Most equine owners know that horses and swollen legs go together, and that the latter can potentially cause your gallant work horse to turn into a limping stag in a snap.
While distressing, a horse’s swollen leg is not a cause for major concern in most instances. The reason being is that a bulging limb is typically set off by minor issues such as excessive feeding and too much exercise, or the lack of it.
In some cases, serious symptoms may accompany a horse’s swollen legs and these may be signs of lymphangitis, vasculitis and cellulitis infections. It may likewise be indicative of an underlying disease.
If you’re a new horse owner, saddle up as we discuss the important things you should know about leg swelling in horses, and the ways to reduce pain and ease swelling in your regal companion.
What causes swelling in a horse’s leg?
A horse’s leg gets swollen due to various reasons, and with conditions ranging from mild to severe. It can occur in one leg, only in the horse’s front or hind legs or in the equine’s all four legs. Typically, if a horse is suffering from illnesses, such as a heart condition, all limbs may become swollen. If injured or infected, the swelling may be localised to the affected horse’s limb.
In some cases, a horse’s bulging leg, which is also called “filling” or “stocking up”, can be a result of gravity, where fluid builds up in the legs due to edema. A simple cut or scratch or the more concerning diseases or conditions called cellulitis and lymphangitis are common causes of swelling in a horse’s leg.
It is best to consult with a veterinarian to determine the exact reasons why a horse’s leg gets swollen. Common culprits can be internal, such as diseases or injuries, or external, such as the horse’s environment.
7 most common causes of horse leg swelling and their symptoms
Diseases, injuries, infections, bruising, insect bites, scrapes and inflammation of the blood vessels, skin or tissues, as well as allergic reactions can trigger a swollen leg in horses. So are external factors such as lack of activity, excessive food or protein and stall confinement.
The following infections and diseases cause a horse’s leg to expand:
Cellulitis – This term refers to a bacterial infection of the soft connective tissues under the horse’s skin. It typically starts as a painful swelling that’s warm and tender to the touch. Fever and lameness are the first major signs of horse cellulitis.
Lymphangitis – When cellulitis is left untreated, it could become severe, and infection may reach the deeper layers. Lymphangitis occurs when the horse’s lymphatic system becomes infected or clogged, allowing for fluids to accumulate in the horse’s body or in the legs. Also called big or fat leg disease, an infected horse will have at least one leg that’s blown up to twice its normal size.
Vasculitis – This term refers to an inflammation of the horse’s blood vessel walls. Vasculitis can be caused by several issues affecting a horse, the most common being a horse’s reaction to the immune system fighting against bacteria, viruses, organisms that cause Potomac horse fever and other drugs and medications.
These conditions typically start with bacterial infections that enter through the horse’s skin when it gets injured, wounded or scratched.
Suspensory ligament injury – Located at the back of the leg, the horse’s suspensory ligament starts at the top of the cannon bone and divides into two branches that run to the inside and outside of the sesamoid bones. An injury to this ligament causes swelling, heat and lameness in your horse.
Windgall – A windgall refers to the swelling of a horse’s tendon located at the back of its fetlock joint. In rare occasions, a windgall can be an indication of a more serious condition, particularly when accompanied by lameness. In most cases, though, it’s likely the result of wear and tear.
Degenerative joint disease – As with humans, horses can develop DJD, a type of arthritis that occurs when the cartilage protecting the bones becomes damaged. This type of osteoarthritis is the most common cause for lameness among sport horses, where an infected horse suffers from swollen leg joints.
Arthritis – Since we’ve already mentioned it, horses can agonise over arthritis, too. This chronic inflammation leads to permanent degradation of the cartilage in a horse’s joints, causing it to become swollen or inflamed. Pain becomes imminent in every horse’s movement, resulting in lameness, stiffness and difficulty standing up.
Symptoms that accompany swelling in a horse’s leg
Most horse owners whose horses suffer from injuries, infections or other serious health conditions observe the following signs or symptoms in their ailing horse:
- Cuts or scratches on the lower legs
- Walking difficulties
- Legs that are warm and tender to the touch
- Loss of appetite
4 ways to treat swollen leg in horses
There are a few ways in which you can reduce swelling in your horse’s leg. Consider these strategies below:
- Applying cold therapy
- Taking antibiotics
- Treating abscesses
These treatments can be used together or individually, depending on how your beloved stallion, mare or foal, responds to each specific or combined remedy.
How to treat swelling through cold therapy
The best way to manage a horse’s acute leg inflammation is via cold therapy, says Veterinarian Preston Hickman. By applying ice or cold water, you’re not only helping control the inflammation and swelling, but you’re likewise aiming to minimise tissue damage and accelerate healing.
