Looking after your Horses Legs

Whatever your discipline, it is essential to take good care of your horse's legs to prevent future problems occurring.

Every horse owner knows that correct care of legs, feet and back will help prevent future problems and prolong their horse's working life. However, many overlook good joint care, something that could impact on all of these areas. Daily wear and tear is unavoidable and places stress on joints, ligaments and tendons so being aware of potential problems is important. Ongoing care can help minimise the risk of problems or injury, aid fitness and improve all-round performance.

Joints, Tendons and Ligaments explained:

A horse's joints are designed to absorb shock and bear the weight of the body, while helping them to move easily and without friction. There are three main types of joints:

- Cartilaginous - these joints have limited movement, such as spinal column and pelvis

- Fibrous - fixed joints, such as the skull

- Synovial - these are the moveable joints, such as the fetlocks, stifles, hocks and knees

As the most active joints in a horse's body, synovial joints are also the most likely to incur injuries or problems. Each end of the bone is covered with a lubricated cartilage, which absorbs the forces placed on the joint as the horse moves, and it is when this lubrication is affected that friction can cause joints to wear.

Tendons and ligaments are dense bands of fibrous tissue composed mainly of collagen. The tissue is very strong but not elastic. This fibrous material groups together in bundles forming long cords running from the knee to the foot. Tendons connect muscle to bone, while ligaments connect bone to bone. The flexor tendons run down the back of the leg from the knee to the foot. Their role is to flex the fetlock and digit joints. The suspensory ligament lies at the back of the cannon bone, deeper than the flexor tendons, and stretches from the back of the knee to the fetlock. The suspensory ligament provides support for the fetlock, preventing extreme over-extension, over-flexing and over-rotating.

How are they affected?

Problems usually occur when joint damage happens faster than repair, and there are many ways in which a horse's joints can be affected. Although care and consideration go some way to protecting from unnecessary deterioration, age and general movement will always cause wear and tear. Conformation is also key - the better a horse's conformation, the more balanced they will be, so the less impact will be placed on the legs. Poor conformation can exacerbate limb problems, as more stress is placed on compensating joints, causing more wear and tear. Fitness, diet, foot condition and type of work can also play a part in general condition. Work on hard or rough ground can affect the movable synovial joints in particular, as it creates extra shock and impact.

The main function of tendons is to transmit muscle power to the lower leg. Tendons have elastic properties and healthy tendons are able to bear extreme stretching forces. This elasticity allows them to store energy and absorb minor overloads during exercise. However, any sudden overload exceeding the limits of their ability to stretch can cause the fibres and blood vessels to begin to rupture. This begins within the central core of the tendon. The end result is inflammation, pain and swelling characteristic of a bowed tendon.

Ligaments are stronger than tendons. They are bands of very tough tissue that hold joints together and hold bones in place. There are many small ligaments in each joint, but the most commonly damaged are those in the suspensory apparatus above the fetlock. The job of the suspensory ligament is to hold the fetlock joint in its correct position; it lies just in front of the main flexor tendons that run at the back of the leg above the fetlock. The job of the suspensory apparatus is important and demanding, its function is to support the fetlock during the weight bearing phase of the stride. It is during this phase when most ligament injuries occur. Uneven loading at some stage in the weight bearing stride may be accompanied by contributing causes of uneven ground surface and poor foot balance.

Things to look out for

Horse's can suffer from many different types of leg injury or problem, and treatment can range from massage and hydro-therapy to intra-articular medication (the injection of a drug into the joint), depending on the seriousness. As part of the daily routine, it is important to keep an eye on their legs - as you would the feet and back - and look out for any abnormalities. Signs can include lameness, heat or swelling and pain on movement or flexion. In these cases it is important to consult your vet who can advise on what the problems are, and the best course of treatment.

Prevention is better than cure

When it comes to horses' legs, prevention is better than cure, so it is important to be aware of what causes them extra stress, and how this can be minimised. Warming up and cooling down after exercise is essential, as it helps keep joints supple and reduces the chance of damage or friction. Competitions do have an impact, so if you are competing, be aware of the ground condition - hard ground or rougher terrain than your horse is used to will place more stress on joints and limbs. Leaving time enough time for the horse to rest after strenuous exercise or competition will allow them to recover and reduce the chance of lasting problems. When schooling, gradually help your horse build up a resistance on different surfaces, this will help protect from injury, keep joints supple, and improve condition in the long run.

What's on the market?

There are a wide range of supplements available, designed specifically to benefit a horse's joints. These can be used to support existing conditions or problems, or just to help maintain and protect healthy joints, and are manufactured by an array of equine brands. Using protective boots, wraps or bandages is also very important, especially when competing. They give protection to legs and joints, by absorbing impact and concussion, and providing extra support.

Every horse is different

Although there is no way to prevent general wear and tear on your horse's legs and joints, there are effective ways to reduce it. Every horse is different, so it is important to look at cases individually. Help your horse build up strength and joint resistance slowly. Conformation, age and workload all play a part in the overall condition of your horses legs, and while these are factors that can't be changed, others can. Proper care will ensure legs are kept in the best condition possible, increase stamina, and ultimately help prolong your horse's working life.

Protecting your horses with a set of Chaps from the Equi-Chaps® range can help to keep your horse's joints warm and protected. For healing after injury or therapy after work, try www.equilibriumproducts.com/equilibrium_therapy/magnetic_therapy_magnetic_chaps/

See more: www.EquilibriumProducts.com