A friend of mine is currently horse-hunting. This weekend she went to try a potential dressage horse and loved him, until she saw that he had a large splint on his off-fore. The horse wasn't lame and the splint was cold and apparently inactive – as a nine year old, this was to be expected – and it didn't interfere with his knee or fetlock joints. If the horse was intended to be used for showing, the splint would be a problem as it would be regarded as a serious blemish and he would be marked down for this. As it happens, my friend is looking for something to compete in dressage classes and a splint is irrelevant for this.
But, what is a splint? Is it something to be concerned about when viewing a horse?
A splint is an injury to the small, narrow splint bone which sits either side of the horse's cannon bone. It is attached to the cannon bone by a tough ligament called the interosseous. The splint bone acts, as you would expect from its name, as a splint to the larger cannon and provides essential support to it. It is vulnerable to damage as a result of traumatic injuries such as kicks and self-inflicted knocks, for example when a horse becomes cast in its stable. Concussion as a result of fast work on hard or uneven surfaces is also a common cause of splint damage especially in growing young horses when their bones are still relatively soft.
If the splint bone suffers a knock or the interosseous ligament becomes damaged, a lump appears called a splint. This change is the result of the body's attempt to repair the damage by forming new bony tissue which manifests as a hard lump. Once the pain and swelling subsides this is no more than a cosmetic blemish which, once formed, causes the horse no problems as long as it does not interfere with the movement of the joints. Splints are roughly divided into five groups:
A tear in the interosseous ligament progresses to a bony injury. This is the most common type of splint.
Inflammation occurs in between the ligament and the splint bone. This is very difficult to detect, hence its name.
Swelling in the upper part of the splint bone can result in osteoarthritis in the knee, although this is very rare.
This refers to an actual break in the splint bone.
Spotting a splint can be tricky. The horse may appear very slightly unlevel – nothing major, just a not quite right. Very often there will initially be no outward sign of a problem except perhaps for a small area of heat and tenderness on one or other side of the cannon bone. Over a week or two, a lump will begin to appear and you then know that your horse has a splint. If there's no obvious break in the skin it's probably a true splint. If however the horse is very lame and a lump forms quickly on the outside of his cannon, this could indicate a fracture to the splint bone.
It's important to consult your vet especially if the lameness is severe and the onset is sudden or there is obvious damage to the skin.
The majority of splints are as a result of concussion or trauma. Avoid working your horse on hard ground and boot him up when working him and when he's turned out. Clearly, there's not much you can do if a boisterous youngster decides to gallop around his field playing with his chums, apart from keep your fingers crossed! Poor confirmation such as angled cannons can also predispose a horse to the formation of splints as can carrying excessive weight.
Many splints develop without bothering the horse at all. Others cause lameness and pain which is usually resolved over three to four weeks. A short course of pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs together with box rest generally does the trick although in the case of a fractured splint bone, healing time will be longer and surgery may be required depending on the severity of the fracture and the presence of splinters of bone which will need to be removed.
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