11 fun things to know about horse tendons and ligaments


Well, I’m not sure if “fun” is the right word to describe this, but it’s fairly interesting to learn these 11 things about the inside of your horse. Besides the fact that horse tendons and ligaments literally hold a horse upright.  


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  • Tendons and ligaments are both types of connective tissue. They are long strands of collagen fibers with very little blood flow, compared to muscles and organs. Tendons are enclosed in sheaths, which hold in the tendon and some synovial fluid to help things glide along as your horse moves. These sheaths are also involved in the formation of windpuffs.


  • Ligaments connect bone and cartilage. Tendons connect bone to muscle, and are more “stretchy” than ligaments.  Both types of connective tissue can be injured.  


  • The superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) is one of the longest tendons in a horse, and the suspensory ligament is one of the longest ligaments.  


  • Your horse’s legs from the knee down and hock down are just tendons and ligaments. Super weird but also super cool.  Muscles are present above the knees and hocks.  


cross section of a horse's lower leg

The yellow and red are tendons and ligaments of the lower leg.


Damage to the soft tissues of the legs can happen


  • When tendons and ligaments get heated up, they get damaged. The heat will decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches tendon cells. This is the classic example of an overuse injury, occurring over time.  These injuries are age-related, too, and are commonly referred to as “wear and tear.”


  • There was a fantastic study that measured heat in a horse’s legs when walking and trotting. With leg wraps or sport boots, one study suggests that the temperature of the skin under wraps increases by 30%. Is this ok in cold weather? Maybe? Is this something that needs further study? Sure! But it doesn’t take science to tell us that a horse’s tissue temperature will increase when it’s covered. By fleece, by polo wraps, by neoprene – it can all contribute to damage.  For this reason alone, icing legs and hooves is important!  


  • Most tendon injuries occur in the front limbs, as they bear 60-65% of a horse’s weight, even more with a rider, and even more still when a horse is landing on the far side of a jump. Ligament injuries occur equally in the front and back limbs. 



horse legs cantering at a horse show

This cantering horse shows just how much the tendons and ligaments stretch!


  • Here’s a cool tidbit of tendon smarts – tendons can stretch and retract anywhere from one to three inches! THREE INCHES. If a horse is stretched beyond his normal, this can create a painful strain. At about an 8% stretch, things start to tear, causing more pain.


When tendons and ligaments over-stretch


  • In the UK, most racehorses run on turf. The softer surface creates more soft tissue injuries to these horses. In the US, most racehorses have bone and joint injuries due to the harder dirt tracks.


  • Tendon injuries are rated on a scale of one to four. One being minor tears with some inflammation, all the way to four where the lesion is huge, indicating massive fiber tearing with some blood added in for good measure.  


  • Tendon injuries often need six to 18 months to recover, depending on the severity and grade of the lesion.  Sometimes this involves stall rest, much to the dismay of horse and owner alike.  Rehabbing a connective tissue injury is time-consuming, and sometimes setbacks occur when the stall-rested horse feels his oats a little too much. 


horse wearing suspensory ice boots that cover the fetlock


Some things to know about tendons and ligaments:


  • You want to get your vet involved pronto if you have the smallest inkling that your horse has a tendon issue. Getting the inflammation down due to a tendon or ligament injury is helpful for pain control and the healing process. Medications, ice, and specific wrapping can help with this. You might also need to add in stall rest, hand walking, and a gradual increase in exercise.




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