surgically and will require rest. While they may initially cause lameness, splints usually heal well with proper care. Splints can be identified by visual inspection of the front limbs.
In order to minimize injuries and improve long-term soundness, trainers and owners must provide their horses with preventative care, including regular veterinary checks, proper vitamins and minerals, and specially formulated joint supplements for horses. Veterinarians are trained to recognize signs of weakness and injury long before they are patently obvious. Scheduling routine checkups with your veterinarian greatly improves the chances of catching a problem in its earliest and most treatable stages. X-rays and ultrasound may be used for more accurate diagnosis if a problem is suspected.
Nutrition also plays a vital role in keeping a sound, healthy horse. Providing adequate amounts of anti-oxidants such as vitamins C and E can help maintain joint fluid viscosity. It is now believed that vitamin K is important for maintaining bone density. Calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D all play a major role in replacing lost bone, and the trace mineral silicon is necessary for collagen production and bone mineralization.
Providing joint supplements for horses goes one step further in promoting joint health. The most common joint supplements include glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and avocado and soy unsaponifiables. All are widely available in oral preparations, and there are also several injectable options available through your veterinarian. These compounds are intended to improve joint cartilage and synovial fluid, as well as to reduce joint inflammation. In order to reap the greatest benefit from joint supplements, you should begin using them as a preventative measure before joint problems occur. Providing your horse with a moderate training regimen, excellent nutrition, and additional joint support will help to ensure that he has many competitive and pain free years ahead.