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    Typical Injuries of Thoroughbreds
Typical Injuries of Thoroughbreds
Injured horse. Source: The Spruce Pets

Typical Injuries of Thoroughbreds

If you decide to adopt an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB), it's important to be aware of the most concerning racing injuries that can impact your second career. Alongside finding a suitable personality and ability in your search for a new equine partner, understanding horse health records, previous injuries, and their potential effects on a horse's future athletic career can sometimes feel like deciphering complex information that requires expert knowledge. OTTBs, in particular, may come with their unique issues and injuries.

By the time most racehorses reach the age of 3, they are in excellent physical condition and have been extensively trained for their primary task, which is running. Similar to elite human athletes, these horses are prone to various sports-related injuries. Some of these injuries can have an impact on a horse's future athletic career, while others are primarily superficial. The critical factors to consider for any injury are its severity and the effectiveness of its rehabilitation.

To ensure you make an informed decision, it is advisable to seek the guidance of a knowledgeable veterinarian who has experience with these types of injuries. They should also have an understanding of your realistic skills and goals as a rider. With their assistance, you will be well-equipped to select the ideal off-track Thoroughbred partner for your chosen riding discipline.

Suspensory Ligament. Source: StreamZ Global
Suspensory Ligament. Source: StreamZ Global

Suspensory Ligaments

Racehorses' legs can experience strain during training, which can result in spraining or tearing of the suspensory ligament. This ligament extends from just below the knee or hock to the back of the cannon bone, and such injuries can lead to desmitis.

According to Leandra Cooper, who manages a racehorse adoption program in Lexington, Kentucky, and is also a head trainer, it's not only the physical strain on the tendon that causes injuries. Farriery, which involves the shoeing of racehorses with a long toe and low heel, also contributes to the strain on the ligament. The success of the rehabilitation process and the future athletic condition of the horse depend on the location and severity of the ligament injury.

Symptoms of the injury include swelling, heat, and pain at the site of the strain or tear. Lameness can range from mild to moderate and is most noticeable on soft ground. It often occurs suddenly and improves after a few days. Severe lameness is typically observed in cases of suspensory tears.

The recommended treatment is time and rest.

Shelley Mann, the executive director of the Secretariat Centre racehorse adoption centre in Lexington, Kentucky, expresses that the unpredictable aspect of these injuries is particularly challenging. "The worst thing about these injuries is that the horses don’t read the book on how long it should take to heal," she explains. "Some horses need 30 days and they are good to go, and sometimes it takes six months or longer to heal."

According to Rhodes Bell, a veterinarian at Park Equine Hospital and the primary veterinarian for New Vocations in Kentucky, the size of the injury and the quality of the repair are the main factors that determine the future athletic condition of the horse in specific disciplines. Injuries to small branches of the suspensory ligament, when given sufficient time for rehabilitation, are less likely to impact the horse's future soundness compared to a complete tear of the ligament. Horses with desmitis, if properly rehabilitated and conditioned, often regain the ability to jump over small obstacles.

Splints

Certain racehorses that are no longer competing may develop bony protrusions on their lower legs. These protrusions, known as "splints," are commonly observed on the inner side of the front legs. They occur as a result of an injury to either the splint bone itself or the ligament that connects the splint bones.

Symptoms of splints: In the initial stages, active splints are characterised by heat and swelling and can lead to lameness.

Treatment: The recommended approach involves providing the horse with a period of rest, administering anti-inflammatory medication, and potentially applying cold water therapy. These measures are commonly employed to address this prevalent injury among former Thoroughbred racehorses.

Once the splint has fully healed and is no longer causing discomfort (referred to as being "old and cold"), there are no limitations on the horse's athletic capabilities.

Sesamoiditis and Fractures

Horses have two sesamoid bones located at the rear of the fetlock joint, with several tendons running over and between these bones. Repeated strain on these bones can lead to fractures occurring in different areas, which necessitate distinct treatments and can significantly impact the horse's athletic performance. Sesamoid fractures can be caused by strenuous activity at a fast speed or due to an unfavourable conformation and inadequate shoeing.

When it comes to presentation, the severity of lameness in the horse depends on the specific area affected. It can range from severe lameness to mild discomfort that only manifests after intense exercise. Inflammation and heat may also be visible, and the horse may experience soreness when palpated or flexed.

