Last Updated on February 17, 2023
A diagnosis of degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis (DLSD) is a worrying time for a horse owner. But what exactly is DSLD, and can you ride a horse with DSLD? Let’s find out!
DSLD is a relatively newly discovered equine condition that causes lameness in horses.
Today we will be discussing exactly what DSLD is, what causes it, possible treatments, and how to handle a DSLD diagnosis in your horse. We’ll be answering common questions, such as whether can you ride a horse with DSLD, and how long a horse can live with DSLD. Keep reading to find out more!
DSLD in Horses: What is DSLD?
Degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis, or DSLD, is a degenerative genetic condition that causes the horse’s suspensory ligaments to become inflamed and gradually break down, leading to the stretching of the ligament. This condition occurs gradually throughout a horse’s life and cannot be reversed.
The Horse describes DSLD in the following words:
“Degenerative suspensory ligament disease causes chronic suspensory ligament breakdown—this structure runs down the back of the cannon bone and attaches to the sesamoid bones. Without its support the fetlock joints (most commonly the rear) drop below their normal angle. Resulting in ligament breakdown, flexor tendon injury, and osteoarthritis in the fetlock, hock, and stifle joints leading to debilitating lameness. The disease is manageable but not curable.”
The early signs of DSLD in horses can be very subtle. Horses will typically come in and out of soundness during the onset of the disease, typically in the horse’s early adulthood. Many horses that have DSLD are labeled as having “soundness issues” by vets and trainers that have trouble diagnosing an exact problem.
Sometimes, DSLD horses will be misdiagnosed as having a neurological condition or other lameness problem, because DSLD is extremely hard to diagnose early. For a long time, the only way to get a definitive diagnosis of this condition was through a post-mortem biopsy. Today, however, ligament biopsies can be taken to diagnose DSLD.
The later stages of DSLD in horses will eventually lead to the horse’s limbs becoming misshapen due to excessive stretching and breakdown of the suspensory ligaments. This can appear quite dramatic, as the fetlock will drop down towards the ground. Ultimately, the affected legs will eventually become unable to support the horse’s weight.
The progression of DSLD can be very slow, and may often happen over the entire span of a horse’s lifetime. The speed of progression and the time that a horse can live with DSLD is unique to each situation.
DSLD in Horses: What Causes DSLD?
As DSLD is a relatively newly-discovered condition, little is known about the cause. However, it is believed that genetic factors are likely to be involved, as some breeds of horses are far more likely to develop this issue. If a horse is genetically predisposed to DSLD, there is little you can do to stop it from occurring.
DLSD was first discovered in the Peruvian Paso breed, and it continues to be found most frequently in Peruvian horses. While this is the case, nearly any horse breed can develop DSLD. Today, DLSD has been seen in Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses, warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and others.
In horses with DLSD, normal wear and tear of the suspensory ligaments is not repaired in the same way as in a healthy horse. Instead of repairing damaged ligament tissue with collagen, instead,d the body lays down cartilage cells. Thesecannoto stretches and extend in the same way as normal ligament tissue, leading to the breakdown of the ligaments.
DSLD in Horses: Can DSLD Be Treated?
DLSD cannot be cured, and there is no way to reverse the damage that has already happened to a horse’s ligaments. There are, however, ways to manage and care for horses with DSLD to alleviate their pain and slow down the progression of the disease.
Unlike other ligament injuries of horses, there is thought to be little benefit to complete stall rest in cases of DSLD. This is because the ligament will not repair itself no matter how long it is rested. So, horses with DSLD may be able to carry out a limited amount of exercise, depending on the stage of their treatment and level of lameness.
The first stage of treating a horse with DSLD is remedial farriery, normally carried out by your veterinarian and farrier working together. This involves altering the shape and angle of the horse’s hoof, whilst also providing support to the limb to ease pressure on the suspensory ligaments.
In a horse with DSLD, the toe is kept short, and the foot is balanced evenly from front to back and side to side. A heel wedge is used to ease the strain on the suspensory ligament and relieve pain – the effects of this are often immediate. Over time, the heel wedge can be lowered, with bar shoes used to support the limb.
