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Look At Those Legs!

Legs! As dressage horse owners, who doesn't obsess over their horses legs?

<Sheepishly raises hand...>

And with good reason! Our dressage horses are basically ballerina dancers - legs are everything!

Dressage horses have a ton of stress and demand placed on their legs. It's the nature of the sport... and a leg injury can be devastating to a sport horse's career!

But there is some good news in all of this! There are many things we can do to keep our horse's legs in top shape and reduce the risk of injury!

Injury prevention starts with a basic understanding of our horse's anatomy.

Take a look at the image below. Notice all the bones, tendons, and ligaments, and how they relate to one another. Also notice, that's all there is! Just bones, tendons, and ligaments. Unlike us humans, horse do not have muscles in their lower limbs. This is a big reason why those lower legs are so fragile - there's just not much else there to provide any sort of support to their big ol' body!

Let's talk about some of the more common parts of the leg you'll hear about - these structures tend to be more common injuries!

Splint Bones

In the middle of the leg you'll see a little, narrow bone that lies right next to the big cannon bone. This is the splint bone. Your horse has them on either side of the cannon bone in each leg. It looks like a pretty useless bone... and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. A quick Google search will tell you the splint bones are remnants of two of the five tows of prehistoric horses. Fun fact, right?!

But for such a silly bone, they can sure cause a ton of problems. USEF team member Adrienne Lyle and her 2020 Olympic partner Salvino just announced they would no longer be vying for a spot at this year's World Equestrian Games in Omaha because of a splint injury on her Instagram page.

Splint injuries usually occur in two ways: "popped" splints or fractured splints.

  • "Popped" splints - usually show as a fast-developing warm, firm swelling on the side of the cannon bone. These injuries often happen to young horses but they can also occur in older horses, as well. Popped splints are more commonly seen on the insides of front legs and are less often seen in hind legs. The horse could be lame, depending on the degree of inflammation but often splints can develop with no signs of pain or lameness. These splint injuries can develop seemingly overnight with no heat, swelling, or lameness and generally require little treatment or rest.

  • Fractured splints - usually caused by direct trauma. Your veterinarian will usually take radiographs to determine whether the bone is fractured. Treatment typically includes rest, icing, supportive wraps, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Usually, within a few weeks the splint is no longer warm and does not react to touch. These injuries usually heal without a problem - they just take more time. Sometimes, fractured splints do not respond well to treatment and your vet may recommend injections or surgery to aid in healing and future performance. In my experience, these cases are quite rare.

Flexor Tendons

Next to those splint bones on the diagram, you'll see the flexor tendons. There are two - the superficial flexor tendon and the deep flexor tendon. Injuries to these tendons is quite common and typically occurs from repetitive excess loading... i.e. hard, repetitive work, which is, unfortunately, the nature of sport horse work (why these injuries are so common). A vet should absolutely look at your horse to diagnose this. Treatment of this injury usually involves anti-inflammatories, wrapping, icing, and LOTS of rest.

Suspensory Ligament

If you look at or feel your horse's bare leg, you'll feel a long, kind of thin yet firm structure in the the middle of it. That's the suspensory ligament! Suspensory ligaments start at the back of the cannon bone and run all the way down the leg. This ligament's main job is to prevent the fetlock joint from overextending. Like flexor tendons, suspensory injuries usually occur from repetitive excess loading (rather than blunt trauma, like a splint injury). These injuries do need to be seen by a veterinarian and their treatment usually involves anti-inflammatories, wrapping, icing, and LOTS of rest.

WOW! That's a whole lot of doom and gloom, right?!

But don't lose all hope! In learning all of this, there are a couple common things... these injuries, while common, DO HEAL.

But in order for the horse to heal, he needs REST. While so simple, I feel this is one of the hardest things for us horses and humans to do! In my experience, less is more... in both horses and in life! Your injured horse doesn't need to do as much as you think. And if he has a soft tissue injury (tendon or ligament), it will take a VERY long time. You are not a bad horse owner for letting him stay in his stall or small paddock and rest. Leave him alone and let him heal.

Another common theme in leg injuries is wraps. Standing wraps can seem tricky to apply but I promise it's not so tough. Learn how to apply a standing wrap here!

And, last but not least, PREVENTION!

Preventing an injury is much much easier than trying to heal one! Working closely with your trainer and veterinarian is key. Work with your trainer to develop a smart training plan that lets your horse develop muscle, skill, and strength without overloading and overworking those delicate soft tissues.

There are also a huge selection of boots and wraps out there designed to protect your horse while he's working. Click here to learn about a few options.

Feel your horse's legs every day. Learn what his "normal" leg feels like. If you notice anything different, tell someone! Tell your vet or your trainer. If we can catch a problem while it's still a small problem, it's usually much easier to deal with.

For such strong and powerful creatures, horses sure are delicate critters, aren't they?

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