The treatment approach varies depending on the location of the fracture within the bone. Fractures near the top and bottom of the sesamoid bone respond well to surgical removal of the affected area. Fractures occurring lower in the bone, affecting the suspensory insertion to a greater extent, require more extensive rehabilitation. Mid-body sesamoid fractures, situated in the middle of the bone, are best addressed through surgical reconstruction using lag screws.

For horses with sesamoid fractures, rest is crucial, and their training schedules need to be adjusted to minimise stress on the affected structures. The use of a shoe that facilitates easy breakover can be beneficial in reducing strain on the sesamoid bones and ligaments.

The prognosis for the horse's athletic performance depends on the specific area of the sesamoid bone that is affected. Some horses recover well after proper rehabilitation and can resume their previous level of activity, although it is generally recommended that they pursue flat-only careers. Others may experience difficulties with soundness due to damage to surrounding tissues and potential development of arthritis. If these horses can achieve pasture soundness, they are best suited as companion horses. The prognosis for horses with surgical hardware is directly related to the extent of collateral damage and the success of reconstructing the articular surface.

Fractures occurring at the base of the sesamoid bone carry the highest risk of involving the suspensory apparatus and joints. These fractures also offer limited career options for the horse. Mid-body fractures have a fair prognosis for athletic careers, while high breaks have a decent prognosis if there is no additional involvement of the soft tissues.

Bone Chips

Osteochondral fragments, also known as "bone chips," in retired racehorses refer to pieces of bone that have broken off within a horse's joint. Most of the fragments observed by Cooper are found in the knee and fetlock joints.

The size and position of these chips can vary, and their location can affect the horse's movement and cause pain and lameness. Floating chips can damage surrounding anatomical structures, while non-floating chips typically have minimal or no impact on the horse's athletic ability.

Symptoms range from inflammation without lameness when the chip is not involved with other structures, to pain and lameness when the chip is causing harm to other structures.

Treatment involves surgical removal of chips that are located in articulating joints and causing damage. A lameness examination is conducted to determine if a fragment is causing discomfort to the horse. If lameness is detected in a limb with a chip, the joint is often blocked to assess the horse's comfort level.

Bell, a veterinarian, explains that if the intra-articular block resolves the lameness, surgical removal is recommended. If the lameness persists, further investigation is needed to identify the underlying cause.

When surgical chip removal is not feasible, horses may be injected with hyaluronic acid or anti-inflammatory medications.

The athletic prognosis of a horse often depends on the location of the chip, particularly with the joint and articulating areas, as well as how it is managed. If the chip is not floating or has been removed early, horses have a good chance of pursuing second careers without limitations. Nonetheless, joint damage caused by a chip can lead to arthritis in that area, potentially restricting the horse's future athletic pursuits, as noted by Cooper.

Condylar Fractures. Source: ScienceDirect.com
Condylar Fractures. Source: ScienceDirect.com

Condylar Fractures

A condylar fracture is a common injury to the cannon bone in horses that is caused by repetitive strain. There are two types of fractures: incomplete and non-displaced, where the bone fragment remains in its original location without pulling away from the cannon bone, and complete and displaced, where the fragment has moved away from the cannon bone. In the past, these injuries were considered to be career-ending for horses involved in athletic activities. Yet, advancements in equine medicine have improved the chances of a full recovery and a return to work.

The symptoms of a condylar fracture include acute lameness, swelling, and heat in the affected area. In some cases, a bone fragment may be visible beneath the horse's skin.

Treatment typically involves surgery to stabilise the fracture, along with the use of anti-inflammatory medications, rest, and time for healing. In some instances, surgery may not be necessary, although this is less common.

The prognosis for returning to athletic activities depends on the success of the rehabilitation process. The presence of additional damage to the surrounding tissues and cartilage within the joint can impact the outcome. Horses with significant soft-tissue injuries and cartilage loss are less likely to have the same outcome as those with a simple, lateral, incomplete, non-displaced condylar fracture that has been repaired using lag screw fixation.

The long-term health of the joint also depends on how well the articular surface is reconstructed. Some horses with condylar fractures have no limitations on their athletic careers, while others may not even be suitable for pasture activities.

According to Mann, the Secretariat Center often encounters condylar fractures after screws have been inserted and the horse has returned to racing. Although these injuries may seem daunting, horses with condylar fractures can often recover well after proper healing.

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