Why your horse’s legs may become swollen and 7 ways you can address it

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Why your horse’s legs may become swollen and 7 ways you can address it

Horses may be swift and powerful, but they are also sensitive beings, and they require tender, loving care. Besides making sure they’re in the pink, you will need to spend time grooming, training and riding them.  

So, what do you do when your perfectly healthy four-legged companion suddenly suffers from an unsightly bulge in the leg? How do you know when to skip the saddle and give your horse the additional attention it deserves? 

Saddle up as we discuss the basics of swelling in your horse’s legs and share the best tips on how to manage and prevent them. 

Why is my horse’s leg swollen?

Reasons for mild, moderate and severe swelling in a horse’s leg vary depending on the underlying cause. A worrisome bump can happen anywhere, affecting only one leg, either on the front or hind legs, or in all four limbs, especially if your equine is suffering from a heart condition. If triggered by an injury or infection, the swelling on your horse’s leg may only be in the affected limb. 

Otherwise known as “filling” or “stocking up”, your horse’s swollen leg can be a result of fluid build-up due to edema. This may disappear after the horse is allowed to move around. 

However, a simple cut or scratch can become infected and progress into more serious conditions called “cellulitis” and “lymphangitis”, two of the most common causes of swelling in a horse’s leg.

Specific causes of swelling in a horse’s leg

Physiological issues such as diseases, injuries, inflammation and infections could all cause some form of enlargement in your horse’s leg. However, external factors are to blame, too, among them being the lack of activity or, inversely, your horse being too active.

Here are some of the reasons why your horse’s leg is swollen:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Arthritis 
  • Bruising
  • Cuts and scrapes 
  • Excessive protein in diet
  • Inflammation or infection of the skin, tissue and vessels (i.e cellulitis, vasculitis, lymphangitis, etc.)
  • Injury or trauma
  • Overeating and obesity 
  • Stall confinement after strenuous exercise
  • Too much or lack of physical activity

Symptoms that accompany swollen leg in horses

Besides swelling on a particular area of the leg such as the joints, ligaments and bones, you may observe the following signs in your indisposed equine:

  • Cuts or scratches 
  • Fever 
  • Lameness
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Walking difficulties 

If your horse was perfectly fine a few hours before you discovered the swelling and other accompanying symptoms, do not panic and read our tips in the next section. 

7 best tips to reduce leg swelling in your horse

Limb swelling in some horses may be caused by minor issues such as edema, which disappears when the horse begins to move. An overworked horse’s leg will swell, but adequate stall rest will consequently get your horse going again. 

The following tips are useful for mild to moderate symptoms of a horse’s swollen leg or for when your horse is waiting to be seen by your veterinarian.

1. Apply horse leg ice packs 

Cold therapy is your go-to treatment for soft tissue injuries and other conditions that cause pain and inflammation. Hence, an ice pack specially designed for horses should be a staple in every horse stable.  

Choose this commercially available cold compress ice pack specially designed for a horse’s leg. Highly flexible, even when taken straight from the freezer, this product moulds to your horse’s leg snugly, targeting pain and inflammation wherever it may be.  

2. Make your own cooling poultice

For the unfamiliar, a cooling poultice is a thick mixture applied to a horse to extend the cooling effect of cryotherapy. The mixture is rubbed on a horse’s leg and hoof before wrapping the leg with damp paper, cotton sheets or pads. A bandage wrap holds everything together while this herbal concoction is left for hours or overnight on a horse’s swollen leg, with the aim to treat inflammation.

Make your own poultice by mixing therapeutic and anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, onion, ginger and garlic. Stir in Epsom salt, aloe vera, activated charcoal and coconut oil for a more effective healing compound.  

Just make sure your horse is not allergic to any of the components to avoid aggravating your horse’s condition. 

3. Practice cold water immersion

Hosing your horse’s leg with cold running water helps but this leaves your horse wanting for more. A better option to prolong cold therapy application is filling a bucket with ice water and immersing your horse’s affected leg in it. 

As with humans, horses can get frostbite and tissue damage, too, so do not allow the ice pack to sit on your stag’s swollen leg for more than 20 minutes. Protect your horse’s skin by placing several layers of cotton gauze, and rest the skin for 5–15 minutes before re-using the ice pack.

4. Learn proper bandaging techniques

Cold therapy works better with appropriate compression or bandaging techniques. Adequate pressure should be applied on the affected area without disrupting blood flow or possible tendon damage. 

In the absence of a specially-designed horse leg ice pack, you may use regular ice packs with an elastic band or bandaging tape to hold the pack in place. 

A snug-fitting bandage can be achieved by wrapping the horse’s swollen leg in a spiral pattern from front to back and with adequate and uniform pressure – not too tight, not too loose. 

5. Act swiftly and have antibiotics and NSAIDs ready

Any injury to your horse’s lower leg should be immediately washed and cleaned, and this is when an antiseptic wound dressing is most useful to have and use. 

Along with the horse leg ice pack, various forms of antibiotics – liquid, powder, cream or ointment – should be a must-have in your first aid kit to prevent infections and further swelling. 

Horse leg infections caused by cellulitis or lymphangitis and the like need antibiotic prescriptions from your veterinarian to treat the infection. Anti-inflammatory medications for horses such as phenylbutazone is a common prescription. 

6. Consider equine acupuncture 

Some people turn to acupuncture for natural pain treatment and overall well being. This ancient Chinese healing technique is meant to enhance the body’s healing capacity by using thin needles to activate specific treatment points. By the way, the regal equines were the first animals to benefit from this method, being that they were man’s most helpful companions since the dawn of civilisation.  

Apparently, what works for humans works for horses, too. Veterinary acupuncture is being practiced and used in treating various musculoskeletal, respiratory, gastrointestinal and reproductive conditions in animals. 

In humans, horses and other animals, acupuncture is said to release hormones that trigger cells to initiate the healing process, pain relief included. It likewise eases blockages and facilitates the movement of fluids, blood and energy. This after effect can reduce the unpleasing bulges in your horse’s legs while enhancing the stag’s (or mare’s) overall health. 

7. Bet on your vet 

Care should be exercised in dealing with your horse’s every nick, scratch and bump. You can’t go wrong in having a trusted equine veterinarian whom you can pester with a barrage of calls about your beloved companion.

Choose a vet whose skills and proficiency are not only top notch but one who works great with animals and people (you), too.  

Tips to prevent swelling in your horse’s leg

Here are some additional tips on how to prevent swelling in your horse’s leg: 

  • Balance your horse’s physical activities based on several factors such as fitness level, age, injury status, etc. 
  • Keep the stable clean. 
  • Train your horse on surfaces that are neither too soft nor too hard. 
  • Don’t skip on hoof care. 
  • Make sure your horse is properly shod.
  • Promptly treat any injuries to tendons, ligaments and joint capsules.
  • Ensure your horse’s good nutrition to promote proper cartilage formation and maintain a healthy weight.

If your horse’s swollen leg persists, especially if accompanied by fever, lethargy and lameness, seek immediate veterinary help.  


The best way to manage pain, infections, diseases and inflammation in your horse is to prevent them in the first place. However, accidents do happen, and some diseases are genetically-triggered, making prevention a challenge.

Armed with basic horse care tips and with tools such as these horse leg ice packs, antibiotics and antiseptics in your kit, you and your horse can breeze through several challenges. 

Hi, I’m Steve Stretton, owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. If you have any questions about horse ice packs and other cool products, don’t hesitate to keep in touch.

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