How does cold therapy help reduce swelling in horse’s legs?
Cold therapy alleviates pain and slows down the inflammatory process to make way for other complementary treatments, such as medicines, to work. As a vasoconstrictor, a cold horse ice pack can decrease blood flow to the damaged area, slowing down the metabolism of nearby tissues and helping prevent further tissue damage.
Types of cold therapy
Ideally, every horse owner should have a commercially available cold compress ice pack specially designed for a horse’s leg. The ice pack itself should be flexible enough to mould and reach all the affected areas, targeting pain and inflammation at its roots.
Horse ice packs – These horse ice packs are designed to heal a hardworking horse’s various problems swiftly and effectively, be it aches and pains, swelling, bruises and sprains. Satisfied horse owners love the flexible proprietary gel that stays cold for longer, dispensing cold therapy more effectively than the competition.
Filled with pliable gel and sturdy yet adjustable Velcro straps, this horse leg ice pack provides proper compression to your horse’s leg, making it a staple in every horse stable.
Cooling poultice – A cooling poultice is a paste-like mixture applied to a horse’s lower leg and hoof to extend the cooling effect of cryotherapy. The mixture is applied on a horse’s leg and hoof, then wrapped in a damp paper, cotton sheets, pads and held in place by a bandage wrap.
A poultice can be made using herbs such as turmeric, onion, ginger and garlic mixed with Epsom salt, aloe vera, activated charcoal and coconut oil. There’s a warming poultice, too, used mainly to draw out infections and abscesses.
Crushed ice – This may be the next best thing to horse ice packs, because they, too, can conform to a horse’s swollen leg. However, they melt and thaw quickly as fast as they release their cooling power, so you may need tons of crushed ice to satisfy your horse’s needs.
Chemical ice packs – These instant ice packs are convenient to use especially when you don’t have a fridge or cooler at hand. However, it may not be practical, being that an instant ice pack cannot fully cover your beloved equine’s affected limb within the recommended cooling period.
DIY ice bath – Besides running cold water over the injured limb, you may also prepare a bucket filled with ice water-filled and immerse your horse’s affected leg to reduce heat and swelling.
Guidelines in using cold therapy treatment for your horse’s leg
- As with human application, cold therapy should be applied within 24–48 hours following your steed or foal’s acute injuries to maximise efficacy.
- To prevent your horse from getting an ice burn or frostbite, do not allow ice to sit on the horse’s leg for more than 20 minutes for each session.
- Don’t apply ice directly on your horse’s bare skin. Protect it by placing several layers of cotton gauze in between the skin and the pack.
- Allow your horse’s skin to rest for 5–15 minutes before re-applying the ice pack.
How to properly bandage your horse’s swollen leg
A proper bandaging technique is essential in applying cold therapy compression to your horse’s swollen leg. With appropriate cooling compression, you’ll be able to maximize the benefits of cold therapy without compromising blood flow or risking tendon damage.
In the absence of a specially-designed horse ice pack, you may use regular ice packs with an elastic band or purchase a bandaging material or tape to hold the pack in place.
Bandage in a spiral pattern, from front to back, and with adequate and uniform pressure – not too tight, not too loose.
When to treat your horse with antibiotics
For horse leg infections caused by cellulitis or lymphangitis, your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Anti-inflammatory medications for horses such as phenylbutazone is a common prescription.
In treating leg wounds, clean the affected site thoroughly to prevent infection. Call your veterinarian for proper treatment and, while waiting, apply antibiotic-laced wound powder, cream, ointment or spray. If your horse’s leg is bleeding, apply a compression bandage.
How to treat abscesses in your horse
An abscess is the accumulation of pus in your horse’s hoof or in some occasions, the lower leg. They’re typically caused by an infection from scratches, bites or wounds. Draining, bandaging and keeping the hoof clean are the main steps in treating it.
If your horse’s lower leg is affected, you might need to go to a veterinarian to thoroughly clean the leg, locate the entry wound, set up the (pus) drainage and bandage your horse.
When to see a veterinarian
Observe your horse’s movements and symptoms. If, despite these conservative treatments, your horse continues to experience increased pain, lameness, fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and excessively secretes a strangely coloured and foul-smelling wound discharge, get immediate veterinary help.
There are various ways to reduce a swollen horse’s leg, with cold therapy offering the fastest relief to pain and swelling. Having a specially designed horse leg ice pack not only shows you are a responsible owner, but it can make you and your equine’s life easier as well.
Do not disregard the help of your veterinarian, with whom you can address your horse’s pain and suffering more promptly and successfully.
Hi! I’m Steve Stretton, owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. If you need any help in choosing the best ice pack for your horse’s swollen leg, comment below or drop us a line here.