Speed Events With an Old Bow?

A rider wonders if barrel racing will re-injure her gelding’s healed bowed tendon.
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A rider wonders if barrel racing will re-injure her gelding’s healed bowed tendon.

Q I’m leasing a 10-year-old Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred gelding that competed successfully in barrel racing with his owner. Now that he’s in my care, however, I’ve learned he has an old bowed tendon. I’d like to barrel race with him but am afraid he could re-injure that tendon. Should I worry?

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JULIE TREATH, Arizona

A Most horses that get appropriate rest after a bowed tendon can happily go back to work, even at a high level of performance. Because barrels are a speed event, there may be more risk involved, but it’s still entirely possible for your horse to be able to perform safely, depending on a few factors.

What’s usually called a bowed tendon is actually an injury to a horse’s superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT). Tears can range from mild to severe. The cause is generally an overloading of the leg, often occurring when horses are fatigued and traveling at high speeds. Tired muscles weaken and can inadvertently overload a limb, causing the tendon to tear. A preexisting but unnoticed tendonitis can sometimes be a contributing factor. (You may also hear about a “bandage bow,” or swelling caused by an inappropriate leg wrap; these typically don’t involve tears.)

A tendon that tears must heal by filling in that lesion. Unfortunately, the healing can produce scar tissue rather than stretchy tendon tissue. That would mean there’s now a part of the tendon that’s less flexible than the rest (see box).

Given that your gelding’s injury is an old one and he’s been back to work successfully, here’s how to proceed. Have your veterinarian perform an ultrasound of the tendon to check for full healing and to establish a baseline for the future. Then, any time you ride him at speed, whether practicing or competing, closely monitor the injured limb for heat and swelling for a few days afterward. This enables you to catch any signs of re-injury early to notify your vet. (Be aware that a tendon can be injured but still look normal for a day or two before it swells.)

Cold hosing or other forms of icing the legs after hard work is also a good policy as it can help to reduce inflammation.

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If you proceed carefully, the odds will be in your favor. If by chance your gelding does re-injure that tendon, his prognosis would depend upon the severity of the original injury and the re-injury. These, again, are measured by ultrasound.

In summary, if your gelding had the proper rest to allow the original SDFT to heal, the veterinarian says he’s now sound (and an ultrasound prior to working confirms that), and you monitor him carefully as you ride, he has an excellent chance of being able to do what you want him to do.

ELIZABETH ARBITTIER, VMD
New Bolton Center
University of Pennsylvania
School of Veterinary Medicine