Bowed Tendons in Horses

Jessica McDaniel
Written by
Last update:

What is a Bowed Tendon?

The problem of bowed tendons in horses is a very common cause of lameness in horses.

In a nutshell, a bowed tendon is a condition in which the origin of a tendon is damaged. This condition occurs when the muscle contracts and tightens while the tendon slides through the area where it attaches to bone.

Tightening of muscles and tendons during movement causes the synovial sheath around the tendon (the slick covering that allows the tendon to slide through during movement) to become stretched and irritated, triggering an inflammatory response.

Inflammation changes the structure of the tendon, which in turn can cause rupture of the tendon. Once that happens, the tendon will move abnormally, and that’s when you’ll see the horse or pony banging against his stall or tossing his head, shaking it and putting pressure on it with his hoof.

Your horse might also have trouble rising from a laying position and show signs of pain in the affected area.

In severe cases, your horse will be limping, ataxic, will walk with a stiff gait and will be reluctant to move. The lameness can also be found around the jaw or the stifle, and vets will use an X-ray to check if the tendon is ruptured.

Causes of Bowed Tendons

Bowed tendons are a painful lameness that affects the lower legs, most commonly the long pastern tendon. This lameness will show as a persistent looseness in your horse’s fetlock joint and/or a bowed tendon. It is a common cause for lameness in the horse.

The horse’s fifth metatarsal bone is connected to the first phalanx which holds the distal interphalangeal joint (DIP). The long pastern tendon connects the two. Tendons are essentially elastic strings holding the joints together and so when a tendon is bowed, the joint is pulled forward.

A bowed tendon is commonly caused by repetitive trauma. A characteristic event of bowed tendons that occur in other joints in the human body is when a tennis player’s elbow gets bowed after repeated serve hits in their court.

However, the bowed tendon in a horse is not necessarily caused by repeated trauma. There are other causes such as a chronic inflammation in the joint (arthritis), improper break (crooked leg), and a bone spavin (analogous to a growth of bone spurs).

Treatment for Bowed Tendons

Both tendons in a horse’s legs can develop bowed tendons. Risk factors are increasing in frequency, making bowed tendons in horses a major concern for the equine industry.

In some cases, bowed tendons don’t correct themselves by natural healing.

The most common way to treat a bow tendon is to put him on stall rest for at least six weeks. You may hear of an all-terrain or pasture boot, but both don’t do much for the healing process. It’s important to keep him quiet for at least six weeks.

Many times the bow will go away on its own after consistent rest or a few sessions of laser treatments. The important thing is to pay attention and make sure your horse is sound after resting.

Recovery from Bowed Tendons- Is It Possible?

If you've asked "how does a tendon tear" or wondered what is tendonitis, you may have been researching bowed tendons. Bowed tendons are a degenerative condition that is often not talked about, yet many horses suffer from them, and it's important that owners are aware of them.

What are they?

These are degenerative conditions of the suspensory ligament and can occur on either side. The suspensory ligament that connects the back of the hock to the cannon bone is commonly affected. Caused by a combination of genetics and trauma, proper treatment and shoeing can play a key role in the recovery of a horse with bowed tendons.

Bowed tendons can occur due to high levels of activity, overuse, strained ligaments, and trauma. The tendon becomes inflamed and starts to swell causing the tendon to bow.This essentially places additional stress on tissues and puts the horse at risk for additional injury.

Preventing Bowed Tendons

Horses are most commonly affected with bowed tendons. Bowed tendons refer to a horse's tendon becoming elongated while in their lamellar body. The tendon fibers start to flex and bow out on their sides. The effects of bowed tendons are often very noticeable and uncomfortable to the horse. In many horses, the tendons become so small that they can simply be snap or break off. If this happens, the horse will then need surgery to replace the tendon.

Bowed tendons often occur in horses that have been lame. The most common injury leading to bowed tendons is sprains and strains in the front legs and the hind legs. The tendons become stretched as a result of the injuries and don't return back to their normal size. This can lead to the tendon becoming fixed in its elongated position.

In horses that are frequently ridden, it is common to gently stretch the tendons before and after a ride. This helps prevent the tendons from becoming elongated.

Another cause of bowed tendons can be due to the horse constantly having too few carbohydrates. When this happens, the glycogen levels decrease in the body. There can be many reasons for low glycogen levels in the body. If the glycogen levels are too low for a long period of time, it can lead to bowed tendons.


While we have learned how to prevent, treat, and minimize tendon ruptures in horses, it is imperative to understand that the horse owner is solely responsible to make sure the horse is worked under a program that is appropriate and consistent for the horse's age, experience, physical conditioning, and body conformation.

A "proper training program" is a matter of opinion and is not dependent upon the whims of the horse owner or trainer. What is considered to be a proper training program depends solely upon the skill and experience of the horse trainer.

It also includes understanding the athletic ability and physical capabilities of the individual horse. It also includes proper and consistent compliance with all protocols and recommendations and recommendations such as farrier care, dental care, and the veterinary care required to get and keep the horse healthy.

It also includes proper exercise performance under highly predictable conditions that are consistent and continuous. Much like professional athletes, horses require a high level of consistency and constant practice and training under a predictable and rarely changing routine.

All this work and effort is in an effort to minimize tendon injuries and ruptures. The idea that a horse can be trained to respond quickly and consistently is one of the keys to prevention, however, there are still some instances where they may not respond in time.

Once a tendon ruptures in a horse is a different matter because it’s an issue over which the horse owner has no control and cannot predict.