Keeping Your Horses Legs Healthy

Keeping Your Horses Legs Healthy

As quadrupeds, horses are fabulously designed for both speed and jumping their way out of danger. However, as with anything that has a leg at each corner, should one limb be compromised the whole animal becomes vulnerable.

Lameness is one of the most common reasons why a horse requires veterinary attention because the equine lower limb is comprised of bone, joint and tendon without a lot of protective muscle. These structures are therefore vulnerable to damage whether through accident, injury, poor conformation or just plain old wear and tear. Consequently, as horse owners it is our job to take the utmost care of our horses’ legs before, during and after exercise.

Warm Up
The term “warm up” describes the transition that the horse’s body makes from a resting or homeostatic state to a dynamic or active state. The warm up involves gradually raising the horse’s heart rate in a controlled fashion in order to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood supplying the muscles and vital body organs. Adequate warm up before exercise, training and competition is essential to avoid injury to muscles, ligaments and/or tendons. This is because warming up increases the mobility and elasticity of the muscles which in turn minimises the amount of strain placed on tendons and ligaments.

Choosing the best way to warm your horse depends on the discipline it is undertaking and the ground conditions on which it is going to be worked. The basic principle should always be the same and a regime that is regular and repeatable is best enforced.

In addition to a thorough and controlled warm up a similar cooling down session after exercise is also fundamental in letting your horse stretch and relax and gives time for lactic acid to be released from tired muscles. This will again reduce the risk of injury post exercise.

“Adequate warm up before exercise, training and competition is essential to avoid injury to muscles, ligaments and/or tendons”

Leg Protection
As a matter of precaution some form of leg protection is always worth the investment when a horse is in work, whether it is being lunged or ridden under saddle.

Young and unbalanced horses are more likely to have poor coordination resulting in a higher incidence of self-inflicted injuries such as brushing or over reaching. A horse with a big moving gait is also more susceptible to injury due to the exuberance of its movement. Horses that have sustained an injury or which have poor conformation are also more at risk from interference from another limb. Jumping horses by nature are more susceptible to leg injuries due to the pressure that is put on the legs while jumping. Ligaments and tendons are put under an immense amount of strain when landing, turning and taking off. Then add in an uneven, deep or hard surface plus a firm fixed object in the case of a cross country fence and it is not surprising that injuries are more frequent.

When hacking your horse you should always consider the surface under foot and the gait you are choosing to work in. Yes we all know that trotting on the road increases the concussion on your horse’s legs but also trotting and cantering on a sun-baked or excessively muddy bridle path can cause catastrophic damage to tendons and ligaments through overstretching and tearing. A covering of long grass in the field can hide all sorts of dangers such as rabbit holes, rocks and stumps. So, consider walking new local routes on foot first and it is always a good idea to take it easy on terrain that has changed recently.

Boots or Bandages?

Boots or Bandages

Generally boots are a more favourable choice for horse owners as they are easy to fit, keep clean and are quick to remove. However, there are a few problems with boots that owners need to be aware of which are heat build-up (this is a serious issue which can causes problems all on its own) , weight, restriction of movement and poor fit.

Boots come in many different designs; some being specifically created and marketed for a particular discipline plus the good all-round boots such as brushing, tendon, fetlock, knee, hock, sausage and over-reach ones. They also come in many different types of material (or a mixture) including neoprene, plastic, sheepskin, leather and gel. Whichever boot you choose they should always be applied correctly and fit for purpose.

Remember that badly fitting boots are worse than no boots at all. This is mainly due to the boot being designed to offer support and protection to the lower part of the limbs and if they are fitted incorrectly or too tightly they will put pressure in the wrong place on the leg causing more problems. Obvious signs that boots are incorrectly fitted are rubbing around the knee and fetlock joints, poorly fastening straps or that they are insecure and move around when the horse is working.

It is always advisable to follow the manufacturer’s measuring guide when choosing the correct size for your horse and always use a tape measure – don’t just guess.

There is a lot less choice when it comes to exercise or polo bandages but they do come in a variety of colours with a velcro or clip strap fastening. The bandages, when fitted correctly, help protect and support the ligaments and tendons in the horse’s lower legs. It is recommended that thin wraps or exercise pads are used underneath bandages to prevent over tightening and to help offer additional protection. The main disadvantage to bandaging is that they are frequently fitted incorrectly and if they are uneven or too tight then the resultant pressure can cause tendon injuries.

Boots or Bandages

Leg Cooling and Aftercare

Leg Cooling

No matter which form of leg protection you have chosen for your horse we would always recommend that it is removed immediately after work to prevent any injuries caused through excessive heat build-up in the tendons and ligaments.

Several studies have shown that the core temperature in the flexor tendons of horses can increase between 6 and 8°C after fast exercise and repeated elevations in the temperature of tendon may lead to breakdown of their associated fibres. Furthermore, if leg protection in the form of boots or bandages is worn, then heating is exacerbated as the cooling effect of air passing over the leg as the horse gallops does not occur.

In addition, recent studies have shown that cool, running water is more effective at reducing leg temperature than ice. If your horse has undertaken hard work – i.e. galloping or jumping on hard ground or exercising on an excessively hot day, cold hose its legs for a good 5 minutes and then give it a gentle walk around before returning it to its box. Ideally it would be good to turn it out for a few hours to allow natural stretching before it is stabled.

However, running water is not always available when you are out competing. If this is the case we would advise soaking cool boots in a bucket of cold (preferably iced) water, making sure they are completely submerged and, once applied ,checking them regularly to make sure they have not reheated before you compete. If this happens, remove them immediately as hot cool boots will do more harm than good.

Another alternative to cold water and iced boots is clay or gel-based, leg-cooling products. The clay acts as a carrier for volatile substances whilst the cooling gel products are mostly alcohol-based. When applied to the leg these substances evaporate carrying the heat away with them, thereby causing a cooling effect. Nevertheless, the clay does have an insulating effect in its own right which can counteract the cooling action. Therefore if clay is to be used it is important that bandages are not placed on top of the clay as this will prevent evaporation from taking place. In addition, it is important that as soon as the clay has dried it is washed off with cool, running water.
Early signs of something going wrong.

Any evidence of your horse being lame after exercise is an immediate indicator that he/she may have sustained an injury during exercise. The most common injuries sustained at exercise include over reach or brushing injuries, bruising and inflammation as a result of knocking fences and tendon or ligament injuries due to excessive extension of the lower limb.

Iced Boots

As well as assessing your horse for lameness after exercise it is also important to assess your horse’s legs carefully to try and establish if there are any early signs that something may be wrong. Diligent palpation of each of the lower limbs for any indication of any heat, swelling or pain is a sensitive way of picking up on a problem in the early stages and alerting you to arrange for your horse to receive immediate veterinary attention.

By Kate Maxwell BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS GPCert(EqP)

Further Advice

Related SEV Branch

Bridgnorth Equine