Question: Last year I purchased a 2-year-old quarter horse filly. She is a complete doll but when I was starting her she turned up lame. I was boarding her at a stable with someone that had 30 years + experience with Arabians. I asked that she would be fed a hay mixture with little alfalfa as she was still young and growing. Soon after I went away and was not able to see my filly for a while. I asked one of my friends to go and check on her and spend time with her. Soon after I left, my friend informed me that my filly was receiving pure alfalfa. I had her moved. When I returned I waited a while as my filly grew about so much and her butt was about 2 hands higher than her withers She evened out some and then I started her. Soon after she was stiff in her left hock. I called the vet and I was told by that she had a bone lesion (spur) in her hock, then seeking another opinion another vet told me all she needed was her hock injected and stall rest and she would recover. I am wondering was you think? I stopped working with her while waiting for a slot with the vet to open up and she was fine…. so I lunged her a little and she was fine for about a week and then her hock started to hurt again. I then contacted another vet and they came and looked at her and they too though all she needed was her hocks injected. How long do you think it will take her to recover?
Answer from April Reeves: First, I am so glad you called not one, but two vets. To all who read this, you are a ‘shining’ example of the care and attention a horse needs.
Hock injections can and do work, but there are many questions that need to be answered before anyone injects anything.
First, let’s understand the back hock joint. It is comprised of 8 bones, and resembles our ankle. There are four joints in the hock. The upper joint has the majority of movement (high motion), with the three below having very little movement (low motion joints). There are 3 types of joints – fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial. Fibrous bones are found in the skull and beween the shafts of some long bones. Cartilaginous joints are in the pelvis, vertebrae and growth plates, which extend a bone’s length during the growth years. Synovial joints are the most flexible and active joints. They are comprised of two bone ends that are covered by cartilage, which is smooth and lubricated, for friction-free movement. Strong ligaments help support these bones. When a horse is injured or worked too young (during the growth and development of these bones) the excess ‘friction’ breaks down the synovial fluid and the two bones ‘collide’.
If the soreness occurs in the high motion joint, it is a sign that the filly could have ongoing joint problems such as degeneration or arthritis, as these joints will endure the majority of movement the filly’s entire life. If the problem is in the lower, soft movement joints, it may be a matter of care and attention, plus injections.
One thing that comes to my mind is to look at both hocks and the horse’s movement. I have often seen horses diagnosed in the wrong areas. Often, when one leg is a bit weak (especially in young horses), they compensate by using the other leg too much, and cause damage. This is why it is important to assess your training and care. While you are treating the major problem on one side, it is the other side that activates the problem.
Your filly did have an unusual growth pattern, in that she ‘sprouted’ in the back so quickly, before the front caught up. She may have suffered some injury or stress to the hock when she was in this stage of development, which can only come out when the hock is asked to perform. This would explain the bone spur. While most spurs are not that bad, some can continue to develop with stress and activity, causing restrictions on the horse later in life (5 and older). It depends where they are located. It is almost impossible to diagnose the future of ‘osteophytes’. Some spur problems can be hereditary. A look into her background may tell a story.
Your first vet must have radiographs of the hock. You need to ask many questions regarding where and how this problem occurred.
Your second vet should see these radiographs, and be aware of the potential for using injections on a hock that may not need them.
Personally, I hope the second vet is correct. But it does mean you will be a year later when starting the filly, to ride anyway.
In response to “how long to take to recover”, I would suggest that you look at this as a one-year plan to get her active but not under stress or pressure. This is regardless of whether the filly is sound shortly after her injections. I have added more information to this question below. Your filly may appear sound shortly after injections, or it may be a longer time span; it is up to the vet and the extent of damage. Many owners have noticed complete improvement after one injection, with no recurring problems. Since you love this horse and seem to want to have her long term, it is my suggestion that you take the time, as it will pay off in the future. Her personality tells me that she is worth keeping for the long haul. Mares are wonderful – and if you get a good one when it’s young, you will have a great one when it matures.
When diagnosing hock lameness, it’s important to know 2 things: 1. Where the lameness occurs, and 2. How the lameness started (conformation or training?). if you don’t address the root cause, you will continue to have the problem.
Understanding ‘where’ is a matter of due diligence on the vet’s part, but it’s important for you to know as your mare is young, and knowing this will tell you when and how to begin her training, and how to look after her. Knowing where will also tell you if the mare will ever be reliably serviceable in the future.
Quarter horses are known for having straight back hocks. While this is a benefit for some disciplines, it is not a benefit when you start them before the age of 4.
Many young horses are slightly cow-hocked until they finish growing. Riding and sharper, tighter maneuvers can add undue stress on young joints. When a horse is asked to turn quickly, around 1000 pounds of pressure (+-) on bones and connective tissue come bearing down, causing extreme stress on hocks. Many young quarter horses not bred specifically for halter work have a ‘soft’ cow-hock. My big appendix QH’s hocks were both straight and soft cow-hocked. I waited until he was 4 just to start him.
