Round Pen Injuries

Has there has been an increase in hind limb lameness since the round pen has become more popular? I feel like I ruined my dream horse with round pen work starting when he was about six months old. He is nine now and mostly unridable due to a degenerative condition in his hips. I had written this off as bad luck until my friend's mare began to exhibit the same problem. The only things these two horses have in common are strenuous round pen sessions and similar hind limb malfunction.

The malfunction is such that when the rear leg is brought forward for a stride, it feels as if the horse stumbles, hits a rock, or stubs his toe. From the ground, it looks as if the whole leg collapses when weight comes onto it. This is most likely to happen at a downward transition. My horse has been examined by seven vets, including the head orthopedic surgeon at the North Carolina State veterinary hospital. They did many manual exams and suggested bone scans (which I couldn't afford) and found inflammation and soreness in the hip. They offered no opinion for treatment success because they weren't sure if the injury was primarily a bone or soft tissue problem without a bone scan.

I know the experiences of two horses aren't hard evidence, but I'm wondering how many other people are dealing with hind limb lameness in horses started in round pens.     Charlotte

One of the difficulties in answering the question is not all trainers use the round pen in the same manner and for the same reason. Many trainers only use the round pen for young horses, while others use this type of exercise for mature animals. Also, round pen construction and footing is quite variable.

Unfortunately, I know of little information other than personal experience to confirm the round pen as a primary source of injury. However, I believe most veterinarians would agree that the round pen can be a major source of injury to horses trained frequently in this manner.

My understanding of the gaits used to train a horse in the round pen is mainly the trot and an occasional slow canter. James Rooney, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, of Queenstown, Md., believes that trotting (particularly racing Standardbreds) stresses the sacroiliac joint, leading to an arthrosis (joint disease) of this area. However, this is not the same as the hip or coxofemoral joint that you report as a problem. I don't know how to consider the tight circling and the effects this might have on stresses seen at the trot. The tight circling is what I feel creates an uneven loading of the distal (lower) limb, which in a horse with a pre-existing foot imbalance or a conformational flaw (toed-in or toed-out) creates a higher compression of the inside aspect of the digit (especially the joints that make up the digit, including the coffin, pastern, and up into the fetlock) and increases the tensile (pulling open) stress of the outside of the digit.

However, I perceive the biggest cause of injury during this type of training to be from traumatic incidents, such as hitting the wall or stepping into uneven surfaces from improper maintenance of the footing. These types of injuries can instantly overload the digit and its complement of joints from a medial to lateral orientation.

Unfortunately, the best way to determine the cause of your horse's problem is a complete work-up, including nerve or joint blocks, radiographs, ultrasound, and bone scan. This is expensive, but gives you the most specific answer possible and hopefully provides the veterinarians involved with enough information to give you a prognosis and treatment strategy for your horse.

About the Author

Rich Redding, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS

Rich Redding, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, is a clinical associate professor of surgery at North Carolina State University. He has particular expertise in the use of ultrasound to diagnose injuries of tendons, ligaments, and joints. Dr. Redding uses NC State's high field strength MRI to evaluate lameness below the carpus and tarsus; he also compares other imaging modalities to MRI.

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