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      Understanding The Recovery Time For A Horse Shoulder Injury

      An injury to a horse’s shoulder can be tricky to manage. It’s sometimes hard for horse owners to tell the extent of the damage or how long the recovery process will take. In this blog post, we discuss everything you need to know about shoulder injuries so you can better care for your injured horse–and speed up its recovery time.

      Key Takeaways:

      • The recovery time for a horse shoulder injury depends on the severity of the damage. In many cases, however, horses make a full recovery within a few weeks to a few months.
      • Proper care during recovery is essential for preventing further injury and helping your horse heal quickly.
      • While horses are recovering, it’s important to keep them as comfortable as possible. This may include using PEMF, light therapy, or massage to reduce inflammation and pain.

      What Is a Shoulder Injury in Horses?

      An equine shoulder injury is an injury that occurs in the horse’s shoulder area. Shoulder injuries are often caused by overuse, trauma, or repetitive motion. These injuries can range from mild to severe and can be quite painful for the horse.

      Shoulder injuries are not common, but horses can sustain several different types. We discuss some of the most frequently seen shoulder injuries below.

      Also see our article on tendon injuries, and withers anatomy.

      Arthritis of the Shoulder Joint

      Arthritis can affect horses of all ages but most often impacts senior horses. It is a degenerative disease that causes the cartilage in the joints to break down, generating pain, inflammation, and stiffness in the joints–all of which can make moving difficult.

      Arthritis in the shoulder joint usually limits a horse’s range of motion and induces lameness. The toe often presents evidence of wear and tear, and when the horse must move the leg forward, in turn pulling the shoulder forward, it causes discomfort.


      A fracture is a break in the bone. Shoulder fractures in horses are usually the result of trauma. An acute injury like a fracture can be debilitating and may require surgery or extended stall rest to heal properly.

      The most common fractures of the shoulder are those of the scapula and humerus. They’re typically caused by falls or direct hits. A horse exhibiting sudden, severe lameness may have sustained a shoulder fracture.


      Image source:


      Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa, a small sac of fluid that cushions and lubricates the joint. The inflammation is typically caused by trauma to the area, a bone cyst, or an infection.

      Bursitis can occur in the shoulder area, and when it does, it often causes extreme discomfort for the horse. Horses with bursitis may stumble a lot or show signs of lameness or a shortened gait.

      Soft Tissue Injury

      A soft tissue injury is any type of injury to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Soft tissue injuries occur for many reasons, but they are frequently the result of repetitive movements, trauma, or overwork.

      Injuries to soft tissues are a top reason for lameness in active horses. When a horse has a tendon, ligament, or muscle injury, one of the first goals of the horse owner should be to reduce inflammation to prevent further damage and speed healing time. Further to this, injuries can also happen due to to trauma and wound damage.

      Nerve Damage and Sweeney

      Nerve damage is a shoulder injury usually resulting from a direct blow to the nerve. A damaged nerve may also have been pinched or compressed.

      Nerve damage can generate discomfort or make the horse lose feeling in the affected area. Nerve damage is often seen in competition horses, like polo ponies. Surgery may be needed to repair this type of damage.

      Sweeney is just one nerve-related condition that affects the horse’s shoulder. With Sweeney, damage to muscles’ nerve supply or disuse of the limb results in wasting of the shoulder muscles.

      Symptoms of an Injured Shoulder

      Horse injuries are often challenging to diagnose. After all, the horse can’t tell you where or how it’s hurting. It’s up to the horse owner and vet to figure out the problem together.

      Clinical signs that a horse may be experiencing shoulder pain include:

      • Swollen shoulder joints
      • Reluctance to move the affected limb
      • Lameness or a stiff gait
      • A restricted range of motion in the legs and shorter than normal strides

      If your horse is displaying any of these symptoms, have the animal examined by a veterinarian.