Hoof angles can play a part in hock problems. Letting a horse go too long between trims can cause stress to joints.
Injections have benefits. They reduce inflammation, therefore reducing pain. Injections also reduce degeneration from arthritis.
Injection medications include cortisone (corticosteroids / steroid) – Trimacinolone (used widely), Methylprednisolone acetate (Depro-Medrol), a potent, long-lasting corticoseriod for lower hock joints. Another is Hyaluronic acid, found naturally occurring in the hock, which reduces inflammation and improves the quality of the synovial fluid and cartilage maintenance. You can use Methylprednisolone along with Hyaluronic acid together.
The ‘Why’ of unsoundness
It’s important, when considering injections, to ask “why” the horse became sore. Personally, I do not ride or lunge a 2 year old of any breed or size. I spend countless hours on the ground, working for other aspects, such as desensitizing and flexion, which will be invaluable when I start the horse.
I also take youngsters out for long walks to get them use to smells and different environments. I begin walking my colts from weaning time. I learned this from an amazing vet I use to have (John Gilray). Dr. Gilray checked out a weanling Arab colt I had, for small, weak ankles. He suggested I walk this colt every day on the road, to help strengthen the bones. The soft impact would help build up the calcium levels and create a larger, stronger leg, without being too much of a strain. It worked brilliantly, and I still do this with all my young horses. Consequently, I have never had one serious problem with legs on any of my horses, over the course of 35 years, and I KNOW this is because I take it slow and pay attention to the horse.
My first thought from your question is that your filly may be lunged in too small a circle too quickly. The only circling I would be doing with a 2 year old is to lead her or allow her to play in a large roundpen (60foot minimum).
She may not be getting enough ‘moving around’ time. Young horses should not be stalled before the age of 2. They need to move and let bones develop naturally. Those bones need to feel soft impact and bones learn to grow and adjust to this. Leaving them in stalls only decreases the chance of a reliable healthy bone.
Does the timing of her unsoundness correspond with being saddled? Check the fit for pinching. Usually pinching shows up at the front, but nothing is impossible when diagnosing.
Another thing is her feed. You did explain the alfalfa problem, and I agree with you. Young horses should not be fed an alfalfa diet. It is too rich in protein (15-25%) and while it is part of the natural food chain, it’s purpose is not a singular food source, but a supplement for underweight horses or horses that work hard. It is a good complement to regular high-fibre hay (1-2 flakes/day). Alfalfa is dangerously low in fibre, and some horses have allergies to it, causing joint pain and a whole list of problems (allergies are not the same as blood sugar imbalances and metabolic disorders). I would eliminate all alfalfa from her diet to see if it has any effects.
Pros and cons for your filly: while she is young, you have caught the problem early, and you may be able to fix it so that she can have a long riding life.
I would ask more questions with your vets (especially about arthritis), and get solid answers, since the two diagnoses are worlds apart. I would keep off the horse for another year, walking her every day, and doing tons of groundwork and desensitizing.
For young horses with joint problems, you may want to add a supplement. Although there are many ‘drug’ compounds available, I prefer natural products, as the horse is closer to nature than a manufactured drug is. You may want to check out Riva’s Remedies (http://www.rivasremedies.com/) and if you want, call Marijke van de Water toll free at 1-800-405-6643. She can help you choose the best maintenance program for her. Marijke is a highly sought after clinician and nutritionist.
In my many years, I have noticed ‘patterns’ with horses and how they are kept and managed. Today, in the barns I teach at, one barn in particular has never suffered any leg injury other than the odd cut or self-inflicted ‘stupidity’. These riders are mainly hunter/jumper riders and ride religiously. The other barns are a great learning experience for me, as they are always confronting some problem.
The problem-free barn puts the horses out into pasture every day, rain or shine, all seasons. These horses run and play together, moving continually. They rarely injure each other from kicking, other than the odd scrape.
The problem barn turns their horses out from stalls to small paddocks. When the horses are brought in to work, they are used heavily for one hour, until retired back into their stalls.
This is not random. In all my years, I have begun to notice this strong pattern. While not all horses in stalls will ever suffer injury or lameness, it is an observation that does merit some attention and serves as a question to those who have injured horses in confinement.
In the wild, horses in herds need to keep up, regardless of injury, or risk the entire herd to predators. A predator will sense there is weakness in the herd. Therefore, the horse begins to heal and carry on. This is why it is so important to let horses stay active as much as possible. It is in their nature, and cannot be bred out.
I hope this information helps and gives you a more diversified background into what you are facing. Let me know how it goes and what you finally decide on.