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With all the bumps and bruises that our horses acquire, having a horse pop a splint isn’t shocking. But, what happens next?
**if you suspect your horse is injured, please consult a vet – this post is just my personal experience with treating a splint. Links include affiliates – where I receive compensation if you make a purchase after clicking**
The last couple of months has felt like one of those roller coasters that jerks and chugs and stutters to the top of a slope before dropping you off the other side. Between cuts & scrapes, loose shoes, car repairs and my own schedule, I struggled to get real momentum going with my riding. I managed 2 to 3 times a week – most of the time.
Then, May arrived. First, I arrived at the barn to Elf with blood dripping from his nose. That turned out to be allergies. The answers were relatively straightforward to implement. Except that Elf was not pleased with the requirement that he not have a round bale in his turnout. It shocked me that Elf tolerated the extended turnout times at our barn here in Kentucky (although it hasn’t been without drama). Without the round bale, though? He was not nearly as tolerant of weather, flies or whatever else bothered him. He paced and got sweaty and there were a couple nights of tearing around the turnout and being brought in.
Last weekend, the bulk of the barn was away at a show so I’d planned to spend a little more time at the barn. On Saturday, that meant hanging out for a while after feed time while a thunderstorm rolled through so I could turn Elf out after the weather calmed down. The rain stopped, the radar was clear, Elf went out and I went home.
Until thunder & the wind that made my house shake jerked me awake at 4 am with the absolute conviction that my horse had hurt himself.
So, with the rain keeping the early morning sky gray, I drove out to the barn before breakfast. Elf trotted across the front pasture as I came up the drive – noticeably, visibly, head bobbing off on his right front. Several loudly muttered expletives later it was clear that he’d hit his front legs. His belly, chest, and legs were thoroughly coated with mud. He’d stepped on his heel and there was a significant swelling on the inside of his right front cannon with an abrasion that led me to think he’d hit his front leg with a hind leg.
What does it mean to “pop a splint”
Ready for a little lesson on anatomy & equine evolution?
The splint bones are small bones located on either side of the cannon bone. They are believed to be the leftover metacarpal/tarsal bones that become largely extraneous as the horse evolved into a single “toe” animal. Their role is now supportive rather than weight bearing. Starting just below the knee, the splint bones taper down almost to the ankle.
“Popping” a splint means that some sort of trauma has caused inflammation in the ligament between the splint & cannon bone, the splint bone itself or some combination. Training (especially concussive stressing like jumping) and direct trauma (like hitting it while being an idiot) are frequent causes. Poor nutrition, too much weight, conformation issues or incorrect shoeing can also cause enough stress to inflame the splint. Young horses coming into work are the most susceptible, but as Elf proved, it’s not limited by age.
What do I do when my horse pops a splint?
If you are around horses long enough, you’ll see a tremendous range of injuries. I’ve seen splints before so I recognized it. I cold hosed the leg with the splint, put on standing wraps and stalled him until I could call our vet. Treatment is somewhat dependent on the location of the splint and whether or not there is an actual fracture in the splint bone.
Determine if there is a fracture
Our first priority was to determine if there was a fracture in his splint bone. A couple of quick Xrays taken from three views of the injured leg definitively showed that there wasn’t. It did show significant inflammation and the beginnings of bone remodeling.
Address the inflammation
The priority in treating non-fracture splints is to minimize the size of the bony swelling for both cosmetic purposes and reduce the chance of the “bump” interfering with the suspensory ligament, which can cause long-term unsoundness. We are treating Elf with cold hosing and ice boots – 20 minutes 2x a day. We are also utilizing pressure bandaging (standing wraps) to reduce swelling and protect the injury.
The inflammation that spurs the size of the splint is exacerbated by hard ground and concussion so rest is an important part of splint treatment and rehab. The typical protocol for a splint is 6 weeks of rest, with a range of 2 weeks to 12 weeks depending on the injury and the horse. It is worth noting that “rest” can be a number of different options depending on your set up and your horse. Horses can be on their normal turnout schedule, turned out 24/7 or on stall rest for all or part of their treatment. Splints are exacerbated by hard ground, so that is also a consideration.
At my current barn, our turnout option is limited to a group in a relatively large field (that has a history of being on the rowdy side). Between that and the frequent thunderstorms that we know cause some running, our vet advised strict stall rest for Elf with limited hand walking on soft footing.
Treating splints is largely a matter of letting the body heal while supporting it in a way to encourage optimal healing. In addition to the external support, Elf is getting support with meds and supplements. Topically, I apply anti-inflammatory Triamcinolone daily when I change his wraps. He received Bute orally for the first few days after the injury in its most acute stage.
Since rehab (especially with stall rest) can be stressful, I called Smartpak immediately after my vet appointment to ask how to best support Elf with his supplements. His normal Smartpak includes SmartDigest and SmartCalm, which he’s been on as long as I have owned him. The lovely folks at Smartpak helped me evaluate the various options, compare to his current Smartpak and make some adjustments. Since this rehab will be an extended process, we opted for SmartR&R plus Spirulina to support his breathing with the inevitable dust of being inside 24/7. SmartR&R supports joint health and healing, helps protect his gut (stall rest can so easily equal ulcers) and keep him calm. It will test (for show purposes) but since we have 2 months of rest then a slow leg up process, it was more important to keep him calm and quiet during his recovery than getting immediately back into the ring.
Rinse & Repeat
For the near future, we have a new routine – Ice boots, grooming, hand walk, another turn with the ice boots and rewrapping. It’s time-consuming and I miss my in-the-saddle therapy. But, Elf isn’t going anywhere. He’s with me for life, so the priority is his long term soundness and comfort. If that requires a little extra time investment now? Totally worth it.