Coping With The Heat

How is everyone managing during Britain’s 2018 heatwave? We’ve been doing horses and any outdoor jobs in the morning and evening; hiding from the heat during the day because it’s too hot for anyone, let alone babies.

In general, horses in the UK seem to find it difficult to adapt to the heat. Partly because it’s so infrequent and comes along suddenly, and partly because a lot of horses are colder blooded, native types with thick, dense fur.

So with the hot weather, comes a few routine changes. I for one have been riding later in the evening. In my pre-baby life, I’d have been up with the larks riding in the cool. Schooling sessions become shorter or non existent. I did a lesson yesterday morning which consisted of about fifteen minutes in trot, split over the lesson, and the rest in walk. It was a good opportunity to practice lateral work without stirrups and nit pick on my rider’s aids. Hacks become much more appealing, don’t they? Any woods provide some shade and there’s usually more of a cool breeze. I read last week that horses feel the heat more than we do so it’s important to consider them when deciding to ride.

Some people prefer to have their horses stabled during the day in summer, and turned out overnight when it’s cooler and there are less flies about. For me, it depends on the horse and their field. People underestimate the shade that trees provide. I found this out a couple of weeks ago at a wake. The back garden of the house we were at had several large trees on one side and a sunny patio on the other. Sitting on the grass under the trees I was lovely and cool while those sat at the patio table with a parasol up were still boiling hot. So if your horse’s field has trees to provide shade and they aren’t bothered by the flies I would personally prefer them to stay out where they can move around and benefit from any breeze (which also deters the flying pests) that’s about. It’s also worth considering your stables. Wooden ones can become ovens whilst stone barns stay lovely and cool.

Wash them off liberally. Yes they may not have worked up a sweat walking around the woods, but they’ll still be grateful for a shower. There is the age old argument about how to cool off horses properly. The way I see it, the majority of the time horse owners aren’t dealing with a horse on the verge of hyperthermia and heat exhaustion (this week excepted) so hosing them and allowing the cooling process of evaporation to cool them down is sufficient. This week though, you may want to opt for continuous hosing and sweat scraping to bring down their core body temperature quicker.

Then of course is ensuring they’re hydrated. Horses will drink more in hot weather, much like us humans, so making sure they have plenty of clean water available is paramount. Ideally the water wants to be cool so that it is more appealing to the horse and refreshing. Standing water buckets need to be in the shade, but be aware of flies congregating around them. Self filling troughs are very often cooler despite being in the full sun because they’re continuously topped up with cold water from the underground pipes as the horses drink.

When a horse starts to get dehydrated they also stop wanting a drink, which obviously compounds the problem. What’s the evolutionary benefit to this, I wonder? It’s far better to never let them get thirsty in the first place. Adding salt to their diets, in feeds or with a lick, encourages them to drink. It may also be worth having a feed such as Allen and Page’s Fast Fibre which has very little calorific value but needs soaking for ten minutes before feeding. Adding that to their bucket feed, or even substituting that for part of their hay ration will help keep them hydrated. Some horses like their bucket feed to be sloshy so that’s a good way of giving them more water. You can add electrolytes to their feed too which aids hydration.

With this intense heat we’re having, there’s also the risk of sunburn. For both humans and equines! I heard a few weeks ago about a horse who had been clipped. I think he was a predominantly white coloured. But over the next couple of days his back got sunburnt due to the coat no longer protecting his pink skin. That’s a good reason to use a quality UV-proof fly rug, only half clip or indeed not clip at all! The UV-proof fly masks with nose nets are great at protecting white noses, and using factor 50 suncream helps prevent sunburn – don’t forget to use it on yourself too! I’d also be wary of white legs, particularly on fine coated horses as these could also suffer from sunburn.

Finally, check they aren’t overheating in any rugs. A lot of fly rugs are very breathable and thin, but sweet itch rugs tend to be of a thicker material. It might be worth using a lightweight fly rug on a sweet itch horse during the day, and sacrificing it if they start a scratching session and them staying cooler rather than them getting too hot in a sweet itch rug.

