Learn how to spot and handle soft tissue injuries with advice from veterinarian Amy Armentrout.
Article and photos by Abigail Boatwright
Because barrel racing is a highly athletic sport, horses competing in this discipline can be susceptible to injury, particularly soft tissue injuries—injury to a tendon or ligament. It’s likely you’ll encounter this kind of injury if you spend any amount of time with barrel horses. Amy Armentrout, DVM, outlines how to reduce occurrences, identify a possible injury, and care for your horse in collaboration with your veterinarian.
What is a Soft Tissue Injury?
An injury to a tendon or ligament can be minor—a complete disruption of the tissue. Armentrout explains that tendons are fibrous collagen tissue that attaches muscle to bone. A ligament is fibrous collagen tissue that connects a bone to another bone.
“They are both through of to be generally inelastic, but somewhat flexible,” Armentrout said.
Soft tissue injuries usually happen with fast movement, and Armentrout says they are often due to a combination of fatigue and over-extension of a limb, coupled with a lack of conditioning, bad footing or continuing to work a horse with a minor injury.
“Barrel racers are at an increased risk for tendon and ligament injuries due to the nature of the job—speed work coupled with directional changes,” Armentrout said. “Fatigue happens when horses are over-trained—pushed too hard, too quickly—especially in the case of young horses or horses that are physically unfit.”
Common Soft Tissue Injuries
Armentrout says injury to flexor tendons is the most common soft tissue injury for barrel racers. It could affect a deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT), a superficial digital flexor tendon (SFDT) or the suspensory ligament.
“These injuries generally happen after over-extension of the fetlock joint, which likely occurs when the horse is traveling at a high rate of speed and steps wrong or is in bad footing,” Armentrout said.
Identifying the Injury
Sometimes you can spot this kind of injury fairly easily—a sudden lameness and swelling, with heat on the back of the cannon bone, for example. Other times—like when there’s a suspensory ligament injury—there could be variable degrees of lameness, and there may not be heat and swelling on the back of the leg. For this reason, Armentrout says if your horse is even slightly lame, don’t dismiss those signs.
“This is often how injuries become worse—people don’t think it could be a soft tissue injury because there wasn’t any swelling, and they continue to work the horse when it looks better in a week or so,” Armentrout said.
What to Do When It Happens
If you think your horse may have a soft tissue injury, Armentrout says you should arrange veterinary care as soon as possible. While you’re waiting for the veterinarian, you should wrap the leg if there is swelling.
“Contrary to popular belief, regular [standing] wraps give very little support to the leg, so the wrap is not there to support it,” Armentrout said. “The wrap is there to decrease or prevent swelling, which is painful to the horse.”
Another benefit to wrapping the leg to reduce swelling is that less swelling makes it easier for the veterinarian to palpate the leg and obtain ultrasound images during the examination. Armentrout says it could be as simple as a standing wrap, but make sure to have cushion such as cotton. Avoid using Vetrap directly on the skin without a layer of thick cotton underneath.
Armentrout says icing the leg can help, but it’s not effective to ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time. She says cold hosing is generally ineffective, as most hoses don’t get cold enough to have an effect.
“Cold and compression is key, so ice the leg for 20 minutes and then wrap the leg,” Armentrout said. “There are some commercial poultices available for limbs as well, and while they help, icing and wrapping is most effective.”
Why the Veterinarian Call is so Important
You need to have your veterinarian examine your horse if you suspect a soft tissue injury. This is because sometimes a soft tissue injury is the result of cumulative damage.
“If you can recognize when it is a minor strain or sprain before it reaches a more severe level of damage, you will help the horse avoid prolonged periods of rest and the extensive rehabilitation needed after injury,” Armentrout said. “If your soft tissue injury is severe enough that it appears the horse is unable to place the limb normally, or is obviously lame at a walk, you should have a veterinarian examine the horse immediately.”
If your horse injures a soft tissue structure other than the common tendon and ligament injuries, such as collateral ligaments, that injury could mimic joint injuries, but it should not be treated the same as joints. Armentrout says getting an early diagnosis is important to catch the problem before more severe damage is done.
Armentrout says the most important way to prevent soft tissue injuries is to make sure your horse is physically fit and adequately conditioned for its job.
“This may mean taking extra time getting a horse fit before performing at top speed, and it may mean consistent work throughout the week keeping them in shape to prevent the ‘weekend warrior’ situation where horses are only worked on the weekends,” Armentrout said. “Most horses will not exercise themselves enough, even in turnout in a large pasture, to keep themselves cardiovascularly fit and well-muscled.”
Avoid working your horse after a suspected or confirmed soft tissue injury. Armentrout says trying to “warm them up out of it” can actually cause more damage. Don’t change your horse’s shoeing without consulting with your veterinarian, especially when you aren’t sure which structure is damaged or how much damage has occurred, she says.
After the injury has been diagnosed with a clinical exam—often with the use of imaging such as ultrasound or an MRI to visualize lesions, your veterinarian can discuss treatment.
No longer is extended rest in a stall or pasture the go-to therapy, Armentrout says.
“We can now use biological therapies to treat injuries—stem cells or platelet-rich-plasma (PRP), as well as extracorporeal shockwave therapy,” Armentrout said. “Rehabilitation is the cornerstone of all therapies, and prolonged stall rest is the enemy.”
Tendons and ligaments heal best under some tension, Armentrout says, so work with your veterinarian to develop a rehabilitation program tailored to your horse. Armentrout prescribes some level of work for all of her injured horses, even if it is just hand-walking, within 30 days of the injury.
“Each program is tailor-made for the specific horse and injury, so knowing exactly what is wrong with the horse is a key component for getting them race- ready again,” Armentrout said.
Being vigilant about your horse’s legs and movement and seeking veterinary care immediately is key to minimizing damage of soft tissue injuries.
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News