A horse’s limbs are amazingly designed for speed and weight bearing. Its forelegs support up to 65 percent of its body weight, and these are where its knees, or carpal joints, are located.
As a major mass-enduring and impact-absorbing joint, a horse’s knee is susceptible to congenital and acquired problems. As such, it can occur suddenly or over the years, impacting a horse’s gait, or worse, resulting in lameness and walking difficulties. It does not help that an equine’s knee is made up of sensitive yet complex connections of bones, ligaments and tendons, among other parts.
So, before letting your horse run like the wind, we suggest you amp up your knowledge about a horse’s knee, the problems that can affect it and how to resolve those problems.
Anatomy of a horse’s knee
No different from a human wrist, a horse’s knee is made up of two rows of bones that flex in three various places. It is classified as a joint, a structure which allows the limbs to bend and flex.
In horses, joint stability is maintained by strong bands of capsule that attach to the bones and ligaments. Overall, the ligaments are essential in stabilizing the horses joints, namely, the fetlock (the protruding joint above the hoof and pastern), carpus (knees), hock (hind leg) and stifle (upper hind limb).
The horse’s carpus, or carpal joint, is located only on its front legs. The joints on its hind legs are called tarsus, more commonly known as the hock.
Nine bones make up the knee joints held together by ligaments that also act as shock absorbers.
What are the congenital knee problems affecting the horse?
Conformation, or the horse’s ideal physical structure in relation to its breed and purpose, is essential in the horse’s knee because it can impact its performance and health. Below are the common conformational faults in a horse’s knee:
- Calf-kneed – This appears as if the knee is curving backward, placing more strain on the knee joints as it bends backwards. Additional strain is likewise exerted toward the tendons, bones and ligaments, and puts the horse at higher risk for knee chips, bowed tendons and knee ligament injury. A proper shoe that gets rid of long-toe and low-heel, may help correct the issue.
- Buck-kneed – Also referred to as over-in-the-knee, this condition occurs when the knee is set too far forward in relation to the leg. Horses with mild cases of this perform fine, but severely affected hoses tend to go weak in the knees, literally, and stumble.
- Knock or crooked knees – Scientifically called carpus valgus, this looks as if the horse’s knee is set to the inside if you draw a straight line from the horse’s chest towards its toe. It’s as if the lower limb curves outward from the knee, excessively straining the ligaments and bones on the inner part of the leg.
- Bow legs – This condition occurs when the lower limb appears to deviate inward from the knee. Otherwise known as carpus varus, this is considered as an angular limb deviation in horses that increases strain on the other part of the knee.
- Bench (offset) knees – This structural fault is located in the horse’s front legs, with the cannon bone, or the lower leg bone in between the fetlock and knee or hock, set too far toward the outside of the leg. This increases the horse’s susceptibility to splints.
Bow legs and crooked knees are both classified as an angular limb deformity, which occurs when the foal’s limbs fail to align as it grows and develops. These conditions should be addressed in the first few months of the foal’s life. Hoof trimming and controlled or restricted exercise will help correct these structural faults and avoid the risk of knee and lower limb injuries.
Acquired knee problems in horses
Knee problems can also develop as the foal grows. These problematic knee conditions appear later in a foal’s life:
Osteoarthritis (OA) – Your horse’s knee joints can get swollen and inflamed due to overuse or wear and tear, too. To avoid this progressive and degenerative condition,
veterinarians urge horse owners to address injuries and inflammation immediately.
Carpal hygroma – This causes knee swelling from trauma when, for instance, a horse hits its knee on the fence, is kicked or falls. It rarely causes lameness in horses, and initial treatment can involve drainage and steroid injections.
Chip fractures – Also known as knee chips, these are cartilage-covered bones that have chipped off to a joint. It’s not exactly life-threatening, but a horse could suffer from joint swelling. Erratic bone development, unequal loading or trauma that places uneven pressure across the bone are the most common causes of this condition. Unfortunately, chip fractures could happen even while your horse is merely frolicking, perhaps too much, in the field.
Acute carpitis – An injury to any of the eight joints within the horse’s knee can trigger this type of inflammation. To avoid further damage, cold therapy, NSAIDs and adequate rest may help control the swelling.
Soft tissue injury – As a complex structure surrounded by soft tissues, a horse’s knee is extremely prone to injuries because of its weight bearing and movement functions.
There’s no need to be knee-deep in worry for now because most of these issues can be addressed by handy horse leg ice packs.
3 reasons why ice packs are your horse’s basic (k)need
Both congenital and acquired knee problems in your horse will result in pain, swelling and inflammation sooner or later. Whether acute or chronic, horse ice packs offer inexpensive yet effective treatment for your equine’s knee troubles.
Colorado veterinarian Bruce Connally acknowledges cold therapy’s efficacy in humans and horses, but says this technique is underutilized by horsemen.
For quick relief from fresh knee injuries
Anyone who has used an ice pack for discomfort knows how reassuring it can be for pain. As a horse owner, you’d be glad to know that ice packs work the same way in horses.
Cold therapy acts as analgesic, numbing the pain by slowing down the receptors that send pain signals to the brain. As a vasoconstrictor, it minimizes swelling by allowing your blood vessels to shrink, controlling the barrage of fluids leaking towards the affected site.
For best results, cold therapy should be used during the first 24–48 hours to benefit from its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
How to do it: An ice pack should be applied to a horse’s knee for up to 20 minutes at a time. Allow the horse’s skin to rest for at least 15 minutes in between applications. Repeat the ice pack applications as often as you can within 24–36 hours.
For older knee injuries
Experts suggest exclusively applying cold therapy for the first two to three days following acute injuries, then heat therapy for the next few days. However, the best technique, after solely using cold packs, may be alternating between hot and cold therapies. This study says switching from cold to heat therapies could work to ease lower back pain.
Incorporating ice and warm packs to a recuperating horse’s recovery plan will hasten the healing process. Alternating these methods 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.
A horse who’s been resting for some time, for instance, due to a serious injury, can benefit from cold therapy as well. Applying a horse ice pack on the previously injured area can help minimize stress and inflammation in the recently recovered tissues once your horse gets back to work (or play).
How to do it: During the rehabilitation phase, a horse leg ice pack may be applied only once on the knee for up to 20 minutes post-activity.
For improved performance
As you may have cued from the previous sections, cold therapy application works for humans and horses alike.
The use of cold therapy for athletes’ post-workout treatment has been practiced for years, and it’s common to see sports players with ice packs taped on their bodies or immersed in an ice water-filled tub after a match.
When a horse is engaged in a strenuous activity, its capillaries expand to accommodate blood-carrying oxygen needed by its body. Once the horse slows down, capillary expansion may still persist, and fluids continue to rush towards the muscles, tendons and ligaments, producing enzymes that could promote inflammation. This further causes sore muscles and stocking up or leg-swelling in horses. Applying a cold horse leg ice pack will constrict the vessels and avoid sore muscles to facilitate fast post- activity recovery.
How to do it: Do not apply ice packs until your horse’s breathing rate normalizes. Once ready, apply the horse leg ice pack for 20 minutes on your equine’s affected leg or knee.
Medical advances have made the treatment for horses’ knee problems less complicated. However, not all horse owners have easy access to complex technology. For simple knee problems and performance enhancement in your horses, it’s best to rely on age-old techniques, such as the use of ice packs, complementary to other methods.
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 get in touch.