It is also worth reading up on the signs of equine heatstroke and be prepared to call the vet if you think your horse is suffering from it. Here are the symptoms:


-Increased temperature

-High respiratory and heart rate



-Dry mucous membranes in the mouth – they should be pink and have a slimy feel to them. To check the mucous membranes, press your finger on the gums and they should turn white with pressure. Once you have released your finger they should return to a normal pink colour.

Putting Their Back Up

It’s quite a common term that you’ll hear, especially around young or excitable horses – “oh they’ve got their back up today!”

It’s not a positive thing, even though a horse working correctly is lifting through their back (that engagement is a different feeling altogether). A horse who has their back up feels very tense and feels like they could buck at any moment. Some horses do this the first time that they’ve been ridden after a holiday, other’s do it in response to a badly fitting saddle. And some do it when they’re feeling fresh and excitable. Others can have the tendency to do it all the time, and this is often referred to as being cold backed. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

When you’re working with young horses, perhaps backing them, or highly strung and fit horses, you start to learn the warning signs of a horse who has their back up. When you first put the saddle on they can sometimes react by tensing, and shortening their body. You can often physically see the back lift up. Knowing the horse; whether they’ve been out of work, or if they are sensitive over the back will help you prepare them. Some horses can put their backs up in bad weather, because they’ve gotten cold and wet. The best thing here is to leave them in to warm up before you ride, and use an exercise sheet to protect their quarters, which will make them much happier and more relaxed.

Sensible safety precautions should mean that you place the saddle on, do the girth up gradually over a few minutes so that they get used to it, and then lead them round, and lunge them until they relax. When you mount, use a mounting block and have assistance so that you can put your right foot into the stirrup without sitting down onto their back and then you can gently lower yourself into the saddle over a couple of walk strides. While you’re lowering yourself into the saddle, be led, so that you don’t need to apply the leg as this could trigger an explosion of bucks; have the leader reassure the horse as you walk, while you can scratch their wither and praise them. Once you feel the horse relax you can begin to take control and the leader becomes redundant.

Let’s return to the term “cold backed”. Traditionally, this referred to a horse who was always sensitive to the saddle and mounting procedure. Usually when the saddle is put on they dip away from the pressure of the saddle, but when you mount they’re on the defensive with their back arched ready to dispose of what they perceive as a threat. Once their muscles warm up and they become accustomed to the saddle and rider they will work normally.

One of my old ponies was cold backed and we just used to put the saddle on, girth loose, for fifteen minutes before I rode, slowly tightening it a notch every couple of minutes. Then I’d just walk her across the yard before mounting and she was perfectly behaved. It was a fairly easy management accommodation to make.

Nowadays of course, we have more knowledge as to why a horse is cold backed. Some horses are cold backed because they have negative associations with the saddle and being ridden (perhaps a badly fitting saddle and heavy, unbalanced rider in the past, or they suffered from kissing spines) so only be building their trust and retraining them can you overcome this behaviour. Most others are cold backed because they have a degree of pain.

The cold backed response is due to very sensitive nerve endings around the back being stimulated. These nerves could be sensitive due to pressure from the saddle or damage to the muscles, perhaps an old injury which has left the muscles tight and immobile. An old wound may have affected the nerves in a particular area on the skin of the back, making them more sensitive in that area. A cold backed horse may have back pain, either from bad posture or from an underlying lameness.

Ultimately, a horse who puts their back up when you ride, or regularly exhibits cold backed behaviour, shouldn’t be ignored. If it’s due to excitability and freshness then it can be dangerous to the unsuspecting, and if it’s due to pain then that needs alleviating.

If a horse suddenly starts putting their back up when you ride then do an assessment of that day – was it windy or wet? Had the horse been off work for a significant period? Have they been on box rest or limited turn out? Are they being over fed? Any of these could contribute to poor one-off behaviour. If a horse I rode was normally perfectly behaved but one day had their back up when I mounted, I’d run through in my head what they’d done over the last week and today’s environment to see if there was a cause. It could be that they wind and rain blew under their rug and their muscles are physically cold and tight, or the fact they’ve had limited turn out because of the bad weather and their bucket feed not being reduced. In which I’d change the management (thicker rug, more turnout, less hard feed) and hope their behaviour returns to normal. If not, into step two.

