What is Bowed Tendon Horse and How It Can Affect Your Equine

Whether you’re a horse breeder, trainer, rider, or simply a horse lover, horse leg injuries can be stressful.

Obviously, you want your horse to be feeling and performing at its best.

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Leg injuries are not only painful for your horse, but they can be a reason for retirement if your horse competes.

One common injury is a bowed tendon.

And when it comes to bowed tendons, horses may completely recover and be back to galloping through the fields in no time.

In other instances, the injury can be a bit more serious.

We’ll take you through the types, causes, symptoms, treatment, and recovery of horse bowed tendons throughout this article. 

But first, what exactly is a bowed tendon?

Horse Bowed Tendon Definition

To begin with, what does it mean when your horse has a bowed tendon? What is a bowed tendon?

Well, the technical answer is that it’s swelling in the digital flexor tendons of your horse. 

But, is that a helpful answer? Neigh. Not really. Not unless you have a very good understanding of horse anatomy.

So let’s break it down a little bit more.

First of all, tendons are what attach bones to muscles so that your horse can move. They have an elastic-y, rubber band-like quality where they can flex, bend, and move as necessary so your horse can bend, flex and move.

The digital flexor tendons are tendons in the limbs of your horse.

Here’s a diagram depicting exactly what and where the digital flexor tendons in your horse are:

digital flexor tendons

Source

The digital flexor tendon includes both:

  1. a superficial digital flexor tendon that runs up the leg/ankle
  2. a deep digital flexor tendon in the foot of your horse (that also runs up the leg).

Based on the location of these tendons, you can imagine how much they flex and move and how much pressure they take every time a horse walks, or moves its legs at all.

So you can see why an injury in this area can cause a lot of issues for your horse and also a lot of pain for your horse.

Swelling in these tendons is what causes bowed tendons in horses.

It’s more common for bowed tendons to appear on the superficial digital flexor tendon rather than the deep digital flexor tendon.

Bowed tendons come in various severities, depending on the type, location, intensity of the swelling/injury, etc.

The severity of the bowed tendon will affect how your horse heals and how long it takes for your horse to heal.

However, in most cases, your horse will be “right as rein” in about half a year or more.

What Does a Bowed Tendon Look Like on a Horse?

Now that you understand what a bowed tendon in horses is, and where the affected area is, let’s dig into what a bowed tendon looks like.

First, here’s a diagram depicting what a bowed tendon looks like in the horse’s leg, so we have an idea of what’s going on in the horse’s leg:

horse tendon diagram

Source

You can see the issue in the diagram (even without the close-up), where the tendon has become swollen.

However, what’s actually happening in the tendon when it becomes bowed is that fibres within it have torn (usually inner fibres first), causing inflammation and swelling.

Now here’s an image of what a bowed tendon actually looks like if you’re looking at a horse:

horse tendon

Source

This image shows a bowed tendon. You can see that the only visible clue that something is wrong with the horse’s leg is some swelling.

It may not be the easiest thing to notice unless you’re really paying attention to your horse, so it’s important to keep an eye out for other symptoms of a bowed tendon, or leg injury in general, your horse may be showing as well.

More on those later, though. First, we’ll go through how to get a diagnosis.

Bowed Tendon in Horse Diagnosis

So you think your horse might have a bowed tendon, but how do you know? How do you get an official diagnosis and treatment plan?

Well, first things first, if you suspect your horse has a bowed tendon or a leg injury in general, take them to the vet.

Your vet will likely take an ultrasound of the injured leg to confirm the injury is a bowed tendon and subsequently afterward to monitor the treatment.

Your vet will be able to identify the type of bowed tendon and help create a treatment plan for your horse so he or she can have the best chances of making a full recovery.

Types of Bowed Tendon in Horses

There are different types of bowed tendons in horses, which we’ve outlined in the table below.

Type of Bowed TendonDescription
Low Bowed Tendon HorseA low bow is when the area of the tendon that’s torn or ‘bowed’ is the lower portion of the deep digital flexor tendon
High Bowed Tendon HorseA high bow is when the affected area is higher up the tendon
Middle Bowed Tendon HorseA middle bow is when the affected area is in the middle area of the tendon
Full Bowed Tendon HorseA full bow is when all three areas are affected
Front Leg Bowed TendonBowed tendons in the front legs are more complicated to rehabilitate than those in the back
Hind Leg Bowed TendonHind leg bowed tendons are easier to rehabilitate than those in the front.

