Horse splints are a confusing topic for most horse owners, as I have found in my 35 years of equine hoof care. Quite often, many dismiss it as a benign problem. In reality, horse splints need urgent and aggressive treatment, or they might affect other structures and leave your animal with a permanent blemish. This condition also causes immense pain to your horse plus a significant decline in their performance.
What are horse splints?
You will likely notice a bony swelling in the lower leg of your animal. The condition is likely to occur in a young or unfit horse that you put through tough training or hard labor. When you run your hand down his legs, you may feel a large hard lamp between the knee and the fetlock joint. These are the tell-tale signs of a splint.
A horse splint is a tearing or strain on the ligaments that glue the splint bones to the cannon bones. The splint bones are two slender bones that surround the cannon bone.
As a result of the tear, the animal’s immune system reacts by cementing the area with calcium mineralization. The protrusion is usually soft, hot, and painful in the first few days after the splint. After mineralization hardens, the horse splint manifests as a hard swollen lump.
If the intensity of the trauma that causes splints exceeds a certain threshold, fractures might occur on the splint bones — a splint bone fracture (not the same as a splint’) is a different thing. Splint fractures are hard to identify, and often lead to severe health consequences.
Just like splints, splint bone fractures are limited to horses under five years old. Their splint bones and cannon bones have not fused properly, causing the susceptibility to ligament tear and bone fracture. Both splints and splint bone fractures can cause lameness and other complications.
Types of Splints
A true splint comes out as a bony lump behind the knee. True splints are as a result of a torn interosseous ligament. The latter refers to a group of ligaments that attach the cannon bone to the splint bones. In the case of a true splint, there will be visible external swelling.
Blind splints similarly form out of torn ligaments. However, the hardened swelling, in this case, happens between the splint & cannon bones and the ligaments. There is little external swelling to see or feel. Your horse will feel the pain all right, but it might take you longer to realize it, and diagnosis is also lengthy, often requiring ultrasound or CT scans.
Periostitis is a soft tissue covering all bones. When the trauma happens around the cannon bone, the periostitis, in this case, shoulders most of the stress and becomes inflamed of falls off. The animal’s body, in reaction, sends more bone material to the area to fill the space. Periostitis splints are hot and painful with constant lameness.
Unlike the other splints, this one happens directly behind the knee, and the damage affects the lower joint of the knee. Knee splints can lead to osteoarthritis.
Causes of Splints
As hinted earlier, the interosseous ligament is still very elastic and tender’ in your young horse. When he approaches maturity, the ligament is replaced by bone materials, and all the three bones eventually fuse. But before that, you don’t want to extol him physically. Splints mostly affect the front legs of a horse when there is excess stress on the bones. Causes of splints that you should watch out for include:
Heavy training at a young age
I usually flinch with fear when I see an owner training a 3-year-old horse for more than an hour. Even for 5-year-old horses, anything exceeding 40 minutes could cause severe stress on their joints. For all young horses, take it slow. Allow their bones to become dense and robust, or the animals will suffer recurrent cases of splints.
Your horse’s splint nightmares can also be as a result of interference injuries. The latter refers to injuries that occur when one limb contacts another during the animal’s strides. You will often hear repetitive popping sounds when interference happens.
Another type of direct trauma that can cause splints is kicks from another horse. In both of these cases, the splints are more likely to form in the lower leg. Intense trauma could lead to splint fractures.
Working on Hard ground
Concussive forces as a result of galloping on hard ground can cause horse splints. Working your horse on the hard ground sends more concussive forces to the interosseous ligament, causing tearing.
In the cases I have seen, splints due to concussion often affect the inside of the front legs slightly below the knees.
Improper hoof balance
Hoof imbalance is a culprit for many horse problems, including splints. Your horse’s hooves should strike the ground as a unit. In cases of hoof imbalance, the outside toe lands before the heel, causing excessive stress on the medial splint. You would need to work with an experienced farrier and vet to correct the imbalance.
Spot the Sign of Splints
There is often pain with swelling around the splint. Sometimes the hard lumps are externally visible, but not in all cases. Here is what to look for:
The injured area is hot, painful, and inflamed with a small bony swelling
If your horse pops a splint, you will likely notice some swelling around the area. The inflammation is painful, and in the early days before mineralization hardens, its tender and hot. As the days progress, the sore is replaced by a firm and nonpainful lump.
Mild lameness is common in “Blind splints.” There is no visible swelling or bony changes related to the exterior of the affected region, and because of the delayed chances of intervention, the condition could significantly impact mobility in the animal.
If suspected, Radiographs are needed to confirm
Whenever you suspect signs of splints, a vet would need to carry out a comprehensive diagnosis to confirm. Radiograph tests can help to identify cases of splints. The scans can pinpoint the exact location of the horse splints, the size of the bone growth, and whether there is an associated bone fracture.