Once you’ve established that there’s no problem from the management side of things, then begin searching for a physical problem. Have the saddle checked, have a vet assessment, book a physio session, and keep on top of any issues and get to learn your horse’s signals that he’s starting to feel uncomfortable so you can treat him early. They may need management techniques such as a massage pad used before working, or going in a solarium or horse walker if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.

If the horse is chronically showing cold backed symptoms and no specific cause has been found my next step would be to work to improve their posture and strengthen their muscles. Lunging and riding in a long and low frame to increase their topline muscles and improve their posture and way of going; and seeking help from an instructor to correct the rider so that they aren’t inhibiting the horse’s ability to work correctly. Then over time you’ll improve the horse’s strength and ability to carry a rider which will hopefully reduce their tendency to be defensive and put their back up when mounted.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

Taking Medication

Here’s a question for you all.

How do you trick your right-now-they’re-annoyingly-clever horse into taking tablets or medicine?

Be it hard tablets, powders or wormers, horses are very good at sniffing out the medication and eating around them or totally rejecting any attempts by you to administer it.

I’m sure those of you with such horses have a trick or two up your sleeve. I want to know them!

For hard tablets, I’ve bored a hole in a carrot or apple and given it to the unsuspecting horse.

Most horses accept powder medication in a tasty feed. Sugar beet is a favourite for mixing it in for those with a sensitive palate.

What are everyone else’s tricks?

White Line Disease

One of my client’s poor pony is suffering from white line disease. We think it’s been a long time brewing because each time the pony has been trimmed by the farrier he’s been footsore for a few days. Anyway, what seemed to be an abscess a couple of months ago didn’t clear up and then the vet diagnosed white line disease. A new farrier later, and he’s making progress. Unfortunately, due to the rate of growth in the hoof, any problems with the hoof wall takes months to recover.

I don’t know much about white line disease, so I’ve done some reading up on it. When you pick up the foot, you can see the white line where there sole meets the outer hoof wall. Damage to this area allows fungus and bacteria to get between the sole and hoof wall, which causes them to separate. Infection then spreads up the hoof towards the coronet band, destroying the hoof wall and making the horse very lame. White line disease usually affects the toe and quarters of the hoof. As the hoof deteriorates it takes on a chalky, crumbly, soft, white texture.

There are numerous different types of fungi which can be involved in white line disease, which makes treatment harder, especially as some spores cannot be eradicated, which means that some types of white line disease cannot he treated, only managed.

Because the hoof wall is made of dead cells, like our finger nails, the damaged area cannot regrow as skin would around a wound. Instead new, healthy hoof has to grow down from the coronet band which can take up to six months. Which is why you can see ridges on hoof walls following a change in diet or health.

White line disease sets in if the hoof wall is weakened, or if the hoof wall starts to separate from the laminae due to poor trimming and balancing of the foot. It begins with small cavities in the hoof wall, or seedy toe, which a good farrier should pick up on and take appropriate steps to prevent the disease spreading.

Farriers will shoe horses with white line disease with bevelled shoes to bring the breakover point further under the foot which takes the pressure off the toe area, and supports the compromised area. Shod horses are more likely to develop white line disease because of the mechanical pressure of the metal shoe against the hoof wall can literally tear the hoof wall away from the foot.

Treatment of white line disease involves removing the infected hoof wall, and then keeping the area as clean as possible. Horses usually need box rest, especially if lame, and to keep the foot as clean as possible, using an iodine or alternative solution. Once healing is established and the ground conditions are favourable – dry and mud free – the horse can begin light work because movement improves circulation and increase hoof growth.

There is a risk of laminitis developing as a secondary infection if a lot of the hoof wall is debrided and the bones of the hoof are less supposed so the laminae becomes detached. By supporting the bars and frog of the shoe you can reduce the risk of laminitis developing.

