The design of your horse’s legs help make him an athlete. Yet this efficiency has a cost - there’s not much protecting the joints, tendons and ligaments from the knee down. And many riding activities ask a lot of these vital structures, it’s no surprise that equine legs are so prone to injury. Take time to explore the contours of his knees, hocks and fetlocks, feeling the anatomy underneath the skin and familiarizing yourself with the bony knobs and bumps. Pinch your fingers together slightly as you run them down the back of his leg. This will give you a good feel of the tendons.
You can minimize your horse’s risk in a variety of ways, including being careful about footing, taking time to warm up properly and avoiding working him to exhaustion. And these efforts don’t have to stop when you dismount. In fact, how you care for your horse’s legs after a workout can make a big difference in his short- and long-term soundness.
Learn his legs. Although the basic anatomy is the same, every horse’s legs will be slightly different. With this in mind, go over your horse’s legs just to learn what is normal for him. To recognize whether a bump discovered after a ride is new, you’ll need to know if it was there the day before. Run your hand down the length of each of his limbs, from elbow to coronary band. Take time to explore the contours of his knees, hocks and fetlocks, feeling the anatomy underneath the skin and familiarizing yourself with the bony knobs and bumps.
Pinch your fingers together slightly as you run them down the back of his leg. This will give you a good feel of the tendons.
After you’ve unsaddled your horse and walked him long enough for his respiratory rate to return to normal, inspect his legs. Follow the same routine as you did to learn the landmarks---running your hand over the structures and stopping to pinch, poke and feel when necessary. If you find a suspicious area, wait an hour and check it again. If the anomaly is still there or has worsened, call your veterinarian.
Icing. For starters, it reduces pain associated with the activity. But its most important effect is to encourage vasoconstriction. When a horse is working hard, the capillaries that extend into his muscles, tendons and ligaments expand to bring in needed blood. When the activity is done, that excess flow will persist---even for hours---and will bring in now-unneeded fluid that contains mediators and enzymes associated with inflammation. Not only does it provoke an inflammatory process, but pooling fluids will stretch tissues, making them less elastic over time.
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Liniments and poultices. These are mainstays of post-workout leg care, and you’ll find them in nearly any barn. They help restore a limb to its pre-workout state in two different ways. Liniments work under the principle of cooling the leg. Typically alcohol- or menthol-based, they evaporate quickly, taking with them the heat that built up in the limb tissues during exercise. Poultices are similar to liniments in that they often contain cooling ingredients, but they are intended to “draw out” fluids from between cells, reducing any lingering inflammation and preventing swelling.
Wraps. First, keep in mind that wraps can’t “support” tendons or a ligament in a lower limb or reduce the load these structures bear. What wraps can do, however, is provide compression of the tissues to prevent fluid from pooling. When fluid settles in a leg following a workout, the inflammatory enzymes collect and tissues stretch, both of which can be damaging. Wrapping a leg closes up the spaces between cells where fluid can collect, preventing stocking up and helping the leg return to its pre-workout state faster.
The problem is that wraps that are done badly are worse than none at all. If you are not experienced and confident in your ability to apply a standing bandage, ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it or assess your ability. It’s not difficult to wrap well, but it’s not something you can just figure out on the fly.
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Turnout. This last “therapy” may be the easiest to implement. Movement helps dissipate fluids and heat after strenuous exertion. It restores circulation to pre-workout levels and prevents stocking up. If it’s feasible, after you’ve completed your post-ride check and leg care routine, turn your horse out in a pasture or small paddock. He will naturally walk from hay pile to water trough or mosey slowly as he grazes. The benefits of this continued motion extend to the rest of his body as well, as he’ll be able to stretch and move his larger muscle groups.
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