Avoiding Soft Tissue Injuries in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 30, 2011

Horses are large, strong animals that are capable of moving, stopping, and turning quickly while carrying a heavy combined load of tack and a rider. How many ways can you read “injury risk” in the preceding sentence?

As a human, imagine running as fast as you can over uneven ground. Now imagine doing the same thing while carrying a three-year-old child on your shoulders. There is a good chance of taking a bad step, tripping, or falling, and you would almost certainly have some sore muscles the next day. Like human athletes, horses are subject to muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries when they work hard, especially if they have not been properly conditioned for the work they are asked to do.    

Minimizing the risk of soft tissue injury takes some thought. Follow these guidelines to keep your horse’s risk of injury as low as possible.

1.  Warm up your horse with slow, easy work before asking for a harder effort. After bringing him in from the field or out of his stall, ride at a walk or slow trot for ten to fifteen minutes before jumping, doing collected work, or asking for faster gaits. A warm-up period allows the horse’s circulatory, respiratory, and muscular systems to prepare for a higher level of exertion. Working hard on “cold” muscles and tendons may produce a strain or sprain. A cool-down period after work and before putting the horse back in the stall or pasture is also advised.

2. Condition the horse gradually for intense exercise. Start a young or out-of-condition horse slowly with short, easy periods of work, increasing time and effort in small increments for several months. After a break in work because of weather, season, or injury, drop back in the level of performance your horse is asked to do. Resist the urge to see whose horse can jump the highest, run the fastest, or stop in the shortest space.

3. Keep up a regular schedule of hoof trimming and shoeing. Overgrown hooves change the angle of the hoof and pastern, putting unusual strain on soft tissues. Even if the horse’s shoes are still tight after five to six weeks, they need to be reset at this point to give the horse the best chance of staying sound.

4. 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.

5.  Be aware of footing. On a trail ride, slow down to go through slick, muddy, or deep footing. At a show, check the ring for wet spots, deep sand, or areas that are unusually hard or rough. If you have to travel on rocky ground, steep areas, or places where horses have to step over and around obstacles, slow down and allow the horse to look at the ground, picking his own way through.

6. As you groom or handle your horse each day, check for unusual heat or swelling or any sign of lameness, and get a veterinarian’s advice on the best way to treat injuries. Give the horse sufficient time to recover before resuming riding. Major injuries can take months to heal, and the horse may never return to its previous level of performance. Preventing injuries before they happen and following a veterinarian’s advice on treatment are worth a horse owner’s best efforts.