Caught early, white line disease is easily managed, but in more severe cases special shoes, boots or cast are needed for several months in order to provide enough support to the structure of the hoof while the healthy hoof grows down. Farriers measure the lesion upon treatment so that the next time they trim the foot they can establish if the rate of hoof growth is exceeding the tearing of the hoof wall. If this is the case then the hoof will recover as long as it’s kept free from further infection by keeping it disinfected, dry and open to the air to discourage the fungi from thriving.

You can try to prevent the onset of white line disease by feeding biotin containing supplements to improve the quality of the hoof wall, and having the hooves trimmed and well-balanced regularly. The farrier should keep an eye on old nail holes, old abscess sites and quarter cracks. Other than that, good hoof hygiene and care is paramount at preventing white line disease, and catching it early. Horses kept in a more artificial environment – stabled with less turnout – and those in extreme conditions (very wet or very arid) are often more prone to developing white line disease.

Equine Massage

One of my clients has recently started studying to be an equine masseuse. Not physiotherapy or osteopathy or anything, but straight forward muscle massage.

Firstly, what’s the benefit of having your horse massaged? Well, do you enjoy a massage? I would have thought the answer would be yes!

in short, a massage eases any post workout aches in the muscles, helps dissipate any lactic acid, can help ease anxiety related tension, improve circulation, help to move lymphatic fluid around the system, reduces stiffness and swelling after working hard, improves muscle tone, prevents adhesions and stretches connective tissue. As well as the fact that it is mentally relaxing.

A lot of owners, especially with competition horses, have regular visits from chiropractors and the like to ensure that there are no skeletal problems like a dropped pelvis, but I think the benefits of a general post work massage is often overlooked. I mean, if you’ve been to an event then the next day you usually give the horse off or a gentle walk and then the next couple of days is light hacking, so you appreciate the physical recovery time needed by the horse. But a general massage could enhance this recovery, or at least speed up the recovery time. If you think about it in human terms then after working in the garden on the first spring like day of the year nothing is better than a back massage from your other half … hint hint!

An article posted by my client last week made me realise that actually a massage would have benefits for horses for reasons I hadn’t thought of. We all know that horses have very sensitive skin as they can feel a fly land anywhere on their bodies. This has implications if you think about tack, and not in the obvious ways. Obviously a badly fitting tack puts pressure on the back muscles and creates muscle tension, leading to a change in the gait and stresses the rest of their body. But did you know that if a horse wears a fly veil then the pressure caused around the headpiece and browband can cause asymmetry in the knee joint movement? So a general massage in conjunction with tack fitting and tack improvement will reduce the tension in those pressure points, which will correct and improve other areas of the body, which we don’t automatically connect together. You can read her blog here.

So what are the other benefits of an equine massage? Let’s look more closely at the circulatory benefits to begin with. A massage increases circulation to all body parts, which increases the oxygen and nutrients taken in by cells and improves the functions of the cells. Which means better removal of waste products, including lactic acid and carbon dioxide. It means cells are more efficient so a horse will perform at a better level and be less prone to tying up and stiffness. The lymphatic system works in conjunction with the circulatory system, so the more efficient circulatory system will improve lymphatic drainage, so reducing the likelihood of legs becoming filled.

The benefit of massage which we’re all aware of, is the muscular benefits. Knots of muscle fibres are physically broken down and realigned, which means they can contract more efficiently so improving athletic performance. Straightened muscles are of a better quality so are less likely to tear, or put undue stress on surrounding connective tissue and joints. Additionally, these muscles will be more efficient as they aren’t working against their own resistance so the body will work more efficiently; using less energy to reach optimum performance.

In the same way that we feel relaxed and stress free after a massage, horses will have the same experience. You often see it when the chiropractor is at work; horses will yawn or chew when an area of tension is released. Being mentally stressed affects performance; yes a certain degree of stress will enhance performance but too much stress will have a negative impact, which means that actually you want to create as positive an environment for a horse as possible so that they are able to perform to their best for you.

