Strains and ruptures of tendons are a common injury, which are commonly seen in horses in fast work. While our understanding of tendon damage has improved in recent years, our ability to speed up or alter the healing process is still relatively limited.

Therefore, horses with tendon injuries require a long convalescence and are often off work for a considerable length of time. Furthermore, once the horse eventually returns to work, the damaged tendon is often weaker and more prone to subsequent injury.

The superficial digital flexor tendon in the foreleg is where most tendon injuries occur ranging from a mild strain to a complete rupture of the tendon.

Signs of tendon damage

A horse with a tendon injury can show a range of signs depending on the severity of the damage. In mild cases the horse may not be lame, a subtle swelling or filling around the tendon being the only indication of injury.

In more extreme cases, the horse will be severely lame, with dramatic swelling around the tendon. If the tendon is ruptured it will no longer support the affected limb, causing the fetlock to drop towards the ground.

In the months following an acute tendon injury, the heat and filling will disappear leaving an enlarged and thickened tendon around the site of the injury. This leads to the classicappearance of a “bowed tendon”.

A simple examination will give your vet some idea of the seriousness of the injury, but a definitive diagnosis can only be made after he has examined the tendon using an ultrasound machine.

Your vet will needto do a series of ultrasound examinations, at intervals of every two to three months, so that he can continually assess how the tendon is healing and decide how much time off the horse will need.

Treating the damage

After an acute injury is diagnosed the horse should be stabled to prevent further damage. Heat and swelling must be controlled via cold hosing, putting ice on the tendon, or using special bandages or boots that retain the cold.

Pressure bandaging may limit inflammation but should be used with extreme care as they can cause further damage if applied too tightly.

Drugs that reduce inflammation, such as bute, will often be used by your vet in the early stages of the injury both as an anti-inflammatory and a painkiller.

Controlled exercise from the early days is considered beneficial, but turning the horse out is not. Walking in-hand followed by several months of ridden walking, then ridden walking and trotting would be a normal exercise programme.

A series of ultrasound examinations to monitor tendon’s healing process will enable your vet to design a tailor-made convalescent work programme for your horse.

As a rule, your injured horse should have an ultrasound examination before there isany increase in the level or type of his work. A horse should convalesce after a serious tendon injury for between nine and 12 months.

Despite advances in the treatment of tendon injuries the initial management is probably the most important way of limiting the damage, and allowing the horse to return to work in the future.