Morgan Murphy

How to Cope With a Horse with a Splint Injury.

Horses have evolved from being small, wild animals with five toes (Eohippus) on each leg to being fairly large, primarily domesticated animals with a single hoof on each leg.  As they evolved their anatomy changed, adapting as needed to enhance their survival. This article is about horse splints, but, rather than launching straight into a discussion, I'd like you to watch this horse anatomy video first. It really helps to explain the horse's skeleton, so that the written article will make sense

If you think of the human hand compared to the horse's lower leg, you'll find that they're actually related. The digits that were originally the equivalent of our pointing, middle and ring fingers became the horse's Medial Splint Bone (Second Metacarpal), Cannon Bone (Third Metacarpal) and Lateral Splint Bone (Fourth Metacarpal), the elongated bones that join the horse's front "knee" with its pastern. The splint bones are attached to the cannon bone (the front facing, biggest bone) by a ligament and this is where a problem can occur. Following an injury or trauma, the ligament which attaches these bones to each other can become damaged, causing inflammation and pain in the bone and surrounding tissue. This in turn leads to signs of discomfort and lameness. Over time, this will heal on its own, but the healing process often involves the formation of new bone between the two splint bones. This usually takes the form of large solid lump which can cause multiple problems for the horse and owner. This is known as a "true splint."

A "false splint" can also occur in the same area, the result of trauma to the bone itself rather than to the ligament. For example, a kick to the splint bone causes a fracture. Again, this causes formation of a bony lump where the damage has been made.

Bony splints can cause significant problems for the horse. They may not be painful at first but, they can reduce mobility and be unsightly, becoming increasingly painful over time. However, developing a splint does not mean the end of the horse’s career, there are options for treatment and management. With patience and perseverance your horse could heal well and return to work. Splints are very common in young racehorses and in Hunter- jumpers and Eventers, suggesting that high-impact work can weaken the joint.

How are Splints Diagnosed?

Splint bones courtesy of The Horse

If you notice lameness or bony lumps and suspect your horse has a splint you should call your veterinarian straight away. Immediate treatment can dramatically reduce rehabilitation times.
Diagnosis is normally carried out through full examination, assessment and ultrasound or x-ray. While some splints heal on their own, many require veterinary care and long term layups.

Phase 1 involves containing and reducing inflammation. Most vets recommend combining non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, with cold therapy. A cold pack or special boots should be applied for 30 minutes, 3 times a day to the splint bones, then bandaged with a pressure wrap for 7-10 days. Cold water hosing is not considered terribly helpful. After two weeks, you should be able to simply bandage the legs depending on the severity. It's important to bandage all legs even if just one is affected.

It is essential that your horse be kept on stall rest. All exercise should cease immediately. Make sure the horse's bedding is deep and cosy as this will help reduce further concussion of the injury. In some cases, surgery may be an option: the veterinarian may be able to take out small portions or even the entire splint bone, significantly helping the horse. However, the success depends largely on the severity of the injury.

What is the Prognosis for a Horse with a Splint?

Patience is key. It can take quite a while for a splint to heal. Rebuilding the horse's strength and stamina safely is the next critical phase.He must be fairly fit before you begin asking him to bear weight again

The length of recovery depends on the severity of injury and how the horse responds to treatment. A horse who is happy to be stalled without becoming stressed will heal more quickly than a horse that paces in his stall, placing continual pressure and stress on the injury. Without allowing your horse to become obese, make sure he is kept contented with plenty of small meals of nutritious, quality hay and satisfying snacks like carrots, apples and horse cookies. Consult with your veterinarian about changes to the horse's diet during this period of recovery. The horse needs superior nutrition but must be kept calm as his body works to recover from his splint injury.