Whilst this farrier treatment is being carried out, exercise should normally be restricted. However, if the treatment is successful and results in reduced pain, it may be possible for the horse to resume normal turnout in the paddock.
Support boots for dropped fetlocks can also be used to help relieve the pain of DSLD in horses. These work by taking some pressure off the suspensory ligament, but should only be used under veterinary direction.
One of the best feed supplements for horses with DSLD is MSM (methyl sulfonyl methane). This can help restore flexibility to the ligament tissues, although it will not cure the problem itself. Any good feed supplement for horses with musculoskeletal problems should be adequate, as long as it contains MSM.
Every case of DSLD is different, so every horse’s treatment plan for DSLD will be different. Sometimes, a treatment will seem to work for a while and then will need to be changed later on throughout a horse’s life. However, with the right supportive care, there is no reason why a horse with DSLD cannot live a long and comfortable life.
How to Care For a Horse With DSLD
With no cure, how is it best to care for a horse with DSLD? The simplest answer is to listen to your horse – pain and lameness from DSLD can flare up and fade, and there are steps you can take to keep your horse more comfortable.
If you pay attention to your horse and know its typical behavior patterns and mannerisms you will be able to tell when something is off. Paying attention to subtle behavioral cues like this can help you understand when your horse is experiencing more pain than normal.
One of the best ways to monitor the progress of a horse with DSLD is to carry out regular pain-scoring assessments. By observing your horse’s normal behavior, you will be able to identify how much pain he is feeling. For example, if your horse stands in a corner of the field for long periods, he may be feeling uncomfortable or in pain.
If your horse seems to be experiencing pain from DSLD, take a look at your treatment and management plan – is there anything you can do to help? Have you changed anything recently which has made the situation worse?
If your horse seems relatively pain-free, well done! Keep up whatever treatments you are currently doing, and enjoy watching your horse live a pain-free life with this difficult condition.
The best way to handle a horse with DSLD is to try to keep him comfortable. Simply put, DSLD horses will never be entirely comfortable like completely sound, healthy horses. But, they can be kept comfortable enough to be pasture pets and companions.
So, the best way to deal with a DSLD horse is to simply keep them as comfortable as possible. Try different kinds of treatments, pay attention to what helps and what doesn’t help, make sure they have space in which to decide how much or if they want to move, and so on.
Can You Ride a Horse With DSLD?
Sadly, a diagnosis of DSLD normally means the end of your horse’s ridden career. DSLD is a long-term degenerative condition, and excessive strain on the horse’s limbs may hasten the breakdown of the suspensory ligaments.
Horses with DSLD can benefit from limited exercises, such as time spent out in a small paddock, or gentle walking hand. However, ridden exercise can be a step too far, and may speed up the point at which your horse’s pain becomes uncontrollable.
How Long Can a Horse Live With DSLD?
How long a horse can live with DSLD will vary widely from case to case. Many people fear the worst when their horse gets a diagnosis of DSLD, but with the correct management and treatment, there is no reason why a horse with DSLD could not live a long and happy life.
The key to managing a horse with DSLD is to keep as comfortable as possible. There are no treatments available to slow the progression of the disease, but by using the appropriate shoeing methods and carefully controlling the exercise levels of the horse we can extend their lifespan considerably.
It is not advisable to ride a horse with DSLD, as this may put unnecessary strain on the suspensory ligaments. However, there is no benefit to restricting the exercise of a horse with DSLD. Unlike other suspensory ligament injuries in horses, horses with DSLD can and should be turned out in a paddock to move freely.
The use of painkillers can also prolong the life of a horse with DSLD, but they must be used prudently and with caution. Regular dosing with some painkillers for horses can have long-term side effects such as chronic colitis. Any pain management plan must be discussed and reviewed regularly with your veterinarian.
When to Put a Horse Down With DSLD?
Selecting the right time to put a horse down with DSLD is one of the most challenging decisions a horse owner will have to make. DSLD is a degenerative condition, meaning it will get worse rather than better over time. Making changes to the management of the horse and administration of painkillers will help to keep the horse comfortable, but over time these techniques will start to become less effective.
