The Aiding & Abetting Amateur: Changing our tendon-sees

Is there a connection between the hunter ring, with its love of fat, shiny horses and affinity for the great indoors, and soft tissue injuries? The Aiding & Abetting Amateur investigates.

From the Aiding & Abetting Amateur:

Here is one thing you’ll never hear a competitive horse person say: “It’s just a little lump on his front leg. There’s some heat… no big deal.”

Swelling, heating, and lameness–the telltale signs of soft tissue injuries–send the competitive horse owner into a tizzy, as they rightfully should. It seems that as of recently I have heard of an alarming number of soft tissue injuries within my small group of friends. Most of these horses have a career in the hunters, and perhaps this is all coincidental, but one must consider the possibility that there is a relationship between career and different types of injuries.

Soft tissue injuries occur when the connective tissue of the legs cannot withstand shearing or jarring forces anymore.  As one can imagine, almost any competitive equestrian pursuit puts your horse at risk for this type of injury. While our methods of treatment have vastly improved over the course of the last decade, these injuries are still a very big deal and can result in permanent lameness. Also, one soft tissue injury often means several soft tissue injuries.

My hypothesis is that soft tendon injuries occur more frequently in the hunter ring for several reasons. Firstly, the hunter ring is full of amateur riders, and while I totally understand the situation of a limited schedule (it’s kinda the whole theme of my blog), it is critical that a horse be fitnessed properly in order to prevent injuries.

As Kentucky Equine Research writes in an online article, “Avoid the ‘weekend warrior’ syndrome. Horses that are idle all week and then are ridden for hours on Saturday or Sunday are almost certain to have sore backs by Monday. Try to give the horse at least a brief workout three or four days a week if you are going to ride extensively on the weekend, and watch your horse for soreness, swelling or fatigue in the days after a long ride. ‘I don’t have time to ride during the week’ is not a good excuse for putting your horse at risk of injury. Can you find someone else to ride him for you? Move to a facility with a lighted indoor arena so you can ride very early or very late in the day? Lease him to a fellow rider who can provide exercise and training? Explore these options before giving up.”

A friend of mine is a third year vet student. She claims that the most important thing we can do for our for our horses is to make sure that they have a proper BCS or body conditioning score. Most soft tissue injuries occur in horses that become fatigued while performing.

Imagine that it’s Sunday, and your riding in your second over fences class of the day at a horse show where your horse has been jumping since Wednesday. You’re coming out of a line, going away from the ingate. You are tired. Your horse is tired. Because your horse is exhausted, and he never really moves up and out of the line going away in a very generous way, you leave the line from a long, gappy, weak distance. Your legs are more like jello at this point and far from being effective. The shearing forces on your horse’s connective tissues at this point is pretty incredible as he launches up and over a 3’3” oxer.

There’s also a sort of paradox in the fact that hunters don’t need to be too fit. And we certainly don’t want them to look too fit. We love big, fat hunters. We can resolve this paradox by recognizing that hunters do not necessarily need to have great cardiovascular capabilities. We can do a lot of fitnessing at the walk and at the trot. These gates will not produce a lean, mean, fire-breathing machine, but they will properly muscle a horse so that his body is his own defense against injuries.

Improper wrapping and bandaging are also a major cause of soft tissue injuries. Many people wrap for cosmetic reasons and do not wrap effectively. It might be of help to dust off our Pony Club handbooks.

Footing is a piece of this conversation, as well. Imagine running on the loose sand of a beach for two miles. The next 48 hours would probably entail a lot of whining and Tylenol. The same forces are at play with our horses. Deep footing is just an injury waiting to happen. One of my friends has very expensive, swanky dressage horses. She has a theory that walking horses out on concrete for at least 20 min. after every ride will help them avoid a soft-tissue injury by keeping their legs tight. It’s hard to say if this theory holds water, but if you have concrete it might not hurt to do a few laps around the parking lot.

Essentially, soft tissue injuries can be prevented through proper conditioning, proper flat work (walking before doing difficult work to give legs a chance to warm-up), proper bandaging, proper footing, and proper and regular farrier work.

Here are some resources:

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