Understanding Splints

Springtime, verging on summertime is when a large number of us start riding and competing more, and on a variety of surfaces.  This can lead to extra stress and strain on a horses legs and in certain situations, splints can form.  Splints are also common in younger horses starting their training work, but can form at any age.

What is a splint?

A splint is initially a warm painful swelling on either the inside or outside of the horses lower limb.  Lameness tends to be associated with the splint development.   In time the swelling hardens to leave a bony enlargement. . Most splints form between the cannon bone and splint bones, usually as a result of the ligament between these bones tearing.

In order to understand them in greater detail, we have to first understand the structure of the lower limb to include the bones.  Below the knee, the main bone is the canon bone.  Alongside this are the splint bones.  They attach to the upper two thirds of the cannon bone.  One on the inside and one on the outside.  These can also be referred to as the 2nd and 4th metatarsals.  Bones are made up of collagen, calcium and phosphorous.  They are covered by a thin membrane layer called the periosteum.  Tendons and ligaments attach to this.

What causes a splint to form?

A number of factors can be to blame.  A direct blow to the limb – so an interference injury or a kick from another horse.  Poor confirmation, concussive work on hard ground, uneven loading of the limb – so work in tight circles for example.  Splints are ultimately a result of stress, trauma or instability between bones. When this happens, the bone reacts; periostitis (inflammation of the periosteum) occurs and the body lays down new bone to form in the injured area. Hence the formation of the bony lump.

How do you treat a splint?

As the splint forms, most horses will show a degree of lameness and they will be averse to you touching the area.  This is short lived and in a minority of cases, no lameness presents.  Cease all ridden work and ground work training.  Restricted paddock turnout is for the most part preferable to complete box rest.  This allows supportive therapy to reduce the inflammation, as well as minimising concussion to the area.  Obviously each horse is treated as an individual and your vet will examine and advise specifically. Alongside this, cold hosing, icing and bandaging are advised. The provision of anti inflammatory medication, such as ‘Bute’, is also recommended.

How long will my horse be out of work?

After all the inflammation has subsided, your horse can gradually return to work.  Prognosis with splints is generally good, especially if they are detected early and managed well during formation.  It can vary from horse to horse but you need to be thinking something from around 4-6 weeks at least, with longer cases taking around 12 weeks in total to settle.  In some cases though, the inflammation and swelling associated with a splint forming can impinge on the suspensory ligament and this is more serious.  This type of splint is referred to as a blind splint as it does not produce an obvious enlargement.  Recovery can therefore be longer in these cases and great care is required to minimise further damage to the suspensory ligament and splint bones.  Your vet would advise further in this instance.

What can i do to prevent splints forming?

You can reduce the risk of splints forming by adhering to a number of key rules.  Make sure your horse follows a regular controlled exercise routine.  Select your riding surface carefully. With young horses slow down the intensity and frequency of your work.  Be aware of the concussive effect of different surfaces – roads, tracks, grass covered ground – on your horses legs.  Watch your horses weight and manage proper nutrition in a balanced diet. Make sure your farrier maintains proper foot care, with regular attendance.   You can also use protective boots during training and turnout.

Moving forwards?

The forecast in most simple cases is good.  Once the splint has healed, a regulated and progressive return to work is possible. Controlled ridden work before commencing full turnout is advised.  Splints are a common problem in ridden horses – at all levels.  Generally, splints only cause temporary set backs in your programme of work.  However, it is important to bear in mind that early detection, providing plenty of time and rest during recovery and a bit of patience go a long way to delivering the best outcome.

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