Bowed Tendon Horse Causes

Bowed tendons horses have can be formed through two different means:

  1. as a one-time issue (e.g. a horse stepping in a gopher hole)
  2. from constant wear and tear, which will happen with horses in competition, in training, or under a heavy workload.

One-Time Stress Issues

A bowed tendon happening because of a one-time issue, like the gopher hole example above, is an unfortunate accident where essentially your horse has a misstep and trips, and the stress from that causes tears in the tendon’s fibres that will become that bowed tendon.

There is nothing you can really do to prevent this type of accident from happening to your horse, other than making sure you’re avoiding obstacles that could cause a tripping accident when you’re riding him or her.

Wear and Tear

The other cause of bowed tendons is constant wear and tear from being an active horse. Or, in other words, the constant stress put on the tendons, bones, ligaments, and muscles of your horse’s legs when he or she is being constantly exercised.

If you’re training a thoroughbred racehorse, a standardbred racehorse or a horse being used for other English or western sports, you’ll need to take precautions to ensure they don’t get injured.

Training, racing, competing, and physical labour can cause injury over time, such as bowed tendons.

Bowed Tendon Horse Symptoms

bowed tendon horse symptoms

We mentioned this briefly previously, but what should you be looking for if you suspect your horse has a bowed tendon?

Some bowed tendon horse symptoms include:

We’ve outlined some of these symptoms in more detail in the table below:

SymptomHow CommonDescription
Swollen Area on Horse’s LegCommonThe ‘bowed’ look of the swollen leg that bowed tendons get their name from is a very common symptom.
Swollen Area Warm to TouchCommonJust like on your own body when you get an injury or infection, you’ll be able to feel the heat in the affected area, so it’s the same with bowed tendons horses get.
Horse Limping or LameDepends on SeverityA lame horse is a horse whose gait has changed. And obviously, with such an intense injury to the leg, a horse may become lame or limp, the severity of which depends on the severity of the bowed tendon.

Bowed Tendon Horse Prevention Tips

When it comes to bowed tendon horse prevention tips, the key really is just to look after your horse. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to ensure your horse never gets one. However, with these prevention tips, your horse will be more likely to stay healthy, or at least get quick vet attention in case of injury.

However, some tips include:

  1. Ensuring your horse has the proper nutrition
  2. Giving your horse equine supplements
  3. Allowing your horse to have proper rest
  4. Maintaining proper grooming and hygiene
  5. Regular and proper vet care

Ensuring Your Horse Has the Proper Nutrition

Equine nutrition is an important part of maintaining your horse’s health. You’ll want to ensure you’re giving him or her a proper diet to keep your horse healthy and strong, at a healthy weight.

How much your horse should be eating may depend on how active your horse is. The more athletic your horse is, and the more running, racing, jumping, etc that it does, the more robust its diet will need to be.

And horses eat a LOT as it is. They should be eating 1% of their body weight. 

Horses will maintain the largest part of their diet by eating forage, especially if you let them pasture throughout the day.

Giving Your Horse Supplements

However, you may want your horse to get some extra nutrients that they can’t get from forage alone.

This is where equine supplements for things like joint health and mobility can be beneficial for keeping your horse mobile and strong. 

TRI-ACTA Equine Regular Strength, for instance, uses ingredients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM to repair cartilage, prevent its breakdown and reduce pain and inflammation in joints to increase and/or maintain mobility.  It is a great option for prevention, maintenance, and dietary completeness to ensure the joint structures are supported properly which can help avoid injuries like bowed tendons.

If you’re interested in starting to provide your horse with supplements, talk to your vet about what would be best.

TRI-ACTA for Equine

Providing preventative support for younger horses and helping mitigate the early onset of joint degeneration and other mobility issues.

Allowing Your Horse to Rest

Just like it’s not good for you to go go go all the time, it’s also not good for your horse to over-exert him or her. Make sure you’re giving your horse a proper amount of time to rest, especially if it’s an active horse due to racing, jumping, or being used for riding lessons.

Obviously, you still want your horse to be active and healthy, but your horse will be more prone and more likely to injure him or herself without the proper rest. 

Maintaining Proper Grooming and Hygiene

grooming horse

Horses should be groomed daily. Not only is this a great time to bond with your horse and look after his or her mane, tail, hooves, and coats, but it also allows you to inspect your horse daily for any swelling or other signs of injury. 

So there you go, grooming isn’t all about just looking pretty. It serves as an important function for horses in maintaining their hygiene, hoof-health, and allows you to do a once-over for injuries.

