Healing Tendon and Ligament Injuries
In my entire life with horses, I’ve only dealt with two serious tendon or ligament injuries. The first was with my mare, Lee Lee, who tore a suspensory ligament around ten years ago. I didn’t realize the severity of the injury at first, but ended up having to keep her stalled for nearly six months in order for her to recover.
Then, in late January of this year, Hershey came up extremely lame. My first suspicion was winter laminitis, so I took immediate action by stalling him, wrapping his front legs, and putting on therapy boots. The next day, I had the vet out. She, too, thought it might be laminitis, so she x-rayed his feet. The x-rays showed thin soles (on one foot more than the other), but no rotation or signs of laminitis. She said the problem was most likely bruised soles (the ground was going through a continuous soupy-to-frozen cycle) and advised a few days of stall rest and bute, but said he should be fine in a week or so.
Only he wasn’t fine the next week. He was laying down for long periods of time and though he seemed slightly less lame, I was still very concerned. While rewrapping his legs, I noticed heat and swelling in one tendon. I hadn’t noticed it at first (maybe because his legs are so hairy), but I suspect this was the issue all along.
I took off the therapy boots, but continued wrapping the injured leg. I did not keep him on bute, as it’s not safe long-term, but I did order a supplement containing jiaogulan and other ingredients meant to increase blood circulation in the legs and feet (this is what I did with Lee Lee, too). I also bought a Devil’s Claw supplement for pain.
As much as I hate keeping horses up, it’s in Hershey’s best interest to do that for now. He’s in a stall with an attached pen and is doing much better now. I’m just beginning to hand walk him some and he’s handling that well. Hopefully, the recovery won’t last as long as Lee Lee’s did.
But because tendon and ligament injuries aren’t uncommon in horses, I thought I’d share some information, as well as a few tips for healing them.
Tendons and ligaments are both known as “connective tissue”, but they differ in that tendons connect muscle to bone while ligaments connect bone to bone.
Two tendons stretch down the back of the leg: the superficial digital flexor tendon (closest to the skin) and the deep digital flexor tendon (closer to the cannon bone). One of the most common tendon injuries is often called “bowed” tendon because of the bow-shaped swelling that develops on the back of the cannon bone. (I’m pretty sure this is what Hershey has.)
The legs also contain several important ligaments including suspensory ligaments, check ligaments, and sesamoid ligaments.
Tendon and ligament injuries can vary in severity, from a mild strain to a tear. The type of injury will determine the plan for healing.
During the first weeks (or possibly months) of the injury, you will want to keep your horse stalled or in a small pen to limit movement, use ice or cold water therapy on the affected area, and most likely keep it wrapped. You can use cotton padding and wrap with vet wrap (as shown here) or use good-quality polo wraps.
Acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy, and topical agents might help to speed healing time, but patience is always your best friend with these types of injuries. It may take months to fully heal and the last thing you want to do is turn your horse out or rush him back into work only for him to injure himself all over again. (I know this because I turned Lee Lee out too soon and we were right back in the same boat.)
In my opinion, nutrition can make a huge difference in healing your horse’s injury. Increasing blood flow to the lower limbs is important, especially since movement will be limited for a while. Therefore, I like to feed jiaogulan or a jiaogulan-containing supplement such as Laminox (by Uckele).
Other nutrients which support tendon and ligament health include:
- glucosamine and chondroitin (often packaged together)
- Vitamin C
- AAKG ( L-Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate–often used in conjunction with jiaogulan)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (such as flax or chia seeds)
All of the above can help, but because of their unique structure and reduced blood supply, tendons and ligaments will heal much more slowly than other parts of the body. Severe injuries can take up to a year to fully heal, and the new tissue that forms won’t be as strong or elastic as the original tissue, making your horse more prone to re-injury. Older horses may also heal more slowly than younger horses. (Hershey is 25, so I’m expecting this.)
It’s not that these horses can’t go on to be ridden or compete again–they can, and often do–it’s just something to be aware of. Patience is paramount during the healing process, but if you support your horse as best you can with proper nutrition and care, he may have a good chance of recovering from a tendon or ligament injury.