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Bucked Shins in Horses: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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I was walking through the barn, thinking about how none of our young horses had leg problems this year. Usually, I would have at least one or two with bucked shin, but not a single animal seemed affected – what did we do right?

Many performance horses develop bucked shins during their first few months of training. It’s a common bone problem, also called dorsal metacarpal disease. Approximately 70% of young Thoroughbreds develop this condition, and 12% of them later have a fracture in one of their forelimb cannon bones. Bucked shins can limit a horse’s performance and increase the risk of catastrophic injuries.

In this blog post, we will discuss the signs and symptoms of bucked shins, how to treat them, and how to prevent them from occurring. We hope you find this information helpful.

Picture of a horse with bucked shins.

What are bucked shins?

A friend recently had a vet check his horse because the animal didn’t want to take a step when he encouraged him. The vet ran his hand down the horse’s front legs and said that he noticed heat and swelling in the front of the cannon bone. He suspected the horse had bucked shins.

Bucked shins are tiny stress fractures in the front of the cannon bones. Signs of bucked shins include pain, and swelling around the area, which at first is soft, then becomes hard and feels like bone. Sometimes horses will display signs of lameness.

One common cause of bucked shins in horses is repetitive pounding on hard surfaces, such as during intense works or racing. This can lead to inflammation and micro-fractures in the bone, causing pain and stiffness in the horse’s front legs.

If you run your hand down the front of their cannon bone, they will react by lifting their leg or moving it away quickly. Prevention of bucked shins starts with proper conditioning and gradual increases in intensity and duration of exercise.

If the condition is minor, like in the picture above, the horse will likely fully recover with a little time off, cold therapy, and anti-inflammatory drugs. However, not enough rest can cause these micro-fractures to spread into a larger, more serious stress fracture.

Below is a YouTube video that provides helpful information and pictures of bucked shins.

What causes bucked shins?

My friend started training his racehorses at around two years old, the same as we do. So when he noticed that his horse was shin-bucked, he was a bit puzzled because he had trained this horse the same as all the others.

We all want our horses to advance, but pushing them too fast can cause setbacks. Horses need time to get in shape, and not equine athletes are created equal. Some horses develop slower than others, and you need to design your training program around each one – it’s important for trainers and owners alike to monitor a young horse’s exercise routine and gradually increase its workload to prevent injuries like bucked shins.

A picture of three young Thoroughbreds just starting their training.

Overtraining

One common cause of bucked shins is the excessive workload on immature bones, particularly in young horses that are being trained for intense athletic activities such as racing or jumping. If you start working your horse too fast too early, you can expect problems.

Researchers in a recent study of two-year-old Thoroughbreds in race training found that 56 of 226 developed bucked shins. When we start young horses, we typically ride them for 30 days, teach them basic cues, and let them get comfortable with their surroundings.

Then we start jogging them for typically a mile and then let them cool down with a mile walk. If they are progressing well, we’ll jog them for seven-eights of a mile, sprint an eighth, jog another eighth mile, and finish up with a 10-15 minute walk.

We continue this routine for at least one month but more often for two months. I also use a heart monitor to keep up with the horse’s conditioning.

Picture of a young thoroughbred horse in training.

Genetics

Certain breeds may have a genetic predisposition to bucked shins, such as Thoroughbreds or Standardbreds. Not only do specific breeds have more incidents of bucked shins, but certain bloodlines also do.

A number of years ago, we had a filly in training that had shin bucked. We knew she had talent, so we backed off her training and gave her more time to develop. After we brought her back, she continued to impress. She was an exceptionally fast horse, but shin bucked a second time.

So we gave her time off again and finally got her in shape to race. She won her first race and was slightly off, setting a new track record, but she shin-bucked again. Instead of putting her through more training and pain, we elected to use her for a broodmare.

Her baby was just like her, extremely fast and regularly shin-bucked. I think the weak bone mass was part of the genetics in the bloodline. While genetics can play a role in a horse developing bucked shins, there are certain training and management practices that can help prevent them.

Picture of our training surface.

Hard surfaces

Repeated impact on hard surfaces can cause bucked shins. When a horse’s legs strike a hard surface, the force of the impact can damage the delicate tissue surrounding the bone. This can lead to inflammation and pain; bucked shins can become a chronic problem over time.

We are lucky in that the surface of our training track is relatively deep and soft. I’ve been to a number of training facilities that are way too firm and dangerous for training young horses. Even some race tracks aren’t ideal surfaces for young horses. Evangeline downs was tough on the young horse’s legs last season.

super.green

Treatment

Once bucked shins are identified, treatment options include rest, ice therapy, poultice, and anti-inflammatory medications. If properly rested and treated, bucked shins often heal on their own over time.

We initially rub down their shins with Super Green horse linament; you can find this at most tack shops and rest our horse. The rest period is essential for shin-buck injuries. You should not keep your horse completely still because it will not heal correctly.

But you also don’t want your horse to do too much because that can undo the healing process. We’ve also seen good results using DMSO. However, if you’re unfamiliar with using it, I suggest reading my article on DMSO first.

Finding the right balance is important so your horse can heal properly. I suggest turning your horse out in a paddock or taking it out of its stall daily for walks on a lead rope and trying to avoid situations that may cause it to get excited and pound its feet.

If you regularly work with horses, invest in a pair of ice boots; most are easy to use and relatively inexpensive. They come in handy for a range of injuries. I wrote an article about ice boots, it covers their uses, and I give my recommendations on the best ones to buy.

Picture of a horse getting its front legs wrapped to treat bucked shins.

Prevention

Once the horse has recovered from bucked shins, it is important to continue with preventative measures to avoid future injury. This would include having a proper warm-up and cool-down routine before and after exercise.

Also, you’ll need to gradually increase the intensity and duration of workouts to allow the horse’s muscles and bones to adapt. Proper nutrition, including adequate calcium and phosphorus, is also important for healthy bone development in horses.

Providing proper footing for exercise surfaces can also help prevent injuries such as bucked shins. Regular veterinary exams can help catch any potential issues early on and allow for timely treatment before they become more serious problems.

Veterinarian Petrisor Baia DVM wrote a really good article titled: Understanding the condition of bucked shins so we can take better care of our horses. It provides insight into training two-year-old racehorses to help develop bone and prevent bucked shins.

We use a similar training program. Instead of long gallops, we introduce short sprints early in our horse’s training. I think this helps prevent young horses from shin bucking, and it’s consistent with the above article’s findings.

Conclusion

In conclusion, bucked shins in horses can be difficult to deal with and can have long-term effects on the horse’s performance and soundness. Bucked shins are typically caused by repetitive stress on the bone.

It causes inflammation on the front surface of the cannon bone and is a painful and potentially career-ending injury for the horse. While genetics can play a role in a horse developing bucked shins, there are certain training and management practices that can help prevent them.

Treatment options include rest, ice therapy, and anti-inflammatory medications. It is important for horse owners and trainers to be aware of the potential for bucked shins in order to keep their horses happy and healthy.

Below is a video of two of our young horses working together.

FAQs

How long do bucked shins take to heal?

A horse must rest for four to six weeks with a bucked shin. However, don’t leave the horse in a stall; it needs to move around, preferably in a pasture, to help the bone heal.

What is the shin on a horse called?

The shin of a horse is called the cannon bone; it’s the long bone in the horse’s leg that runs from the hock to the fetlock. The cannon bone is a key weight-bearing bone.