Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Ligament injuries

Ligaments are soft tissue structures that connect bone to bone in the skeleton. Injury of these supporting structures is a common cause of lameness in the horse. The severity of lameness and prognosis varies greatly according to the location and degree of ligament injury. Ligaments generally take a long time to heal and gradual return to exercise plays an essential part in the management of these injuries.

What do ligaments do?

Ligaments are elastic soft tissue structures which connect the ends of bones at joints. Their role is to maintain bones in alignment and provide support to the joint. They are usually located on either side of the joint (termed collateral positioning). Some joints simply have one ligament on either side and others have multiple ligaments in a more complex arrangement, such as those found in the stifle.

How are ligament injuries caused?

Ligamentous injury can occur in a number of ways. Direct trauma, eg a skin laceration, or abnormal or excessive forces placed on a joint, eg turning at speed, are common causes of such injuries. According to the severity of injury lameness can vary from mild to very severe. In cases of complete rupture there may be gross instability of the joint such that it may appear to be sub-luxated (dislocated), and the horse will show marked lameness. As with any soft tissue injury heat, pain and swelling are common presentations.

Common ligament injuries in the horse include the following:

  • Collateral ligaments of the coffin/fetlock and hock joints.
  • Palmar annular ligament of the fetlock.
  • Accessory (check) ligament of the deep digital flexor tendon in the lower limb.
  • Meniscal and cruciate ligaments of the stifle.

How will my vet diagnose a ligament injury?

In cases of severe ligament injury, the presence of heat, pain and swelling may enable your vet to identify the source of the problem and ultrasound examination can be used to confirm the diagnosis. In other, more subtle cases a full lameness investigation will be necessary. Your vet will begin with diagnostic anaesthesia (nerve blocking), followed by radiography and/or ultrasonography. Magnetic resonance imaging can frequently be a useful diagnostic tool in the identification and evaluation of ligament injuries in the lower limb.

How are ligament injuries treated?

As with all soft tissue injuries first aid should be implemented to reduce inflammation and associated pain. Your vet may recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as bute (phenylbutazone) in the acute phase post injury. Rest, ice and supportive bandaging can be helpful in reducing inflammation - remember never to put ice directly onto a horse's skin as this can cause skin burns. In severe cases, surgical arthrodesis (surgical fusion) of a joint may be necessary and/or cast application of the limb to enforce immobilisation of the affected area.

Your vet will be able to suggest a suitable period of box rest and gradual return to work depending on the severity of the injury. Repeat ultrasonographic examination may be used to monitor healing and it enables suitable adjustments in the proposed exercise regime to be made.

How long do ligament injuries take to resolve?

This depends completely on the degree of ligament damage and the location of injury. In cases of ligament rupture and joint instability the prognosis is extremely guarded for return to athleticism. Osteoarthritis of the affected joint is a possible result due to abnormal forces of weightbearing on the joint in the absence of the previously normal supportive ligamentous structures. Generally, with any ligament injury the healing process is prolonged and gradual return to work is essential in regaining strength of the damaged ligament(s).