Quick: What's the first diagnosis that comes to mind when you see an older horse with a hitch in his step? I don't know about you, but "arthritis" is often the first thing that pops into my head. And while there's probably some truth to that assumption—as most aged horses have some degree of arthritis, be it severe or minor—I was recently reminded that a closer look might be in order. Soft tissue injuries—specifically tendon and ligament injuries—aren't uncommon in old horses.
As I was searching for a reference the other day on TheHorse.com, I stumbled upon a great article by our managing editor Alexandra on tendon and ligament injuries in older horses. In the article, Graham Munroe, BVSc(Hons), PhD, CertEO, DESM, Dipl. ECVS, FRCVS, of Flanders Veterinary Services, in Scotland, says that older horses suffer soft tissue injuries for reasons unique to their age group. For instance, he said, they often go hand-in-hand with less-than-ideal hoof care (e.g., long toes or low heels), laminitis, age-related tissue breakdown, reduced exercise, self-inflicted trauma during turnout, or obesity. Munroe also said that many senior horse owners are more likely to use conservative, noninvasive treatments; have less expectations of recovery; and some might delay veterinary involvement for economic reasons.
Dorado spent much of last summer and fall in a stall and then hand walking to rehab a complex injury, which included suspensory ligament inflammation.
Photo: Erica Larson
Boy, can I relate to that article. It took me back to last summer, when a complex injury coupled with an old, healed sesamoid fracture caused some pretty significant inflammation in Dorado's right front suspensory ligament. The rehabilitation process was long, tedious, and mentally draining, mainly due to the nagging question about whether it made financial sense to invest a substantial amount of money into fully rehabbing a 16-year-old horse who's athletic days might be numbered—or over.
Like Munroe suggested, we used conservative, noninvasive treatment to help Dorado's inflamed suspensory heal and after several months, thing started looking up. Slowly but surely, Dorado's ligament returned to health and eventually returned to full work—the recovery process was only drawn out by a concurrent bout of cellulitis in a hind leg and a nasty abscess in the same hind hoof, but that's another story all together!
Even though Dorado's soft tissue struggle ended positively, I've known several older horses who were eventually retired or transitioned to lighter work due to tendon and ligament injuries. Akin to what Munroe suggested in his lecture, their owners weren't prepared to spend copious amounts of time and/or money to fully rehab a soft tissue injury in a happy, pasture-sound, comfortable senior horse. And while it's a little hard for me to admit—I always want to fix things and never want my aging horses to retire!— I can completely understand where they're coming from.
Have you ever dealt with a soft tissue injury in an older horse? Please share your experiences!