I am, unfortunately, a bit of an expert on tendons – by which, when referring to competition horses, we mean the Superficial and Deep Digital Flexor Tendons of the front legs – which are in my experience one of the first ‘break points’ of the eventer. Injuries to the tendons curtail or even end the careers of many promising eventers.
Here are my top tips for trying to ensure that your horse’s tendons stand up to the work.
Firstly, fittening. Slow and steady, ideally roadwork, mostly at walk. For hours a day, if you can, for at least a few weeks. Then, making sure your horse is fit enough for the level of competition, and used to working on all sorts of terrain – not too much going round on perfect all-weather surfaces! (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Lenamore, at the grand age of 20, still looks as fit as a fiddle and is back ready to start campaigning again, and his regime every year is weeks and weeks of slow roadwork with his owner before shipping south to Caroline Powell’s yard. Apparently he is not on any special supplements, doesn’t have his joints injected etc, and hasn’t missed an event in his life. That is a seriously tough little legend of a horse!)
Know your horse’s tendons. It’s a good idea to keep notes in your diary, especially if you have more than one horse in your care, as it’s very easy to find something and then struggle to remember if it’s normal for this horse to have a slight puffiness in that particular spot, for example.
I always check tendons on stabled horses at my late night feed/skip/water visit, at about 10pm. In my experience things can show up clearly at this time, when the horse has usually been standing still for a few hours, which do not show up in the morning, or at any other time of the day. I’ve detected things at this check which vets seriously doubted, but which were immediately proven by ultrasound scan, including a mare with ‘congenitally weak tendons’ which filled and warmed at random points, most odd – I really did question my sanity when repeatedly checking that one! One of my mares has a thin layer of slightly fattier tissue around the top inch or so of her tendons, just under her knees. It shows up clearly on the ultrasound, between the skin and the tendon sheath, and is equal on both legs and just a bit idiosyncratic. I felt it, and worried that it was an abnormality in the tendons, or, somehow, equal damage to both. The scanner showed exactly what it was, it isn’t tendon damage, and I can relax again!
Slow warm-up and decent cool-down before faster work or jumping. Don’t skimp on the warm-up. I try to do at least 10 mins of walking before trotting, ideally 20 minutes if I can.
Great foot balance. Make sure your farrier is careful about this, and about keeping the toes short, the heels supported, and the breakover point in the right place. This is hugely important, the horse is TOTALLY at our mercy in this respect. Recently someone on Twitter posted pictures of horse cadaver legs being dissecting in class at Uni. All showed extensive damage to the joints, and all had long toes, collapsed heels, and terrible foot balance. Poor horses.
Protect those tendons, but not too much. It’s easy to get paranoid and want to wrap them up, but overheating tendons causes its own problems, and is believed to lead to gradual degradation. For this reason I won’t turn horses out with boots on – tendons are designed to be air-cooled, not heated up for hours and hours. The only exception is if a horse has been in for a while and is likely to go nuts – then I’ll boot up for the first half an hour, say.
For ridden work, mine are always booted in front if they are shod and/or doing anything faster than a walk. Booted for all roadwork. Many years ago I read that a top mare, one of the favourites to go and win at the next Championships (she was reigning European champion, some people may be able to work it out from that!) was spooked by a pheasant out hacking and banged her tendon, putting her out for the rest of the year. She had boots on, but not boots with tendon guards. So, if mine are working, they have good boots on, ones which have great tendon guards and which do not heat the tendons. (My next post will be about the best boots that I have found.)
Cool them down after hard work. Water, or ice. See my “aggressive tendon cooling after xc” post. Some people use witch hazel lotion, which is a natural cooling agent, and various other potions.
Be paranoid! If in serious doubt, get an ultrasound scan done. It is very cheap compared to the cost of a written-off horse. A small bit of damage, caught early, can heal. Some top riders have tendons scanned routinely, and/or after every three-day event.
Early signs of tendonitis, in my hard-won and sometimes utterly heartbreaking experience:
Obviously, heat and/or swelling over that area of the leg, possibly (but not always) lameness, so don’t rely on that as an indicator! But also:
A previously careful horse just tapping the showjumps. I’ve had two horses do this now, tap every fence in a round but leave them all up. JUST doing enough to clear them. Both, on scanning, had slight tendonitis, so now it rings serious alarm bells.
A previously 100% keen and honest horse which would always go happily from any old stride suddenly being reluctant or stopping, particularly at show-jumps, particularly on firm ground. Sometimes it isn’t naughtiness, it is the horse trying to tell you something really important.
Horse changing legs repeatedly on the way to a fence, which I interpret as trying to decide which leading leg will hurt less to land on. The mare I had who did this (I have it on video, I think she changed 5 or 6 times to one fence) in fact turned out to have very minor damage to the check ligament on one front leg and to the suspensory ligament on the other… mechanisms, I was told, that often ‘go’ before the tendons do. She was totally sound (or, bilaterally slightly short, perhaps?!), had been cleared by a vet, and jumped clear and well round a CCI**, but the warning signs were there on the video of our round, I had her scanned, and I called a halt to her eventing career at that point. She just wasn’t tough enough to go on to Advanced, and in fact has had a wonderful long and useful life as a dressage schoolmistress instead, and is still going strong. Some horses are just tougher than others, and for me, if I know there is a weakness there, it is just not worth pushing them until they might break irreparably.
Be paranoid, maintain your vigilance about tendons, and your horse will last longer!