All this research made me realise that whilst it’s great for a horse to be physically checked out by chiropractors and there will be massage benefits from this visit, if you have a naturally tense horse or one who does a lot of travelling to competitions then it would be worth investing in regular massages for them, particularly after an important competition, when they may be physically and mentally fatigued. This should leave a horse in better health – less prone to injury or catching diseases. Which means more fun time for you both! A relaxed horse is a happier horse, so they’ll be more willing to work for you and perform better.

I’ve signed Phoenix up to be a case study when I start riding her, and it will be interesting to see the effects of a massage particularly after she’s been to her first off site clinics or competitions. Judging by last weekend her behaviour will be faultless, but she will be mentally fatigued by the experience and multiple new stimuli and as we want her to enjoy getting out and about, ensuring that we “reset” her at home afterwards will mean that she is more likely to enjoy the experiences.

Matt’s Recovery

Here is the conclusion to Matt’s recovery saga. In my last update, it was the six month mark since fracturing his stifle – Which you can read about here.

December wasn’t an easy month for Matt. In mid December he managed to scratch his eye, developing an ulcer. Unfortunately the ulcer took a long time to heal. I think it was a combination of his age (he’s now classed as a veteran), and the weather – a cold, biting wind irritates the eye. Matt’s had an ulcer in that eye before, and it took a long time to heal then.

Between Christmas and New Year, Mum got one of the girls at the yard to sit on Matt for the first time. Matt was a bit fresh, but not naughty. And hopefully happy to be back in work – although his expression when Mum produced the saddle tells another story.

Unfortunately, after only a couple of rides, Matt decided to have an asthma attack. The symptoms were similar to colic so he had an emergency vet visit and put on a course of ventapulmin, soaked hay, dust free bedding. The vet suggested that Matt has COPD, but as he’s never shown any symptoms of it before I’m hoping that it’s the result of a cumulative effect of being stabled for six months, the fact turnout over Christmas was limited, and through the winter he has been stabled with two neighbours who are also bedded on straw. If Matt’s been in when his neighbours were mucked out then the process of spreading fresh straw would create a dusty environment. Potentially his lack of exercise could also mean that dust and irritants sat in his respiratory system, instead of being shifted regularly when he’s ridden.

Once Matt was back into his turnout routine and things had settled down again, Mum began riding again.

You can see from the photos that Matt is very much out of shape. He’s built up a bit of muscle just being turned out because the large field is on the side of a hill and has plenty of terrain for him to traverse. However, now that Matt is up to hacking for an hour, including some cantering, Mum will begin lunging him in the Pessoa to improve his topline and schooling him. It will take time, after all he’s never had eight months off in his life, but the fracture site is fully healed and in theory stronger than before, so it’s just a matter of fittening and strengthening his whole body.

Always Learning

Some of my favourite horse and rider combinations to teach aren’t always the ones with big dreams or high ambitions, it’s the ones who’s goal is to do the best by their horse in order to prolong their relationship and ridden work for as long as possible. Often these riders exceed their own expectations after a few months of work.

I’ve been working with a lady and her mare for a while now, which gives me plenty to think about. The mare is complicated in that she’s got a weak back from her early life so is prone to getting sore there, and she’s got mild arthritis in her hocks. The exercises I choose need to be adapted to accommodate her physical abilities and build up her strength slowly. Having said that, the mare is very amenable and always tries to please so is rewarding to work with.

Before Christmas we did a lot of work on the lunge with the Pessoa, building up her topline and improving her trot and canter in the school as her rider was off injured. Now we’ve progressed to under saddle work, which is all starting to come together.

Initially, I wanted to improve my rider’s awareness of her horse and how she moves, and to not just accept this as normal. After all, gaining an awareness of a good walk as opposed to a bad walk will lead to you subconsciously improving the walk on hacks, which leads to better balance and muscle tone. We looked at the walk being fractionally steadier so that the rhythm improved, and the mare stopped pulling herself along on the forehand. We also took this up into the trot work. We aren’t going to dramatically change the walk overnight, and we don’t want to make too many drastic changes so that the mare can cope physically with the work and build her strength up slowly. Their homework is to bear the balance of the walk and trot in mind whilst out hacking so that this becomes normal.