      Diagnosis of a Shoulder Injury

      A shoulder injury is typically diagnosed based on the horse’s history, clinical signs, and imaging studies. When diagnosing a shoulder injury, most vets perform a physical examination and look for signs of heat, swelling, and lameness.

      The veterinarian will likely take X-rays of the horse’s shoulder if either lameness or inflammation is present. X-rays can show the vet damage, like injury to the bone structure, that’s not visible to the naked eye.

      The vet may also suggest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other imaging studies to evaluate the muscles and tendons, especially if they suspect a serious injury.

      The Stages of Healing for a Horse’s Shoulder Injury

      While every injury is unique, the recovery process for a typical shoulder injury can usually be divided into three stages:

      Stage 1: Inflammatory phase

      This stage begins immediately after the injury and lasts about 3-5 days. The main goal during this phase is to limit swelling and pain as much as possible. This can be done with cold therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and rest.

      Stage 2: Repair phase

      This stage begins after the inflammation has subsided and typically lasts about 3-8 weeks. The goal during this phase is to promote the healing of the damaged tissue. Carers can accomplish that goal with physical therapy, conditioning, and other treatments, like massage.

      Stage 3: Remodeling phase

      This stage begins after the tissue has healed and lasts for several months. This phase aims to help the horse regain strength and flexibility in the injured shoulder by gradually returning to exercise, physical therapy, and other treatments.

      Recovery Time for Horse Shoulder Injury

      The period needed for recovery depends on the severity of the injury. For a mild injury, the horse may only need a few weeks of rest and rehabilitation. Most mild cases of shoulder injury require between 6 and 8 weeks of care.

      Severe cases may require more advanced veterinary medicine techniques, like surgery, and several months of treatment may be necessary for a full recovery. In the most severe cases, a full recovery may not be possible.

      Continuance of a rehabilitation program is essential to a complete return to health, even after recovery seems complete. That way, you can help the horse regain strength and flexibility in the shoulder. A veterinarian or equine physiotherapist can help you design a rehabilitation program for your horse’s needs.

      Quickening a Horse’s Recovery Time

      There are several ways that you can help your horse recover from a shoulder injury more quickly.

      Treat the Affected Limb Promptly

      If your horse has a shoulder injury, treating the affected limb immediately is critical to a fast recovery. The best way to do this is usually by icing or cold hosing the area or applying compression.

      You can also give your horse pain relief or anti-inflammatory drugs to keep it relaxed while it heals. Always use anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relief medication per your veterinarian’s instructions.

      Stretch and Exercise the Horse

      Horses usually need to be stretched after an injury to ensure they regain full mobility and function. Physical therapy and a gradual return to exercise are necessary to help the horse mend properly.

      As your horse recuperates, it will likely need regular stretching sessions. You can start by leading the horse around in small circles or doing simple stretches, like a front leg stretch, where you gently pull the leg forward. As the horse gets stronger, you can increase the intensity and duration of the stretches.

      Discuss a specific stretching program with your vet before beginning stretching sessions with the horse.


      Controlled exercise is a vital part of recovery for many horses with shoulder injuries. It helps increase blood flow to the injured area, which hastens the recovery process and keeps the horse strong while it recovers. An incremental return to activity is crucial. Take your time and listen to your veterinarian’s advice.

      Start with simple exercises like walking around the arena. Then, with the vet’s approval, move on to more intense workouts.

      Hydrotherapy and Water Treadmills

      Swimming and hydrotherapy are often recommended for horses with shoulder injuries. Water takes the weight off the injured muscles, bones, or joints, putting minimal strain on the horse’s body while providing enough pushback for a good workout.

      A water treadmill is an ideal rehabilitation tool for many horse injuries. Water treadmills, like the Animal Therapeutics Equine Water Treadmill  or the Sascotec treadmill, offer a controlled environment for low-concussion exercise that promotes quick recovery.

      Horse owners often use hot and cold treatments effectively to ease discomfort caused by shoulder injuries, and they can adjust the water type and temperature of a water treadmill for maximum effect. For example, handlers can use cold water to reduce swelling, warm water to relax muscles, and salt water for wounds and infections.

