Deep Digital Flexor Tendon Damage in Barrel Racers

Barrel racing is an equine competition that takes place all around the U.S and in different parts of the world. This event is based on how fast a horse can run around 3 barrels set in a clover leaf pattern and run back, past the finish line. This clover leaf pattern is represented in Figure 1.  According to the National Barrel Horse Association “The first two barrels must be a minimum of 15 feet off the side of the fence. There needs to be a minimum of 30 feet between the third barrel and the fence. Lastly there needs to be a minimum of 3 feet between the timeline and the first barrel (NHAB,2020).” This event only lasts as long as the time it takes for the horse and rider to cross the start timeline, run the course, and cross the finish timeline. There will be no penalties if a barrel is touched but stays upright. If a barrel is knocked over the penalty is no time which means the contestants run did not count. Barrel racers have the ability to compete in as many shows as they would like or can afford. Barrel races are held all throughout the U.S in competitions like rodeos, open shows, and national shows. Some show contestants will have to qualify at other previous shows to obtain qualifying point to be able to compete in them. Other shows are free to anyone to compete in. Horses need to at least be the age of two to compete in barrel racing competitions. There are even some competitions that require horses be a certain age to compete in that specific barrel race. There is no age limit for a horse to compete in this competition as long as the horse is physically capable to manage the rigor of this competition. Horses are required to move very fast in this type of competition. Times can range anywhere from 25 seconds to the fastest record to date being 13.46 seconds (Wolf, 2017). There is a wide range of different aged contestants that can compete in barrel races. This can be anywhere from 5 years of age to 80. It is up to the rider if they feel they can withstand the rigor of this competition to compete in it or not. The most unique thing about this sport is that horses that are geared for other disciplines can compete in this competition.  Horses do not have to be specifically trained and worked in barrel racing to compete. Pleasure horses and even racehorses can be used by a rider to compete in this sport. This is either as a way for a rider to get more enjoyment out of their horse or as a way to compete towards all around point awards in certain show platforms. Barrel racing is an equine sport that can bring huge cash prize wins but could also be the sport that ends your horses’ career because of wear, damage, or even a tare to their deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT).

AQHA Barrel racing pattern

Figure 1. Barrel Racing Pattern. This photo is by

A day in the normal life of a barrel racing horse beings when the rider saddles it and enters the warmup arena. They being to warm up by first walking, then transitioning into fast trotting, where the rider posts for ease of the ride. This trotting motion starts to flex and stretch the muscles in the horses leg all the way up to their back and neck. While trotting the rider starts to ask the horse to move in circles large and big while changing diagonals. This is another mechanism of stretching and beginning to warm the muscle memory in the animal for the turns and lead changes that will come later in the exercise. The rider is now confident that their horse has warmed up long enough and beings to canter. Once again starting slow and working through large circle turns. This is still a part of the warmup. The rider has warmed up their animal for only 20 minutes to prepare their horses body for the rigor that is about to come from a full sprint and turn around 3 barrels and back. The rider gets to the starting end of the arena and stops. The rider prepares the position of their horse and signals for takeoff. Horse and rider are in full sprint towards the first barrel and they round it with ease. Heading towards the second barrel the rider notices a small hesitation of their horse when they make the second turn. The rider thinks nothing of it because this is the first run of the exercise. As the horse and rider approach the third and final barrel the horse makes the turn and goes to push its hind legs deep into the dirt for the straight sprint home and the rider notices the horse stumble in the back end on the take off. On the straight the horse is now running with a low level of force from the back end and seems to be hesitant with each stride forward. The rider slows the horse gently and recognizes that something was off enough to stop the exercise for the day.
The rider has the veterinarian come out the next day because the horses back left leg is swollen where its coffin bone is located. The veterinarian takes x-rays and performs a nerve block. After the exam, the vet informs the rider that their horse has damaged their deep digital flexor tendon. The vet points out that the reason the horses leg is swollen around the coffin bone is due to the fact that the “deep digital flexor tendon runs down the back of the leg and behind the heel to attach to the bottom of the coffin bone. The vet then informs the rider that this injury can arise from speed work that can overload the tendon because the DDFT stretches to the max as a horse pushes off at the gallop. The vet then goes on to show the rider a visual of the anatomy of the deep digital flexor tendon which can be seen in Figure 2. The rider asked what she could have done to prevent this and what steps she needs to take to heal her horse. The vet tells the rider that these injuries can occur from not properly warming up her horse or even come from the horse not being supported by shoes (HorseDVM, 2020). The rider thought back to yesterday and realized that 20 minutes of warming up probably was what caused the injury and that her horse doesn’t have shoes on right now due to Covid-19 but that she usually does shoe her horse during their show season. The vet then went on to recommend stall rest and gradual reintroduction to exercise. This would mean stall rest for 1 month and then hand walking daily and to do a re-check after the month was up. The vet warned the rider that this could occur again and that signs of reinjury can vary from swelling to intermittent lameness, the leg having a bowed appearance or even heat upon touch. The vet also warned that if this progresses it could result in the need of surgery or possible retirement for the horse if they cannot get it under control and this becomes a chronic issue (HorseDVM, 2020).

Anatomy of the lower leg

Figure 2. Anatomy of Horses Leg. This photo is by Horse & Hound

Deep digital flexor tendon damage can occur in horses of any exercise background, if the environmental factors are right, but they are very common in barrel racing horses. These injuries can occur over time as the tendon is worn down and stretched to far past its maximum capacity, or they can occur independently in one event like the story of this horse and rider outlined in this article. These injuries are preventable with proper upkeep on “shoeing’s to avoid long toe or low heel configurations or gradual increase of workload or exercise as opposed to abrupt exercise” (HorseDVM, 2020).  Deep digital flexor tendon damage can come from a multitude of different causes, but it can also be treated in a multitude of different ways. The main way to treat this injury is with stall rest, anti-inflammatories, possibly cold-water compresses, and then gradual increased increments of hand walking until the next level of exercise can be reached. There are other therapies that can be used to help improve and quicken the healing process for these injuries, but they are not scientifically proven to make a significance in healing. Veterinarians are who should be referenced to decide the best therapies to try for a horse outside of stall rest and gradual increase in exercise. If significant damage is done to a horses deep digital flexor tendon then surgery or retirement are options to be considered. The best way to keep a horse from obtaining deep digital flexor tendon damage is to enroll them in an exercise program that is balanced and doesn’t push the horse past its physical capacity, as well as making sure regular maintenance is upkept when it comes to a horses shoeing or farrier regimen.  


  1. AQHA. “Barrel Racing Patterning.” Go to Aqha, 2018.
  2. Horse & Hound 8 May, and Horse & Hound. “Deep Digital Flexor Tendon Injuries: Does It Mean the End of Your Horse's Career? *H&H VIP*.” Horse & Hound, 8 June 2020.
  3. LLC, HorseDVM. “Deep Digital Flexor Tendon (DDFT) Injury: HorseDVM Diseases A-Z.” Deep Digital Flexor Tendon (DDFT) Injury | HorseDVM Diseases A-Z, 2020,
  4. NBHA. “Section A. Competition Rules.” National Barrel Horse Association, 2020.
  5. Wolf, Jeff. “Pierce Posts Barrel Racing Record.” Journal, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 27 Feb. 2017.

By BreAnna McCartan and Peggy Auwerda.
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals