Soft. Tissue. Injury. The words dreaded by horse owners everywhere. Will my horse recover? When will my horse be able to be ridden? If the injury does heal, will my horse return to full work? Is my horse doomed to months and months of stall rest? These questions are not uncommon when a soft tissue injury (i.e. an injury of a tendon, ligament, or muscle) is identified. The good news is that many soft tissue injuries can be prevented with a little extra attention to your horse’s conditioning and conformation. Here are some tips for helping to
ensure your horse’s soft tissue health:
- Ensure an adequate warm up every time you ride. We all have busy schedules, and it can be tempting to begin faster or more strenuous work quickly when it comes to your horse’s exercise. However, giving your horse 15-20 minutes of warm up time at the walk might be the most beneficial factor in injury prevention. Tendons and ligaments are viscoelastic, meaning they have improved flexibility and strength once they are warmed up. Much like a rubber band, tendons and ligaments can withstand more forces if they are warm—a cold rubber band will not stretch nearly as well, and can sometimes break, whereas a warm rubber band will have much better elasticity and can withstand a larger strain.
- Condition your horse for his/her intended use. We wouldn’t go run a marathon without proper training, so we can’t expect our horses to perform at their best without appropriate conditioning. Training should be directed toward your horse’s intended use to ensure proper cardiopulmonary fitness as well as muscle, tendon, and ligament strength. Many horses only need a couple days per week to practice their specific job, while the remaining days of the week can be geared toward fitness conditioning. Even weekend warriors can benefit from routine exercise and conditioning, and should be worked regularly to help with injury prevention.
- Keep an eye on the terrain. Small changes in terrain (hard to soft, gentle hills, etc.) can be helpful in working on your horse’s balance and proprioception, or the perception of position and movement of the body. However, care should be taken if adverse conditions exist, such as very muddy/deep footing, or severe terrain that your horse has never encountered before. These footing conditions can sometimes lead to soft tissue injury, especially if your horse was not previously conditioned for them.
- No foot, no horse—routine, quality foot care is key to injury prevention. Special attention should be given to ensure adequate foot balance (medial/lateral, toe length, heel), an appropriate hoof/pastern angle, and proper shoe placement (if your horse is shod) to provide ample support to the soft tissue structures of the lower limb. A horse with poor hoof balance may alter his/her posture, which can predispose to injury. For example, a long toe can cause the horse to use his muscles to support his weight instead of his bones/skeletal system, leading to muscle fatigue, strain, and injury. Similarly, a low heel can cause a prolonged breakover (the time for the foot to contact the ground and leave again), which can place excess strain on some soft tissue structures at the back of the limb (deep digital flexor tendon, navicular ligaments).
- Be vigilant of any external changes to your horse’s appearance. Evidence of any heat, swelling, or pain can be an early indicator of a soft tissue problem. If something is noted, early attention and intervention can be key to preventing any further injury.
- Consider the whole horse. Most soft tissue injuries are not the result of a single traumatic event, but rather the culmination of multiple small overuse occurrences that finally cause a soft tissue structure to reach its breaking point. Back pain is often seen secondary to hind limb discomfort, and hind limb discomfort can cause a horse to put a disproportionate amount of weight on the front limbs. Injuries due to a horse compensating for pain elsewhere in the body are common, so scheduling a regular performance evaluation with your veterinarian can be beneficial in helping to identify any areas of discomfort. By doing so, you can develop a treatment and maintenance plan with your veterinarian to help reduce compensation and excess strain on other areas of your horse’s musculoskeletal system.