After improving the awareness of my rider to the quality of the walk and trot we then moved on to looking at their suppleness. Again, we want to make little adjustments and improve my rider’s awareness for the asymmetry in her mare so that we can begin straightening work in all areas.

Walking along the long side of the school, I asked my rider to think about where her horse’s body was in relation to her rider. Improving her awareness of whether the hindquarters are behind the saddle, or to one side. And does the neck come out of the middle of their chest, or are they looking to one side or the other?

After walking on both reins we came to the conclusion that the mare likes to walk on the wonk; her hindquarters always stay to the left and her forehand towards the right. This means that on the right rein, the hindquarters tend to swing out on turns and circles, and on the left rein the mare finds it difficult to bring her outside shoulder round and bend to the inside.

Again, developing an awareness means that my rider will encourage her mare to walk straight on hacks and so develop the muscle symmetry, which will hopefully take the pressure off her hocks and develop her topline. Since then, lessons have revolved around circles, straight lines, correcting the bend and improving the mare’s suppleness. We’ve used transitions to improve the balance of the trot, circles spiralling between 20m and 15m circles (not too small because of the hocks) to help the suppleness, and using the three quarter line to assess straightness. The work isn’t overly complicated but by working on a variety of different areas we will steadily improve the mare as a whole without stressing one area of her body, which should help maintain her soundness.

In terms of how the mare carries herself, we’re focusing on a quiet, steady contact to support the mare in her tempo and bend, whilst using transitions and balancing the aids to encourage the mare to use her hindquarters and to come off the forehand so she works in a relaxed and balanced way. This will ensure that eventually the mare will learn self carriage without tension and as she’s learning and building the muscles she won’t overload an area of her body.

I’m pleased with our progress. They are starting off much straighter – so much so that I couldn’t remember which way the mare swings her quarters at the beginning of this week’s lesson! My rider is learning to feel and to correct the way the mare is going quicker so we’re improving the bend. We’ll carry on in this theme, improving the suppleness and evenness on each rein and then hopefully the quality of the trot improves.

This week I mentioned the word “canter”. My client looked a bit doubtful. It’s been a long time since she’s cantered and the mare’s canter was unbalanced and very flat. However, the lunge work has improved the canter, so I felt confident that the mare would manage a reasonably balanced, three beat canter down the long side of the school. I sent them off into trot, talking through the canter transition and encouraging my rider to breathe. No problem! The canter was actually very balanced and not too fast on the left rein, and the right rein was slightly rushed but the experience was still a positive one for my rider.

We’ve now got a plan for how to develop the pair of them. The aim is to improve the way the mare works so that she’s stronger over her back and will have less problems with her hocks so we will prolong her soundness. Then I want to increase my rider’s confidence, knowledge in how a horse moves anatomically, and riding skills. We will increase the canter work, so some lessons in the field, and use trotting poles to further develop the mare’s muscles and rider’s confidence. This will enable her to feel more able to hack out – going further afield and in bigger company – and to have a go at some unaffiliated intro and prelim tests. At that point I know they will be having plenty of fun and will go beyond their initial aspirations, which is very rewarding and satisfying to me as a coach.

Swollen Legs

Horses like to give us something to puzzle over, and last week one of my clients had a mystery filled leg with her horse which has prompted me to compose a checklist for anyone in a similar position. After all, fat legs arise for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes you bring your horse out the stable, or in from the field, and they have a filled lower limb. It causes panic, and you think the worst. But calm yourself, and work through a process of elimination to decide whether the filled leg is purely an accumulation of lymph fluid or something more serious. Then you can decide on a course of action and potentially how to prevent it reoccurring.

If one leg is filled and the others not it suggests a knock or injury to that leg which causes a reactive inflammation, but if both hinds or both fores are filled it suggests an accumulation of lymph fluid for physiological reasons. Running through this check list on the lone filled leg will allow you to establish if there’s a more serious cause to the filling or if it’s just a curved ball that horse’s like to throw and get us worried.