As with any long-term medical condition, the quality of life of the horse and the level of discomfort will dictate when the time has come to consider euthanasia. Most veterinary professionals will advise that quality of life depends on whether the horse can carry out normal activities without high levels of pain. For example, if your horse can no longer lie down or roll due to lameness, or is so uncomfortable that it struggles to move around the paddock, it may be time to consider euthanasia.
The problem with degenerative conditions is that these changes often happen gradually, making it hard for a horse owner to notice small changes. With any older horse, it can be a good idea to keep a diary that records any changes you notice in your horse’s daily routine. This, combined with regular veterinary assessments, can help you determine when the horse’s quality of life has deteriorated to the point where euthanasia is the kindest option.
Key signs to look out for are reduced levels of movement – does your horse prefer to stand in one spot rather than move freely around the paddock? Does the horse lie down and roll freely, or does it often need assistance to stand? Does your horse struggle to maintain a healthy body weight, or can you see signs of muscle wastage?
Euthanizing a horse with DSLD is never an easy thing to do, but if your horse cannot carry out normal daily activities without suffering from pain, it is the kindest thing you can do.
A diagnosis of DSLD can be a worrying time for a horse owner, and sadly will normally mean the end of your horse’s ridden career. Research into DSLD is ongoing and maybe someday there will be a cure, but for now, the best we can do is to try to keep horses with DSLD comfortable and happy! Luckily, many kinds of treatments and management strategies can help with this.
We hope that this article has helped you understand what DSLD is, and how we can best help horses that have DSLD. If so, please share this article, and comment below with your experiences dealing with DSLD!
Can you ride a horse with DSLD?
Riding a horse with a diagnosis of DSLD is not recommended. The risk of permanent lameness is significantly higher in a horse with DSLD if it is ridden.
The risk of suspensory breakdown is higher in horses that are ridden with the disease. The animal can become lame and unstable and eventually develop a rupture within the suspensory apparatus. This normally results in euthanasia of the horse.
How is DSLD diagnosed?
Horse owners normally first start noticing that the horse is not the same as it was before. The horse may have a problem with their balance and they may be more likely to trip over and fall down. If you see these signs, it might be time to take your horse to a veterinarian.
There are three ways for a veterinarian to diagnose DSLD: observation, lameness evaluation, and radiology.
Observation: A veterinarian will take a look at the horse's gait and posture as well as their balance when standing still or walking around.
Radiology: Routine X-rays of the joints can reveal something that is not visible from observation alone.
Lameness Evaluation: This typically involves having someone ride or walk on the animal's back while manipulating its limbs.
The clinical signs of DSLD are varied and depend on which muscles are affected. The most common signs are:
- Lameness in one of the limbs
- Weight shifting to one limb
- Muscle atrophy, muscle fasciculation, muscle cramps
- Reduced or absent reflexes
- Muscle stiffness, muscle tremors.
A DSLD diagnosis can be confirmed through a biopsy of ligament tissue. This will show whether there are any abnormalities of the ligaments, indicating that the horse has DSLD.
Is DSLD painful for horses?
DSLD stands for Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Disease. This condition is painful for horses, and the pain can be so intense that it prevents them from walking. The condition can also lead to lameness and long-term disability.
The disease can be found in horses of any age, breed, or gender.
The symptoms of DSLD are very similar to those of arthritis in people. Painful swollen joints and stiffness are common symptoms that horses might experience with this illness. Horses with DSLD often have difficulty getting up after resting, they may experience prolonged periods of lameness after exercise, and they may swelling of the suspensory ligaments and fetlock joints.
Can DSLD in horses be cured?
DSLD in horses is a degenerative genetic condition and cannot be cured. However, with careful treatment and management, a horse with DSLD can live a long and comfortable life. Treatment options include remedial farriery, reduced exercise, nutritional supplements, and fetlock support boots.
Michael Dehaan is a passionate horse owner, horse rider, and lover of all things equine. He has been around horses since he was a child, and has grown to become an expert in the field. He has owned and ridden a variety of horses of different breeds, and has trained many to compete in shows and competitions. He is an experienced horseman, having worked with and competed many horses, including his own. He is an active member of the equestrian community, participating in events and teaching riding lessons.