tendon; thumps

Livestock production: Treating tendon injuries in horses

Question: How do I deal with my horse’s tendon injury?

Tendon injuries are a serious condition in athletic horses. Here are some tips for treating these injuries.

Sudden (acute) injury with swelling (inflammation) of the tendons and ligaments of the legs are common horse injuries, especially in animals that compete like race horses and show jumpers.

The superficial digital flexor tendon, lying outermost at the back of the lower legs, is the area most commonly injured. Others include the deep digital flexor tendon (below the superficial tendon), the suspensory ligament and the accessory (check) ligaments.


  • Symptoms include a warm, painful and swollen leg and, often, obvious lameness.
  • The leg, however, may be warm and swollen without visible lameness.
  • In cases of the complete rupture of the tendon/ligament, the limb posture – when weight-bearing – may change.
  • An example of this is the fetlock joint dropping along with deep flexor and suspensory ligament rupture.


  • The horse may be rested initially and treated with anti-inflammatories and pain killers. Bandaging and ice are other useful techniques.
  • Ultrasound scanning, usually done once swelling has decreased, may be used to confirm the structures involved and the severity of the injury.
  • Based on this, your vet will implement a special rehabilitation programme.
  • Strict exercise regimes are started slowly and the horse is monitored to determine the progress of healing.
  • This allows for maximum strength in the tendon and minimum scarring.
  • Many tendon injuries have a good chance of healing, if the correct treatment is given.
  • Some injuries, however, are so severe that the horse’s active career may have to end, or the animal might have to be euthanased.
  • The tendon never regains its original strength, so always be careful not to ride without a proper warm-up.
  • And never push the horse beyond its limits, after it’s had a tendon injury.


  • Move the horse as little as possible.
  • The leg should be iced to contain inflammation.
  • Use ice packs, bags of frozen vegetables or commercial ice bandages.
  • Alternatively, the horse could stand with the affected limb immersed in a bucket of cold water or the limb may be cold hosed.
  • Cold should be applied for a maximum of 30 minutes, followed by a break of 30 minutes. This can be repeated 3 times.
  • The leg should be bandaged after icing to contain soft tissue swelling and relieve discomfort. Use sufficient cotton wool padding and apply the bandage firmly and evenly.
  • Note: Don’t apply a bandage before you have consulted your vet.
  • If complete rupture of the flexor tendons and/or suspensory ligament is suspected, the limb can be immobilised with the horse-bearing weight on the toe, the heel elevated and the lower limb in a flexed position.
  • Consult your vet before giving your horse pain killers.

Also read:
Livestock production: How to buy a horse
Livestock production: How to feed your horse
Livestock production: Being on top of a horse emergency

  • This article was written by Dr. Marc Walton and first appeared in Farming SA.

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