Wrap them in cotton wool

Horses are big and powerful, but they are also incredibly fragile, prone to accidents and disease and their legs are impossibly delicate.  I have become intimately acquainted with the internal structures and functions of the horse’s leg, due to Minnie’s various leg injuries and I am on excellent terms with the vet, but I’m beginning to feel I see him a bit too often. I also feel that I have no luck where horses’ legs are concerned. I got Cassie because Minnie needed a year off. Now I have two horses, and I can’t ride either of them. 

I took Cassie to the vet yesterday. I was very concerned about her leg. Even though most of the swelling on her left fore had gone down, there was still heat along the top of the cannon bone and along the splint bone and also a hard lump had appeared. What worried me was that she seemed fine in walk, but lame in trot, especially on hard surfaces. I thought she might have sustained damage to the cannon or splint bone. Bone injuries often only show up in trot on hard surfaces. When I rang the vet and told him what had happened, he told me to bring her over for X-rays. Injuries resulting from front leg strikes can be very bad. There is no protection in the horse’s lower leg; the bone lies directly under the skin and is only covered by the a thin layer of soft tissue, the periosteum. There is great risk of damage to splint and cannon bone and the suspensory ligament. If the horse that strikes wears shoes, the damage can be even worse, depending on the force of the strike. Bone splinters and chips are common and in bad cases a horse can break its leg. Another excellent reason to keep horses barefoot!

So yesterday I loaded Cassie into the trailer and drove her to the vet. He examined her leg and had me walk and trot her up. He said that Cassie’s injury was typical for a front leg strike.  There was inflammation as a result of trauma to the periosteum and the X-ray showed a bony protrusion forming as a reaction.  Fortunately, there was no sign of chips, cracks or splinters, but the bone spur was interfering with the suspensory ligament, which is why she was lame. The vet told me it was vital to aggressively treat the bone spur to try to reduce it so that it won’t interfere with the suspensory ligament anymore. As the new bony growth on Cassie’s leg hasn’t calcified yet there is a chance a daily dressing with a cream containing DMSO and cortisol for the next 10 days might reduce the bone spur. If not, shock wave therapy might help. This is what Cassie’s leg looks like now. Hopefully that lump will be much reduced or better still, gone, in two weeks time.

It is too early to give me a prognosis. It all depends on how well the bone spur can be reduced in size. When I have finished with the cream, I have to bring her back for re-assessment and if the bone spur has been sufficiently reduced, Cassie’s leg needs to be scanned to determine if there is any damage to the suspensory ligament. The vet said it was a good thing I had come early; if a horse has low-level lameness it is tempting to just rest the horse for a while and see will it resolve by itself, but with this type of injury it is really important to get an early diagnosis. Once a bone spur has calcified, it is much harder to treat.

We then had an interesting discussion about the prevalence of leg injuries. He told me that he sees many more horses with suspensory ligament injuries than he used to. I asked him why, was it due to better diagnostics, but he said it no, it is because horses get overworked nowadays. Horses used to have one job. If they were hunters, they were brought in in September for fittening work, hunted during the winter and spring and then they were given a couple of months off during the summer. Show horses usually got time off during the winter months. He told me that many horses would have minor lesions in the suspensory ligament by the end of the season, but that because they got a couple of months off, these had usually healed by the time the horse was brought back into work. It takes about three months for a suspensory ligament to heal. Nowadays, the season is longer, people might hunt and do show jumping as well and Riding Club activities continue for most of the year. Many leisure riders don’t give their horses a substantial break anymore and their horses’ legs can’t bear the strain. He also said that a lot of people are just not using proper horse sense anymore; slow work to condition horses and a 10 minute warm up seem to have gone out of fashion and horses are getting injured as a result.

Well, it looks like Cassie is getting a long break. I won’t be able to ride her for the forseeable future and I just have to shelf my hopes and plans for her. I will be able to do a bit of light in-hand work with her in walk on a level surface, so I can at least continue with suppling exercises. Other than that, I will just have to hope for the best. I know several people who keep their horses stabled most of the time, and only turn them out for an hour or so a day, wrapped up in boots and always alone, never with another horse. I have always felt that that was unfair to the horse, and that horses should live as natural a life as we can give them, and that means outside in a field as much as possible, in the company of at least one other horse. I do understand why people do it though; it keeps all those injuries horses sustain out in the fields to a minimum. I still don’t agree with it. You can’t wrap horses in cotton wool to keep them safe. But I do understand it.

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7 thoughts on “Wrap them in cotton wool

  1. I am amazed at how fragile the legs are of these beautiful animals. Very interesting observation on how the horses are worked longer nowadays. I hope Cassie’s recovery is uneventful and swift.

    • I think it is sad that people expect so much of their horses without taking into account the effect is has on their bodies. It was very interesting to hear my vet’s opinion.

      I am worried about Cassie’s leg and it will be a couple of weeks before I know more. The uncertainty is hard, all I can do is hope for the best!

  2. Wishing her a quick and complete recovery.

    Interesting about over-working horses and failing to warm them up. Personally, I reckon 20 minutes at the walk before moving on to anything faster or harder – applies to people as well as horses.

  3. I used to ride dressage when I was young, and a typical training session used to be a 10 to 15 minute warm up in walk, then schooling for a maximum of 30 minutes, followed by a 15 minute hack in walk to cool down again. Ligament injuries were unheard of, but those horses also got substantial amounts of time off.

    I do most of my schooling out hacking and I’m a great believer in doing a lot in walk. You just can’t beat a good, active walk for fittening, straightening, suppling and building muscle!

    Minnie is sound at the moment in all three gaits, but I want the vet to do a thorough examination before I start a rehabilitation programme with her. It is quite possible that the opposing diagonal is causing all her problems, so that needs to be checked out. I’ll be taking both my girls to the vet at the end of August and hopefully I’ll come back with some good news then.

  4. Bummer about the leg injury, I hope it clears up and doesn’t bother her in the future.

    My vet told me a story about a world champion stallion that suffocated to death in his padded stall. He got stuck between the pads and couldn’t get out. Just goes to show that even if you wrap them up they can still destroy themselves, might as well throw them out in a pasture where they’re happy.

  5. I’m so glad you posted this, since I had never heard about this problem before and one of my horses popped up with it this summer–probably because I’ve let them get too heavy on our too-lush pasture (it’s certainly not from overuse, since she hasn’t been ridden for the past year). I’m still learning about horse injuries and problems–and there are many. Wrap them in cotton wool, indeed!

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