Recovery Time for a Sprained Ankle in Horses: What to Expect

Table of Contents

Recovery Time for a Sprained Ankle in Horses: What to Expect

Table of Contents

Source: Canva

Annie and her horse Storm had been practicing hard for months to compete in an exciting cross-country event. Their rigorous training schedule was barely enough as Storm learned to navigate uneven terrains and work through the obstacles, twists, and turns they would have to ride out together. 

They were ready for the expected challenges of the event. But what they were not ready for, was what happened next. Clearing a fallen tree, Storm sidestepped on a loose rock, disrupting a smooth landing, and causing him to twist his ankle.

Annie sensed a sudden shift in Storm’s gallop, she guessed he had hurt himself. Slowing down, she realized that their months of preparation for this event, may now be lost to a sprain or something more serious.

Annie was right. Storm had sprained his ankle and swelling was already showing around the fetlock.  While the vet administered pain and anti-inflammatory medication, Annie wondered if there was anything she could do to help Storm recover faster and prepare them better for the next cross-country event. 

A sprained ankle is hard to avoid when it’s caused by an accident, like the one Storm had. However, some measures can be taken to strengthen your horse’s limbs so that this kind of accident will not lead to a sustained or serious injury. 

As for the recovery time of a sprained ankle, you’re looking at 6 -8 weeks for a mild to moderate sprain, and anything up to 3 months for a severe sprain.[1] During this time you should be prepared to rest your horse and only participate in mild exercise.

Using supportive healing aids as soon as the injury happens, reduces the recovery time. We will discuss these aids shortly. 

Understanding the structures that can lead to a sprained ankle

A sprained ankle in horses involves the overextension of collateral ligaments that support the fetlock joint. The fetlock joint is a complex structure critical for stability and comprises various bones, ligaments, tendons, and soft tissues.  


Here is a breakdown of these structures and how injury to any part can lead to a sprain when a horse lands on uneven terrain or twists their leg unnaturally.

Ligaments(suspensory ligaments, cruciate ligaments, palmar annular ligament)The primary structures affected in a sprain are the ligaments, which are tough, fibrous tissues connecting bones to other bones. In the fetlock joint, this includes the suspensory ligament supporting the fetlock and running down the back of the upper cannon bone, as well as the proximal sesamoid bones ligaments. The palmar annular ligament can also be involved, depending on the severity of the sprain.  Sprains occur when these ligaments are stretched beyond their normal range due to abnormal or excessive movement, such as twisting or hyperextension during high-speed activities or awkward landings.
Proximal Sesamoid BonesLocated at the back of the fetlock, these two small bones can be involved in a sprain due to ligament injury. Excessive force or hyperextension causes fractures or strain on the ligaments, weakening surrounding structures.
Fetlock JointThe fetlock itself, being the joint where the cannon bone meets the pastern bones, is directly involved in a sprain. The joint may experience abnormal movement or stress, leading to inflammation, pain, and decreased mobility.
Pastern Bones(long and short)Although not directly a part of the ligamentous sprain, any changes in fetlock joint biomechanics can impact the stress and strain patterns on the pastern bones.
Tendons(deep digital flexor tendon, deep flexor tendon)While tendons are more involved in strains than sprains, the change in joint mechanics due to a sprain can affect tendon function. This is especially true for the deep digital flexor tendon, which runs behind the fetlock and can be indirectly affected by changes in fetlock and pastern biomechanics.

Injuries that can lead to, or aggravate a sprained ankle

Source: Canva

Suspensory ligament injuries

This ligament injury can play a significant role in a sprained ankle. If your horse is recovering from this kind of injury, overexercise or fatigue can cause a secondary injury, such as a sprained ankle. [2]

The suspensory ligament, running from the back of the cannon bone down to the sesamoid bones and dividing into two branches that attach to the pastern bones, essentially acts as a shock absorber and stabilizer for the fetlock, preventing excessive hyperextension during movement. Since the fetlock joint is compromised it leads to several issues that can cause a sprain:

  • Increased vulnerability – without the full strength of the suspensory ligament, missteps and normal athletic activity can result in excessive twisting of the leg.
  • Altered biomechanics – injury to the suspensory injuries affects the horse’s gait, putting strain on other leg parts. This altered movement can lead to uneven sidestepping which then causes a sprain.  

