Does A Ringbone Diagnosis Mean The End of Your Horse's Career?

As a horse owner, realizing your horse is "off" can be enormously frustrating. Not only is it often difficult to pinpoint why your horse is lame, but, it can be difficult to work out the triggers and situations which exacerbate the lameness. Worst still, if the lameness is intermittent, it may gradually worsen before the source of the problem can be identified. One of the most common causes of this kind of issue is Ringbone, a degenerative disease of the pastern and coffin joints, characterised by progressive lameness. But what is ringbone? Are there treatment options and what, if anything can be done to address or prevent it?

Precisely What is Ringbone?

horse with ringbone
The legs of the horse are very delicate relative to the horse's overall size*

 Ringbone is a disease of the pastern and coffin joints. It is a degenerative condition with no definitive cure. Regardless of when the horse is diagnosed, the disease always continues to progress. However, in many cases, with proper treatment and good management, the disease's progression can be slowed, allowing the horse to maintain a decent quality of life.

Although it can be found in all of a horse's legs, Ringbone is most commonly found in the front legs. While not breed specific, Ringbone is more common in overweight animals and those over 15 years of age. Ringbone causes enlargement around the circumference of the horse's leg level of the joint. High Ringbone means the pastern joint is inflamed and enlarged. Low ringbone means the coffin joint is more inflamed and enlarged. Horses with Ringbone grows progressively worse in a manner similar to equine arthritis. The affected joints can often become worn, causing stiffness where additional bone spurs form on top of damaged joints. This damage is irreversible. 

There are two types of ringbone that affect the horse: Articular Ringbone affects the surface of the joint, the cartilage and lining. This can result in enlargement of the joint around its circumference, causing pain, and stiffness. Periarticular Ringbone affects the soft structures near the joint, such as ligaments and capsules. The area around the joint can become inflamed by trauma, damage or strain from over-exercising. This causes stimulation of bony growth in the area which forms around the area. This is also exacerbated by conformation problems. Periarticular Ringbone is more common and more serious than Articular Ringbone. 


Signs That Your Horse May Have Ringbone.

 It can be difficult to diagnose ringbone, some of the signs to look for include:


  • Intermittent lameness
  • Swelling around the pastern /coronary band
  • In acute cases the area can be hot and painful to touch
  • In chronic cases the area could be cool and non-painful but can be rigid and appear thickened
  • Reluctance to lift the legs to have the feet picked out
  • Intolerance to exercise
  • Sudden aversion to activities they once enjoyed such as jumping
  • Increased lameness going downhill

If you notice periods of intermittent lameness in your horse, call your veterinarian and have your horse examined. Catching ringbone in its early stages can have a significant impact on the outcome.


Diagnosing Equine Ringbone.


If your veterinarian suspects your horse has Ringbone, he will most likely take a full history and then thoroughly examine the horse. This includes joint manipulation and trotting the horse in hand or trotting/cantering on a lunge line to see how the horse moves through his various gaits. The horse with Ringbone will usually resist flexion of the fetlock or pastern joint, due to pain. X-rays are often used to detect abnormalities. Although there is no one-single definitive treatment, a combination of corrective shoeing and rest is normally recommended by the veterinarian.

If the horse has a mild or early case of Ringbone, it is important that they are kept on stall rest while being treated with medication to reduce any inflammation. There has been some temporary success with injecting corticosteroids and hyaluronic acid into the joint. Although this cannot cure the ringbone, they can help reduce the inflammation and improve comfort for the horse.

 Properly rested and allowed to rehabilitate slowly, most horses with ringbone can return to work, although the level of work may probably need to be modified. The horse must be exercised to keep his weight down. Any additional weight puts further strain on the joint and as such, it is important to keep a record of any weight gain in your horse.


Prevention of Ringbone in Horses

Although it is impossible to completely prevent Ringbone, it is possible to minimize the risk of it developing. When choosing a horse it is important to avoid horses with poor conformation: horses with upright pasterns, toes pointing in and small feet are often predisposed to ringbone and should be avoided. It is also important to ensure that any horse is regularly tended to by the farrier – keeping the toe trimmed and foot balanced will help prevent stress on the joints during movement.

 Ringbone can be problematic for a horse, but, it does not mean he must spend his days as a field ornament. With proper care and management, he may be able to return to work in time.

*Image courtesy of B.Summers