Treatment For Horse Splints
The objective of treating a splint is to decrease inflammation and prevent the calcification deposition from impinging on the nearby tissues. Treatment measures range from rest to the use of topical anti-inflammatory drugs. In severe cases, corticosteroid injections and surgery may be ideal. Reduced Work Loads or rest entirely
Reduced Work Loads or rest entirely
I would be cautious about riding through’ the splint. If you notice the signs, it would be best to let your horse rest for as long as it takes before resuming training. Ensure to layer his pen with soft materials to minimize stress on the already injured limb. This remediation is what vets call conservative management, and it should last until the horse feels no more pain in the region.
Topical cold therapy to reduce swelling
Cold treatment can be effective for recent injuries, often not more than a week after the splints occurrence. Cold hosing works even better if applied 24 to 48 hours after the sprains. Cooling the horse’s tissue temperature to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit significantly reduces pain, swelling, and cuts back the inflammatory response.
Lower limb bandages can similarly help to tone down the inflammation and severity of the splint. Bandaging can protect the area from further stress and injuries. You can either use topical dressings and medicated pads for the job or simply wrap the area with a cotton sheet.
This bandaging uses a sweating’ preparation applied to the affected leg. A sweat bandage generates heat, which is vital in dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the area. The result is reduced inflammation. Beware though that this therapy is not ideal for the early days when the splint is hot and sore. Ensure to check with your vet first before applying one.
Your vet may recommend administering anti-inflammatory drugs for 5 to 7 days. The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Bute and Banamine, reduces soreness and provides pain relief for the animal.
Please note that as effective as NSAIDS may be against pain and inflammation, they can have potentially severe side effects when used without a vet’s direction. I have seen cases of gastric ulcers and kidney damages with these.
If you have been around horses for long, you probably know about DMSO. Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO) is a pungent syrupy liquid used for treating several equine health problems from neurological injuries to orthopedic inflammation.
Applying topical DMSO on the cannon bone region may help to reduce the inflammation. The active ingredients in DMSO attract and bind to water molecules, meaning it can help to reduce swelling. Your vet may recommend liquid DMSO injections in the case of Blind Splints, where the swelling is to the inside.
Surpass topical cream can help control pain and inflammation associated with splints. Your vet will carry out a thorough physical examination and history review before recommending the use of Surpass. The cream is contraindicated in animals with hypersensitivity to diclofenac.
At times, joint injections might be the right treatment approach for your horse’s splint, depending on your bet’s assessment. Perilesional therapy is especially critical for cases with a risk of articular cartilage degradation. The injections can decrease inflammation and reduce splint-related lameness.
Splints not responding to treatments
A majority of horses have a favorable prognosis for horse splints. In rare cases, the condition may not respond to treatment, remaining inflamed and sore. Your vet may recommend corticosteroid injections and surgeries.
Injections to splint area of corticosteroids
Anti-inflammatory corticosteroids can help to reverse swelling and stop the pain associated with the splint. These drugs are useful but note they increase the risk of laminitis for your beloved animal.
Possibly surgery to shave down the callus
In splints with more substantial bone growth, the condition can often interfere with the animal’s knee joint. In that case, surgery can help to resolve the issue. However, very few splint surgeries are often successful. In most cases, the surgery only stimulates further bone growth, and the splint size is increased.
Most splint incidences are accidental, resulting from the horse’s movement or natural conformation, and as such, can be hard to prevent. However, you can reduce the risk of horse splints by taking measures such as:
Slow down the intensity of work and training for younger horses
Have a regular farrier schedule for trimming and shoeing the animal. Ensure that the shoeing job achieves a balanced hoof level. Remove debris from the hooves before and after a ride and avoid working or training the animal on hard terrains.
Use protective splint boots
Splint boots can protect the delicate structures of a horse’s leg from the hooves to the splints. The boots support tendons and ligaments such that under extreme performance, the concussive forces to this region are tuned down.
Don’t allow the horse to become overweight
Excessive weight means more pressure on the animal’s limbs. The undue stress on the bones and ligaments would make him susceptible to splints.
Adopt a proper diet for with balanced Calcium to Phosphorus ratios
Proper bone health requires a balanced diet and an adequate supply of calcium and phosphorous. Calcium competes with phosphorous for absorption in the gut. Too much or too little of either of these minerals can increase the risk of splints.
Long term prognosis
Most horses heal from splints in 3 to 4 weeks. You can start the animal on a gentle to moderate exercise regimen from the 6th week. The inflammation and pain will be gone. However, cases of blind splints may take longer to heal, sometimes taking up to 6 months before the horse can regain full performance. The calcification will be a permanent blemish, although, over time, it may be absorbed to some degree.
The last word on splints
Horse splints are not just a cosmetic blemish. These injuries caused by trauma to the splint bones can cause crippling pain to the animal. If not checked and treated, the resultant inflammation and calcification can interfere with the surrounding tissues and lead to lameness. Taking it slow with training and maintaining proper foot care and diet are some of the ways to prevent the condition.