      Other Therapeutic Products

      Light therapy, massage, and Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) may benefit horses recovering from shoulder injuries.

      Light Therapy

      Light therapy helps manage pain and swelling, especially when treating a muscle injury. The light and heat therapy provided by products like the Activo-Med Solarium relaxes and soothes muscles, boosts circulation, and eases stiffness, making a speedier recovery possible.


      Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) is a therapy that uses magnetic fields to facilitate rapid recovery. A horse owner or equine vet may use PEMF to decrease discomfort and swelling, stimulate blood flow, and repair tissue. PEMF is an excellent treatment option for muscle injuries, open wounds, fractures, joint pain, and more. As such, it’s a fantastic tool for recovery after almost any shoulder injury.

      Horse owners have many PEMF treatment options. You can use convenient handheld machines, like the Activo-Med Handheld PEMF Device + Light (Red & Infrared) Cluster, therapy rugs, or even PEMF leg wraps that fit the front legs or hind legs, allowing you to focus on an injured limb.


      Massages are not just for people; they can also help horses recuperate faster. Massage can boost blood circulation and alleviate pain. A veterinarian or equine physiotherapist can massage the horse, or the owner can learn how to do it themselves using products available from reputable brands.

      Many massage tools incorporate other therapies, like PEMF. For example, with Activo-Med Equine Power Pads, buyers can choose a single therapy type, such as cyclonic massage, or combine three therapy types in one power pad: cyclonic massage, PEMF, and light therapy.

      Power pads are versatile and can be placed at any point of soreness or injury, including the lower or upper limb, shoulder, saddle area, or rump. A power pad is a great option for treating tendon injuries, muscle pain, or even colic.

      Regenerative Therapies

      Some equine vets may recommend regenerative therapies like stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma treatment to bolster healing. However, these treatments are not appropriate for every horse.

      A veterinarian considers the horse’s age, health, and injury before recommending regenerative therapy.

      Prevent Scar Tissue

      One of the best ways to prevent scar tissue in horses is to provide prompt and appropriate treatment for any injury. Treatment may include icing, massage, using compression bandages, and stall rest.

      Also, keep the horse’s environment clean and free from irritants that could cause further damage.

      FAQs About Horse Shoulder Injuries

      To help you better understand shoulder injuries in horses, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions below.

      What Activities Should Be Avoided While the Horse Is Recovering?

      To encourage full recovery, avoid activities that strain the horse’s body, like being in a large pasture, riding, or jumping, until your veterinarian gives you the okay.

      Depending on the severity of the injury, recovery can range from a few weeks to several months, and the horse may need lots of stall rest during that time. Optimally, exercise may be limited to hand walking or using a water treadmill that takes the weight off the injury.

      When Can the Horse Return to Full Activity After the Injury?

      Most horses recover and return to regular activity within 4 to 6 months. However, each horse is different, and the recovery period may vary depending on the severity of the injury. Consult with your veterinarian before returning the horse to full activity.

      What Are the Long-Term Effects of a Shoulder Injury?

      While most shoulder injuries heal fully with time and rehabilitation, some horses require surgery to correct an injury. Others suffer life-long effects, like chronic pain or lameness.

      In more severe cases, such as those involving nerve damage or serious bone fractures, the horse may never return to the same activity level as before the injury. For example, a horse previously used for jumping may only be able to do light work or trail riding after the injury.

      That said, it’s usually the case that horses can return to their previous level of activity, including competition, after undergoing surgery or another appropriate treatment.

      Life After a Shoulder Injury

      Horse shoulder injuries can be painful and challenging to manage, but injured horses generally recover with dedicated care. If your horse may have a shoulder injury, be proactive about treatment and rehabilitation.

      Avoiding strenuous activity and providing the horse with plenty of rest are significant first steps to a quick recovery, but additional therapies and treatments may also be necessary.

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