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The 16 most common horse leg problems and how ice packs provide immediate relief for these conditions

Author: Steve Stretton
January 08, 2021

Without strong limbs, horses couldn’t have survived the harsh climate and perilous predators they faced ages ago. While horses these days have evolved to perform mostly agricultural and recreational tasks, they do face more complex issues in maintaining top notch legs. 

Despite being built for agility and weight bearing, your equine’s limbs can get overloaded more easily, causing injuries, sprains, strains and other musculoskeletal problems. 

If you’re at your wit’s end in dealing with your regal companion’s leg problems, today’s your lucky day. We’ll walk you through the fundamentals of a horse’s leg problems and discuss what can go wrong with your beloved equines’ limbs. 

As a bonus, you’ll get to know how using ice packs can benefit your racehorse – from relieving pain and inflammation, helping maintain healthy legs and preventing further injuries. 

Anatomy of a horse’s front legs

The horse’s front legs are composed of strong, fibrous muscles, cartilage, ligaments and bones that bear the horse’s weight.

The ulna, a short bone that forms the horse’s elbow point, and the radius, the long bone that stretches to the knee joint, comprise the upper part of the horse’s foreleg. 

Carpus, or the horse’s knee joint, functions like a human wrist and is formed by bones, ligaments and tendons connected in such a way that allows for a wide range or movement in the foreleg. 

A horse’s lower leg has a powerful cannon bone, the equivalent of the human shinbone, which stretches from the knee joint to the fetlock joint and is supported by splints on either side that support the knees. 

The forelimbs’ “pulley system” is made possible by the sesamoid bones and its attached tendons, both located behind the fetlock (ankle) joint. The pastern, pedal and navicular bones complete the structure, along with other parts, to perform various leg movements. 

Anatomy of a horse’s hind legs

Three main bones – the ileum, ischium, and pubis – are attached from the spine through the sacroiliac joints, which facilitate energy and movement flows to the horse’s hind legs.  

The horse’s other major bones are not so different from a human’s. There’s the lengthy femur bone that connects with the pelvis through the hip joint, and the hind leg, via the stifle joint. The tibia, found in the upper area of the hind leg and the patella, or kneecap, are both located in a horse’s hind legs. Cannon and splint bones, pastern, pedal and navicular bones similar to those in the horse’s forelegs are likewise present. 

16 most common leg problems that may affect your horse

As a creature designed for speed, flowy movement and weight bearing, a horse becomes susceptible to leg problems, both present at birth or acquired. The following conditions may plague your stags, mares or foals once in their lifetime or quite frequently:

  • Stocking up or edema Fluid retention in the lower limbs made worse by gravity.
  • Acute carpitis An injury to any of the eight joints within the horse’s knee can trigger this type of inflammation. 
  • Arthritis A degenerative joint disease due to infection, age or wear and tear. 
  • Bone spavin A bony growth in the lower hock joint mainly triggered by osteoarthritis.
  • Bog spavin This refers to the swelling of the horse’s hock joint.
  • Bowed tendons Inflammation of the protective cover of a specific tendon located in the knee toward the fetlock. 
  • Capped Hocks An enlargement of fluid-filled bursa as an aftermath of trauma. 
  • Chip fractures or knee chips – Erratic bone development, unequal loading or trauma that places uneven pressure across the bone are the most common causes of this condition.
  • Curbs A swelling at the back of the hock mainly due to a ligament strain.

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  • Hygroma This causes knee swelling from trauma, for instance, when a horse hits its knee on the fence, is kicked or falls. 
  • Knee Spavin An abnormal growth or inflammation near the horse’s hock. 
  • Osselets – A bony spur on the horse’s ankle or fetlock joint that sets off inflammation of the nearby tissues.
  • Shin splints – Inflammation of the membrane covering the horse’s cannon bone or shin bone. This may also be caused by improper fracture healing or bone irritation.
  • Speeding Cut – This injury occurs when the horse strikes the inner side of the knee. 
  • Sprained Ankle – This happens when the ligaments that support the fetlock joint become overextended. 
  • Wind puff or wind galls – Refers to a swelling in the horse’s ankle, especially around the fetlock joint.

What does conformation in horses mean?

Conformation may be described as the physical outline of a horse, one that is mainly influenced by its bone and muscle structures and highly related to its breed and purpose.

Part of a horse’s conformation may manifest in its straight legs, bone measurement, angles of the joints, pastern slope and bodily proportions such as lengths of the back, head and muscles, among other physical structures.

Conformational issues or faults in horses are mostly associated with a higher risk or  susceptibility to injuries, lameness and health as well as performance issues. 

Causes of common leg problems in horses

These common issues trigger pain, inflammation and other issues in your beloved equines:

  • Conformation faults
  • Degenerative disease (i.e. arthritis)
  • Excessive work on hard surfaces
  • Poor nutrition and diet deficiencies
  • Stress on joints 
  • Trauma or injury
  • Too much strain

How ice packs relieve your horse’s leg problems

Cold therapy for horses

From ancient Egyptians to Hippocrates, cold therapy has been used by our ancestors to treat soft tissue injuries for ages. According to Colorado veterinarian Bruce Connally, cold therapy has been proven to work in both humans and equines, although it isn’t applied as often as it should on horses. 

Cold therapy may come in the form of horse leg ice pack, ice cubes or crushed ice, cold hosing and ice water in a bucket, among other methods. 

The best option, however, is using ice packs because it is inexpensive, effective and allows you to cool your horse while doing your chores. 

6 proven benefits of using ice packs on your horse’s legs 

The following reasons make ice packs a staple in every (horse) stable: 

1. Ice packs reduce pain perception in horses

Cold therapy has an analgesic effect. It numbs the tissues and in effect slows down the receptors that send pain signals to the horse’s brain. The result? Immediate pain and inflammation relief for your horse. 

2. Ice packs control muscle spasms in horses

Muscle strains and overuse can cause muscle spasms, which can be very painful. Both heat and ice therapies can help ease muscle cramps, the latter being perfect for spasms caused by acute injuries, sprains and strains in your horse. Persistent spasms can benefit from heat packs better.  

3. Ice packs minimise leg swelling in horses

Swelling is highly linked to pain. As a vasoconstrictor, ice packs minimise swelling in a horse’s affected leg by allowing its blood vessels to shrink, controlling the barrage of fluids leaking towards the affected site.

4. Ice packs hasten healing in injured horses

Alternating hot and cold ice packs create a strong pumping action that restricts circulation of unwanted fluids and later facilitating a rush of blood and nutrients to the affected site. This fresh circulation of white blood cells destroys damaged cells resulting from the injury, accelerating the healing process. Use this method two days after exclusively applying ice packs on your horse’s affected leg.

5. Ice packs can minimise stress on recently injured horse’s tissues 

Applying a horse ice pack on a previously injured area can help minimise stress and inflammation in the recovered tissues of your horse. To improve resilience, use an ice pack as your horse gets back to work following an injury. 

6. Ice packs help prevent sore muscles in horses

A horse’s capillaries expand to accommodate higher oxygen levels during strenuous activities. Even if the activity slows down, capillary expansion may still persist, and fluids continue to rush towards the muscles, tendons and ligaments, producing enzymes that could set off inflammation. 

This natural process causes sore muscles and stocking up or leg swelling in horses. Applying a cold horse leg ice pack will cause the vessels to tighten, avoiding sore muscles and facilitating post-activity recovery. 

Hi, I’m Steve Stretton, owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. Got any questions about horse ice packs and our other cool products? We’re happy to help you out. Comment below or drop us a line here.

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