Soft Tissue is the Issue
Let’s talk soft tissue injuries. Our goal as riders and horse owners is to avoid them at all costs. A soft tissue injury is akin to us spraining an ankle. You’re never the same after, and sometimes, they don’t heal at all. So, Soft tissue injuries need to be avoided in any way possible. I find most to be very much avoidable. So, let’s talk about them.
What are the main things that contribute to a horse getting a soft tissue injury?
- Previous injury
- Poor hoof balance
- Deep heavy or uneven footing
- Too much repetition of small circles (to much longing, or longing an unfit horse at speed)
- Lack Of Fitness
- Sporadic training program (2 days this week, 5 days next)
- Metabolic syndrome (Cushings, IR)
- Wobblers (Low Vit E can create proprioceptive issues like Wobblers which contributes to feet landing in uncontrolled places)
- Unbalanced/unfit rider
What You Can Do
There are lots of things we cannot control as horse owners but there are concrete things we can do prevent soft tissue injuries, so let’s talk about the things we have control over.
Hooves: A Good Foundation
We’ll start with hooves, because that’s the shortest answer. Can you hold a level on the coronet band, at the front of the foot, and have it parallel to the ground? Yes=good to go. No= talk to your shoer. A coronet band should be level when viewed from the front. Some horses with hock pain prefer to be a little high on the inside of the hinds, but you and I will be hard pressed to see it. I recommend having x-rays of the feet done every 4-5 years or any time you change shoers or buy a horse.
The Right Training Program
Let’s face it, in a perfect world our horses would all live in huge grass pastures, in herds, and spend their time self-exercising! But most horse owners don’t have that luxury. Most of us live in this world:
Most modern suburban horses are turned out in small paddocks for half a day. This means our horses are sedentary when we aren’t doing something with them. That’s more than 20 hours a day, they are standing. In a boarding environment, the best way to keep your horse sound is a 6-7 day a week program of unlimited walking. Hard ground is preferred for the best result.
Dr Latimer and I agree that 2 hours a week on hard ground is the min required for soft tissue health. If you’re around our farm you’ll often see me hand walking my horse on my days off. In addition to the hard ground walking, horses should be doing 4-6 days a week of 20 mins min of trot, and 10 of canter before beginning any training program. So if you horse can’t trot 20 mins without a break, and an additional 10 straight min of canter, then he isn’t fit enough to do circles, longing, lateral work, or collection.
An unfit rider will often slam a horse to a slower gait because they are fatigued. An unfit rider will also often be unbalanced and cause the horse to compensate, creating strain. An unfit rider will often not do enough work with the horse to get him fit enough for the work they are doing. An unfit rider often doesn’t have a regular routine of working the horse.
Want a healthy horse: Get yourself to the gym, yoga, hiking trails, etc. or expect you’ll be doing a lot of hand walking in the near future.
What To Do When IT Happens
Once you find your horse has a soft tissue injury-I recommend flexions every 6 months and ANY TIME your horse suddenly has problems doing something that used to be easy for them (missing changes, leg yields become hard in one direction, cross cantering on longe line, lugs down into hand from canter to trot, no longer clean canter to walk, or walk to canter, sudden crookedness, or crookedness that worsens, general unwillingness).
Your vet will give you a rehab program that will most likely involve stall confinement and controlled walking. Your horse will become a Jekyll and Hyde during this time. Don’t be shy to ask for help! Medications and calming supplements can be your friend during this time. Grain should be eliminated (any horse not getting the minimum of 20 trot and 10 canter won’t be in need of grain. Your horse might even need a slow feed hay net to keep weight down-excess weight is hard on their joints and feet).
Your horse is going to need A LOT of attention during the rehab program. Your horse should be the cleanest horse in the barn. Grooming is extremely important to the health of the horse. It moves the skin and the muscles to help increase circulation, so curry, furizy, work up a sweat with a good groom. It’s time spent to help ground the horses before hand walking. It’s time spent getting a feel for how they are going to act that day.
Carrot stretches should be included twice a day. There was a study done that proved the back muscles of the horse actually grow from carrot stretches done twice daily over a 4 week period. Back health and core strength is imperative for soundness/balance.
Leg stretches or leg lifts are imperative for maintaining range of motion since horses aren’t bucking and playing and using their full range of motion on their own. The work done to do leg lifts or stretches can often be enough to mentally satiate the horses active brain.
Equicore (elastic exercise bands) help keep the top-line long and core strong so they are ready to carry a rider when the time allows. Sagging bellies pull on the back and create a back that is in constant contraction. This can lead to kissing spine.
Poles should be walked whenever possible. Lifting the leg not only helps to bend the joints to get fluid out and stimulate good fluid production, but it also encourages the horse to keep the loaded leg on the ground longer and balance-core strength.
Although the majority of walking should be done on hard ground, a variety of surfaces has been proven to help the circulation of the tendons and ligaments which helps the healing.
Finally, stall toys can help alleviate boredom in horses that will play with them.
Other Issues to Consider
Gastric issues often come up during stall rest/rehab. Consider probiotics. At my barn we are seeing really good results with Chaffhaye with the ulcer horses. It is fermented (think silage) and has a lot of yeasts in it for gut health. Ulcer meds might also be needed for the higher stressed horses on stall rest.
Playing the Long Game
Soft tissue injuries often take 6-12 months to heal, then double your rehab time to build the strength back in the horse. So a 6 month rehab is really 12 months.