Soft, puffy joints or “filling” around the joints or lower limbs are very common in horses. The soft tissue swelling or “oedema” is usually due to a hard workout or a knock to the leg. It can also be caused by excessive grain feeding together with lack of exercise, such as in horses stabled overnight.
First aid for leg swelling should aim to control the inflammation in the affected area and to reduce the risk of further injury.
Cold therapy is the first line of treatment for acute leg inflammation. Cold therapy will help constrict damaged blood vessels which will reduce ongoing internal bleeding and fluid accumulation in the injured tissue and provides some pain relief by numbing nerve endings. Cold therapy should be commenced as soon as possible after an injury and continued for the first 48 hours of treatment. Cold therapy can be applied with an ice pack covered with an adhesive bandage. The ice pack should be left on for 10-15 minutes at a time and repeated every few hours if possible for the first 48 hours after an injury. Alternatively cold hosing for 10-15 minutes at a time will also soothe the inflamed tissues; however it is not as effective as icing. The area should be bandaged overnight to provide counter pressure against further tissue swelling or internal bleeding.
You can apply a relieving gel such as RAPIGEL® to minor leg swellings twice daily for the first few days after an injury to soothe the legs and help reduce the tissue swelling.
If limb swellings are hot and painful or the horse is very lame consult your vet for advice as this may indicate an underlying infection or serious internal damage to a joint or soft tissue.
Girth galls and saddle sores usually result from the use of poorly fitting equipment or insufficient padding under the saddle and around the girth.
The wither, back and girth are all highly sensitive areas and when there is excessive movement of tack or inadequate cushioning the skin can quickly become traumatised, abraded and devitalised. Damp skin resulting from rain or heavy sweating is more prone to developing sores and galls, as is skin that has not been conditioned by frequent riding under saddle. Horses with painful open sores or haematomas (blood blisters) under the skin should not be ridden until the sores have healed.
An ice pack should be applied for 10-15 minutes to any swelling that develops under the skin after a ride. This should be repeated 2 or 3 times daily to help prevent further fluid build-up and to reduce inflammation and relieve soreness. Do not massage or rub the area with liniments as this can worsen the blood and fluid leakage under the skin. Do not ride the horse again until the swelling has subsided.
When an open sore or gall is present, wash away discharges with warm saline solution (1 teaspoon of salt in 600mL of boiling water that has been allowed to cool to lukewarm). After patting dry apply a drying, antiseptic preparation such as CETRIGEN SPRAY twice daily until the wound has dried and any infection controlled.
Once the skin has healed rubbing alcohol or methylated spirits can be used to harden the skin surface against future abrasion. Check that saddles and girths fit well and are regularly oiled and are soft and supple before returning the horse to work. Initially use a double saddle blanket with a hole cut in the one under the saddle, to take the pressure of the soft skin until it hardens.
Some young horses develop a weeping or crusty rash-like condition under the girth behind the elbow. The skin becomes inflamed, sore and scurfy and the hair may fall out leaving a bald area. This condition can be caused by either bacteria or fungal infections and can spread to other horses if girths, saddle blankets or grooming equipment are shared.
Wash the area with a medicated wash. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a clean towel. Then apply a drying agent such as CETRIGEN SPRAY to the area twice daily. Consult your vet if the condition fails to clear up within 4-7 days.
Injury to the flexor tendons that run down the back of the cannon area between the knee and the fetlock is common in racing and competition horses. Strained tendons usually result from overstretching and tearing of the tendon fibres when galloping, jumping, turning or stopping quickly. It can also occur if a horse loses its footing and overstretches the tendon fibres.
Following a tendon injury the horse will usually show signs of lameness during or soon after work. The tendon will appear swollen, warm and tender to the touch. Immediate first aid is essential if you suspect a tendon injury to limit the extent of internal bleeding and inflammation, which can worsen if the injury is allowed to continue unchecked. During the first 48 hours cold therapy and pressure bandaging are recommended to control the inflammation, together with strict stable rest. Apply an ice pack under an adhesive bandage for 20 minutes three or four times a day for the first 48 hours. In between ice treatments, injured tendons should be bandaged to limit tissue swelling – bandage with a firm, uniform pressure but do not apply bandages too tightly as this can lead to further tendon damage.
Seek veterinary advice as soon as possible for any tendon injury. Your vet will probably “scan” the tendon to assess the degree of internal damage and the prognosis for recovery and future performance.
During this early stage of the injury do not apply warming liniments or rubs as these tend to increase blood flow to the area, which may encourage further bleeding and swelling. However, topical products may be applied to help reduce fluid accumulation, inflammation and pain. Take care to avoid blistering of the skin by not applying more than one topical treatment at a time.
The splint bones are small tapering bones than run along each side of the cannon bones in both the front and back legs. In horses up to 5-7 years of age the splint bones are attached to the cannon bone by a fibrous ligament. With hard work or a direct knock this ligament can be sprained or torn leading to inflammation and a bony reaction known as a “splint”. In older horses this ligament becomes calcified, making it hard and less flexible, so horses over 8 years of age rarely develop fresh “splints”.
Initially, a fresh splint is seen as a swollen and sore area on the inside of the cannon region below the knee or hock. The horse may or may not be lame. Over time the injury will develop into a hard bony swelling that usually causes no lameness but does create a blemish on the horse’s leg.
First aid for a fresh splint consists of stable rest and cold therapy. Apply an ice pack as soon as possible under an adhesive pressure bandage for 15-20 minutes 2 or 3 times daily for 5-7 days. This will help to minimise movement and further ligament tearing and the inflammation should resolve within a week. You can also apply a topical anti-inflammatory preparation twice daily for 7-10 days, to help reduce the swelling and pain.
Alternatively the area can be massaged with a warming liniment starting 2 days after the injury has occurred, to promote blood flow and healing. A poultice can be applied each evening during the first week after the injury.
If the splint remains enlarged and painful for longer than 7 days consult your vet for advice. Occasionally the splint bone can be fractured if the horse receives a hard knock and your vet may need to X-ray the limb and if necessary remove the fractured fragment.