Regular and Proper Vet Care

If you maintain a proper relationship with your vet, and ensure your horse is getting regular and proper veterinarian care, then even if your horse does have an injury, you’ll be more likely to catch it and begin the treatment process in good time.

Along the same lines, if your horse is showing signs of injury, make sure to make an appointment so your vet can inspect your horse, identify, and treat any injuries. 

When it comes to preserving your horse’s health, we’ve already got a guide called How to Maintain Superior Horse Health. That guide touches on the potential for tendon injuries in horses, especially those used for riding or jumping, among other things.

Bowed Tendon Horse Treatment

The first step in getting your bowed tendon horse treated is to confirm the diagnosis and speak to your vet.

Your vet will be able to create a treatment plan with you that will work best for you and your horse, including any surgery, medications, or supplements if required. 

However, there are some ways you can help your horse along in bowed tendon treatment.

Some treatment options include:

  • Box rest, which is just a period of rest for your horse so he or she can heal
  • Icing the injured area
  • Bandaging the injured limb
  • Supplements like TRI-ACTA H.A. for Equine for pain and inflammation

The University of Minnesota Extension suggests that treatment includes resting with a return to exercise happening gradually, on top of medications, supplementation, and potential surgery. It also reports that although your horse may appear to be better after a few days, it actually takes between 8-11 months to make a full recovery.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to bowed tendons, what all sources can agree on is that what your horse needs is the proper time to rest and heal, without extra stress and weight being placed on the tendons.

So make sure you get into the vet ASAP when you notice the symptoms of a bowed tendon on your horse so he or she can get treated medically, and then get to rest, as quickly as possible.

Horse Bowed Tendon Recovery

horse bowed tendon recovery

Your horse will be expected to make a full recovery with a bowed tendon.

However, your horse will also need to go through months and months of rest. The rehabilitation process to get your horse up and moving and active in a healthy way can take quite a long time to do without risking undue (re)injury to your horse. Using a supplement like TRI-ACTA H.A. for Equine can aid in recovery, pain relief, and overall inflammation.

After your horse is recovered, the repaired tendon won’t be quite as elastic as it had been before. It is compared to making part of a rubber band string by Dr. Larry Bramlage in the Paulick Report.

This may change your intentions for your horse, depending on what those intentions were.

For instance, your horse may no longer be able to be a competitive racing or jumping horse, at least not to the level it once was, for a long time. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) reports bowed tendons as a common reason horses may be ‘scratched’ after a race.

What’s more important, though, is that with the right recovery plan, your horse will be able to regain its health and mobility.

For more information on how you can support your horse through a sports injury, read our guide on 4 Ways to Support Sport Horse Injury Recovery.

Q&A

“Why Are My Horses Tendons Swollen?”

If your horse has swollen tendons in his or her legs, your horse may have bowed tendons. Whether or not this is the case, if you suspect your horse is injured, it’s a good idea to call a vet so the vet can examine him or her and identify and treat any injuries.

“Can Horse Recover Bowed Tendon?”

A horse can recover from a bowed tendon, although exactly what that recovery will look like will depend on the severity and location of the bowed tendon, and what exactly recovery means to you. If your horse was a racehorse, a bowed tendon may take him or her out of the circuit, for at least the year, if not permanently.

However, your horse’s tendons will likely recover, allowing your horse to be fully mobile again.

“How Long Does a Horse Tendon Injury Take to Heal?”

The length of time it takes for a tendon injury to heal depends on the severity of the injury. Horses can typically recover from bowed tendons in under a year.

However, part of that process will also include rehabilitating your horse for completing activities, so your horse will not be on stall rest for that entire length of time.

“Can You Ride a Horse With a Bowed Tendon?”

You should not ride a horse with a bowed tendon unless that bowed tendon has healed. Some horses with bowed tendons are lame for the course of their injury. In this instance, your horse wouldn’t be rideable anyway.

However, even if your horse can walk, bowed tendons can cause your horse a lot of pain, and you wouldn’t want to make that pain worse.

Conclusion

Bowed tendons are a serious issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. They can affect your horse’s mobility and cause him or her a lot of pain.

With the right treatment and care, your horse will be able to make a full recovery.

And then you can go galloping off into the sunset together.

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But first, make sure your horse is getting all the nutrients it needs and shop our collection of equine supplements.

And don’t be afraid to contact us if you have any questions. 

TRI-ACTA H.A. for Equine

Our maximum strength formula is perfect for horses that are ageing, experiencing arthritis and stiffness, are in training and competition, or under a heavy workload.

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