The Oedema Dilemma: What causes oedema in horses’ legs and how to treat it

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The Oedema Dilemma: What causes oedema in horses’ legs and how to treat it

Is your horse not quite themselves these days? Perhaps they’re not in the mood to horse around, they seem depressed or have swollen legs? Observe carefully, as they might have a case of oedema. 

What is oedema?

Strictly speaking, oedema (or “edema” in other countries) means swelling caused by fluid in the body’s tissues. It generally occurs in the feet, ankles and legs, but other body parts can also be affected. 

Horses can have oedema in their belly, for example, but for the purpose of this article, we will be talking exclusively about leg oedema in horses. It can also be called “swollen leg” in horses, or even as “stocking up”.

Because the legs are in the lower area of a horse’s body, gravity can cause fluid to build up in the legs due to the storing of fluid from blood vessels and within the tissue.

Symptoms of leg oedema in horses

The number one symptom of leg oedema in horses is swelling. This type of swelling is called “stocking up”. When the fluid pools in the tissues of the horse’s lower legs, the legs will like the equivalent to swollen ankles in humans. 

Other symptoms of oedema in horses include:

  • Stiffness and the reluctance to move
  • Lameness (change in their gait)
  • The swollen leg is sensitive to touch
  • Swelling feels like there’s fluid trapped inside the skin
  • Change in behaviour (depression)
  • Difficulty walking

What causes oedema in horses? 

If your horse is accustomed to moving around and they are suddenly made to rest or are not as active anymore, the reduced lymph flow will cause the legs to swell.

This is commonly seen in horses that are ordinarily free roaming in pastures and they’ve been kept in a stall overnight. You may notice that your horse’s rear legs are puffy and swollen the next morning. 

Sometimes, if they do not get enough exercise, their legs may swell, too, especially if this is coupled with excess grain feeding.

Age is another factor. Many horses, most especially as they age, will have legs that are “stocked up” for no apparent reason. 

Diagnosing oedema versus a wound

There are cases when a horse’s leg might seem to look “stocked up” when it’s actually just a side effect of either bite or a wound that seems insignificant. Inspect their leg carefully, because if it is not oedema, the wound must be treated immediately. It will not respond to how one normally treats leg oedema in horses.

Diagnosis of oedema

A veterinarian should ideally check your horse’s legs to find out what the problem really is. A veterinarian may need to assess the legs and joints and, in some cases, perform blood tests and other laboratory tests. This is to rule out that your horse isn’t suffering from a bacterial infection (usually from wounds) or an allergic reaction. 

If a veterinarian is far from your place and you cannot take your horse immediately to a vet clinic or hospital, it would be best to give them a call and be as descriptive as possible over the phone. In this case, observe if the swollen leg feels warm, is pus-filled or irritated. These are important details that the vet shouldn’t miss.

You can also do a quick test to confirm what your horse has is oedema by applying pressure with your fingers over the swollen area. The pressure should form a depression in the horse’s skin, and fill up again in 30–60 seconds.

Treatment plans for oedema


Oedema which appears when a horse has had a night in the stables will usually be walked out in the morning. The puffiness of the horse’s legs will usually subside as their legs resume activity. Regular exercise is essential for a horse who has the tendency to “stock up”. 

Cold therapy

This is the first line of treatment when there’s acute leg inflammation. The cold temperature will restrict damaged blood vessels, which will then reduce any internal bleeding and fluid gathering in the injured tissue. A horse ice pack is recommended when doing this to ensure that your horse has the most comfortable ice pack fit. The pack itself is flexible when frozen, so you don’t have to worry about the pack causing damage to the already tender and vulnerable swelling. The straps will also ensure that your horse can still go on regular walks and exercises while wearing the ice pack. This should be applied for 10–15 minutes and repeated every few hours. 


After icing, the area should be bandaged, preferably overnight in order to further minimise the swelling. A horse ice pack like this will work both as an ice pack and a compress or bandage, allowing you to hit two goals with one ice pack.

When should you call the veterinarian?

If your horse has a swollen leg and it is accompanied by lameness, a warm sensation on the hoof or the leg or an elevated body temperature, then it is more than a simple stocking up and it’s time to call the veterinarian.

Do you think your horse has oedema? Contact us if you have any queries. We’d love to hear from you!

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