The In’s and Out’s of Popped Splints


My young two year old warmblood has very small splints on both front legs. There is one on each leg up front. I am wondering if those splints will grow over time when he is being jumped and worked on the flat. If so how do I help them heal or take care of them now? OR, Indiana

Dear OR,

First of all, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page with us. The splint bones are the small bones on the inside (medial) and outside (lateral) of the cannon bone. In the front legs, the inside splint bone is called the second metacarpal and the outside splint bone is called the fourth metacarpal. In the hind legs, the term metaTARSAL is used. The cannon bone itself is the third metacarpal/metatarsal. The splint bones begin just below the knee, where they are largest, and extend almost to the ankle or fetlock, where they taper to a “button.” Splints are believed to be the remnants of second and fourth toes, but now have only a supportive function.

When a horse “pops a splint,” it means something has caused pain, heat and swelling in the area of the splint bone. Splints can be caused by direct trauma, overtraining, conformation or shoeing that leads to interference; being overweight; or even being malnourished. The swelling can be inflammation of the ligament between the splint and the cannon bone, inflammation of the outer layer of the splint bone itself, or both. Some horses become lame but many do not. A popped splint can be the size of the end of your thumb, or more than twice that large. Generalized swelling may indicate a more severe problem than a popped splint, such as a fractured splint bone, and a veterinarian should be contacted for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Splints usually occur in the front, usually on the inside, and usually in young horses. And usually, they go away on their own with minimal help from us: cold therapy, bandaging (with or without sweating), anti-inflammatory medications, supplements that support normal healing, and rest. However, you are right to be concerned about future complications because some splints do recur, making training and competing very frustrating for owners.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a prominent veterinary surgeon at Rood & Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington, KY, and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, tried a new approach on splints that kept recurring once the horse was put back into work. His team found that if the splint “pops” in the bottom two-thirds of the bone, there may be too much movement for the splint to heal normally, that is, by laying new bone between it and the cannon bone. Instead, in some situations, the best results may be obtained by surgically removing the bottom of the splint bone (when a splint bone fracture occurs in the bottom two-thirds of the bone, it is also surgically removed.)

Now, I’m not telling you this is what needs to be done in your horse. This is a last-resort method to allow a horse to continue training and competing pain-free. You should follow your veterinarian’s advice for the splint your horse has, and take as much time as he needs now, at two years of age, for it to heal completely before going back to any work (lunging, backing, ponying, etc.) I would like to share something my local veterinarian told me about healing splints though: do what the Amish do and roll a corn cob (minus corn kernels) over the splint for 10 minutes twice a day to stimulate healing!

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Lameness

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5 comments on “The In’s and Out’s of Popped Splints
  1. Jess Blackberg says:

    I really enjoyed this article. When I first got my now 22 year old gelding Chandler about 3 years ago, I came out to the barn one day to find that he had some swelling on the inside of his right front cannon bone. Just swelling-no lameness or anything so I wasn’t too concerned. The vet was coming out in a week for shots anyways so I asked her to take a look at it. To my utter surprise she said she wanted to x-ray him because she thought he fractured the splint bone. Now as an owner I positively shocked since he was showing no signs of pain, only a little swelling! Turns out he had fractured it, and my vet said that since there was no bone chip he would not need surgery thankfully. One week of bute/cold hosing/ and wrapping (all your standards) and the swelling was gone! I had been told that if he would be quiet he could go out in a small turnout, but at 19 he still felt pretty good, and after 2 weeks of stall rest he wasn’t going to be turned out quietly, so 2 months of stall rest and I could start light riding again (thankfully it was winter time in MA and I was without an indoor at the time). To this day he still feels like he’s 12 years old, and is in the best shape I have ever seen him in! You would never know that 3 years ago he had a fractured splint, unless you feel down the inside of the cannon bone, there is a small ossification where the fracture was, other than that-nothing! Even after he does a jumping lesson, (only x-rails to maybe 2 footers) he is totally sound! I attribute it to the quick reaction of my vet, and the Smartflex III I have had him on since I got him!

  2. Selena says:

    This helped for me to understand what a splint is. I was wondering if you can still ride and excersize your horse if they are not lame?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for the kind words! Because every situation is different, the veterinarian that is working with you to diagnose and treat the condition is the best person to answer your question about continuing to work your horse through a splint. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no, and your veterinarian can provide the best advice for your individual horse. Best of luck! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  3. Marie says:

    Hi there,
    Just a quick ?, My 6 yr old popped a small splint about 4 months ago no lameness at all just a little tender, I ceased work with him and gave him some time of iced it hosed just to be on the safe side. Anyways I started working him again and noticed about 3 weeks
    later that the splint had increased in size alittle, no soreness or lameness, so more time of, comfrey poultice, iced it and It now has decreased in size not sore had extra topping put on my arena due to it being alittle hard, my question is should I start working him lightly or give more time off. Cheers. Sory for the saga! It was meant to be a quick? Lol.

  4. Ally Lewis says:

    I have a question for everyone, I have a two year old that it appeared she had a splint on her front leg. But, what through us all off was its on the outside of the leg no the inside, there was no lameness, not heat either just a good size bump on her leg. Having her stall bound thinking it was a splint that went down tremendously. The other leg is starting to get the same bump and the same area.
    Any ideas?


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