Diagnosing Joint Issues in Horses.


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Diagnosing Joint Issues in Horses.

Morgan Murphy

Diagnosing Joint Issues in Horses.

Equine lameness can present in a number of different ways: typically, the horse first demonstrates lameness on the affected leg. If time passes without treatment and continued use of the horse, the other legs can become strained and then, ultimately, lame as well. Subclinical or Subtle lameness refers to when the horse does not demonstrate persistent lameness, becoming "off" only during certain exercises or only intermittently. (For example; an exaggerated head nod in trot or a sudden reluctance to work.)

Jumping can put significant pressure on a horse's joints^

To learn more about the signs of lameness, the causes and strategies for keeping your horse sound, check out the Dr Robert Miller DVD "Lameness, its causes and prevention" Persistent lameness should always be investigated by your veterinarian: A horse with clear and obvious signs of lameness is most likely, in pain. Without proper medical care, the horse's situation could degenerate, further.

Types of joint conditions

The number of joint conditions affecting horses is actually fairly astounding. They can also range dramatically in severity. Certain breeds, ages and disciplines invite more injuries than others.

Osteoarthritis: The most common joint condition impacting horses. This is caused by loss of cartilage within the joint leading to inflammation and pain. Bony growth is often seen around the articular surface area, (The surface of a joint at which the ends of the bones meet,) reducing the range of movement. The fetlock and the 3 lower hock joints (Bone Spavin,) are the most commonly affected horse joints. Unfortunately, arthritis is degenerative and cannot be reversed.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: This occurs as a result of the immune system attacking healthy, joint cells. It is actually very rare in horses.

Cysts: (Benign lumps of harden cells or in some cases, fatty deposits known as lipomas,) can develop beneath joint cartilage (known as subchondral cysts.) They can occur in all limbs and can vary in size. Larger cysts can impact movement severely.

Joint Infection: Normally a result of trauma to the joint capsule or the joint bursa which creates opportunity for infection. The joint becomes hot, swollen and painful to the horse, the infection can also spread to the bloodstream. Any infection must be treated effectively or it can lead to systemic infection and/or long term problems.

Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD): OCD , is a cartilage disease, most often seen in young horses and characterised by large flaps of cartilage or loose fragments within a joint. It’s associated with development of osteoarthritis as the horse ages.

Repeated Concussion: Concussion refers to impact to the joint, normally when the hoof and leg hit the ground hard during movement. Concussion can cause permanent change to a joint, inflammation or high impact injuries. This can be due to prolonged work on hard ground, excessive jumping, work that exceeds the horse's fitness levels or trotting on roads on a regular basis. It may also be a result of conformation faults. This is especially harmful in young horses.

Capped Elbow or Hock: This refers to inflammation in the bursa beneath the joint. It can be the result of a trauma from a kick, lying on hard floors or conformational faults. As with many other conditions, it is irreversible.

Fractures or Dislocations
: When a fracture or dislocation occurs within a joint, it can be very problematic for the horse. Even after the joint heals, damage to the articular surface can result in permanent degeneration and arthritis. Not only can this cause loss of use of the joint, but, it can be very painful. The most commonly fractured joint bones are the pedal bone and chip fractures in the horse's hock and knee.

Sadly, in many cases the condition may be irreversible. However, with proper management, the levels of pain can be reduced and mobility preserved as long as possible. Hop over to our article on treatment of joint issues and mobility supplements to learn more.

^image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club


  • This is a great feature Morgan, I did not know there were so many underlying concerns for joints in horses. I really enjoy these blogs - thanks