Tendon injuries

The flexor tendons being injured are a major contributing factor for sprains. Once again, it is because the stability of the limb has been compromised. For instance, if the DDFT, which attaches to the underside of the coffin bone, is strained or torn, it can lead to abnormal loading and instability of the fetlock joint. This instability may increase the risk of a sprain as the joint becomes unable to withstand normal or athletic stresses.

Soft tissue injuries

Injury to the muscle around the ligaments and tendons can lead to mild spasms in the horse’s legs which cause the horse to have an uneven gait and potentially misstep during strenuous exercise.  In sport horses, an initial injury can become a contributing factor for other more serious problems. 

Several measures can be taken to help your horse recover from a sprained ankle. Let’s look at an innovative supportive therapy that will act as an ongoing aid in your horse’s healing process. 

First aid for sprains

Source: Canva

CarnoGel by Chemipower

Scar tissue is a factor when it comes to a sprained ankle, and your horse can get relief from massaging the injured limb gently to increase circulation. Massage alone will be beneficial, but if you use a carnosine-based gel, such as the one developed by Chemipower and Tartu University, you will get the additional benefits offered by carnosine. 

Let’s explain.

The challenges with sprain are inflammation, swelling, pain, strained joints and ligaments, and even tendon involvement. You can tackle the injuries directly by applying carnosine as a gel because it has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to increase the strength of ligaments, joints, and tendons. 

Also researched for its ability to increase blood flow of surrounding tissues, it becomes a powerful supportive therapy to help your horse heal from a sprained ankle.

Applying this gel daily as you massage the injury site, will directly target the reasons recovery time can take longer – inflammation, poor blood flow, and loss of ligament strength.  

Other natural healing aids for sprains

When your horse has a sprained ankle there are several things you can do to alleviate the pain, swelling, and inflammation besides applying a powerful natural anti-inflammatory, like CarnoGel

Within the first hours and days of an ankle sprain, these aids will give your horse much-needed relief.

  • Cold hosing – the immediate response to an injury is to send more blood to the area. Cold hosing where you stand the horse in a stream or in another body of cold water for 20-30 minutes will reduce the swelling.  
  • Ice Pack – Usually sprains are worse on days 2 and 3 as the body goes to work on healing the injury. This can cause swelling and pain. Applying a cold pack for 10-20 minutes will help manage this natural healing process. 
  • Warm moist heat – once the initial swelling, pain, and inflammation have decreased you can add warm moist heat to the limb for 10-20 minutes a day. This is also where you can use CarnoGel to massage your horse’s limb and increase circulation. 

Perhaps you have some other questions you would like answered regarding your horse’s sprained ankle? Let’s take a look at some of the answers to your questions before we say goodbye.

Frequently asked questions

How can I tell if my horse has a sprain?

People often want to know how to differentiate a sprain from other injuries. Common signs include lameness, swelling around the joint, heat in the affected area, and stiffness or reluctance to move. A veterinarian’s evaluation might be necessary to confirm a sprain through physical examination and possibly imaging tests like X-rays or ultrasound.

Can footwear prevent a sprained ankle?

Proper footwear is crucial for preventing sports injuries, including sprains in horses. Selecting the right athletic shoes that offer shock absorption, traction, and ankle and arch support specific to the sport can significantly reduce the risk of strains, sprains, and other injuries. It’s essential to choose footwear based on functionality over trends, ensuring it matches the demands of the sport and your anatomy. 

When should my horse return to full activity after a sprain?

A straight answer to this question is difficult to give because it depends on the extent of the injury, the horse’s age, and health, and factors that could delay healing like injury to surrounding tissues or tendons. Anything between 6 weeks and 3 months is acceptable for a sprained ankle. 

Healing can take time, but it will come

This article has discussed how and why a sprain occurs, as well as what you can do to support your horse’s healing. 

Naturally, you will be anxious for your horse to feel better as soon as possible, but humans take time to recover from a sprained ankle and so will your horse. If you diligently apply the treatments recommended by your vet, as well as the natural healing aids we have discussed, your horse will recover in due time and you will participate in sporting events again.