  • Firstly, are they weight bearing? A non weight bearing mysterious swollen leg is much more serious than a weight bearing one.
  • Are they sound? Again, a swelling with lameness is more serious than one without lameness. If the horse is not weight bearing and lame then it’s a matter to discuss with the vet.
  • Is there any heat in the leg? Sometimes a knock to the leg, either in the stable or a kick from another horse, doesn’t leave a mark but will leave an area of heat on the leg even if the whole leg is filled with fluid.
  • Are they sensitive on the area? If they’re in pain then there could be a more serious cause to the filled leg.
  • Is the swelling soft or hard? Hard swelling indicates an injury to connective tissue or a localised infection at a wound. Soft swelling suggests lymph fluid.
  • Is there a specific area of swelling or just the whole limb? A specific area means it could be a tendon, ligament, or infection site. A general swelling, particularly without heat, suggests a build up of lymph fluid – for reasons yet unknown. Does the limb resemble a tree trunk, or just have slight filling? A large amount of filling needs to be taken seriously as it suggests infection.
  • Is there a wound? Sometimes you have to look very closely for a small wound which could cause infection to enter and the leg to get swollen in response to the infection. This time of year there could be a small cut or graze which causes mud fever bacteria to enter the limb. Sometimes there can be a tiny wound, such as a thorn, which causes a mild reactive swelling but can’t be identified easily.
  • Are there any clues on the rest of the horse’s body? Mud marks which suggest a kick or a slip in the field, a disturbed bed which suggests they got cast in the night, or a bramble in their tail which hints at a possible thorn in (or was in) the leg causing a reactive inflammation.

With the physical examination done you should feel more confident the level of seriousness of the filled leg. If they’re weight bearing and sound, with general swelling and no heat, pain, or obvious wound or injury then it’s likely to just be a build up of lymph fluid or a mild response to a foreign body, so the best thing is to monitor it for a couple of days and if it doesn’t get any better then call the vet.

Next of course, you need to try and find the possible reason behind the swollen leg or legs, to see if it’s a management issue, or if there is a way to avoid the problem reoccurring.

  • If it’s a swollen hind leg then poor circulation is a potential cause. The lymphatic system has no pump, unlike the circulatory system, so relies on movement to circulate lymph fluid. Combined with the fact the heart is so far away from the hind legs then a lack of movement can cause lymph fluid to build up there.
  • If a horse has suddenly been kept in: on box rest or due to bad weather, then their legs may fill. Turnout and gentle exercise – going on the walker for example – will help reduce swelling.
  • If you link filled legs to more time spent in the stable then you can manage the situation by using magnetic boots, to improve circulation, or stable bandages.
  • Sometimes one leg will fill more when a horse is stabled due to an old injury or previous damage to the lymph system in that limb. If a horse is lame they may load their good limb, which can also cause swelling.
  • High protein diets have also been linked to filled legs, so if your horse suddenly starts having filled limbs, perhaps at the beginning of winter when hard feed is introduced or the rations have changed, then it may be worth checking the levels of protein in their diet and finding alternative food. Young horses, veterans, or those on conditioning feeds require more protein in their diets, so it may be worth speaking to a nutritionist for advice if you think protein levels are the cause of filled legs.
  • If your horse suffers from filled legs on a regular basis, and in more than one leg then they might be suffering from lymphangitis, which is a bacterial infection and needs treatment from the vet, as well as immediate treatment of any cuts by cleaning and applying barrier cream to prevent the entry of infection. If a horse gets lymphangitis then there is a high risk of complications, and they are always susceptible to flare ups so you need to monitor the horse’s legs closely at all times and act quickly if there’s any sign of infection.
  • Check the general health of your horse because an illness that affects the circulatory system can cause the legs to fill as a side effect. But it should be quite clear to you that your horse is under the weather and then you can call the vet.

My client’s horse was a little depressed last week and off his hay for a couple of days, but his bed was disturbed on the days that his leg was filled, suggesting he’d knocked himself, but it went down on turnout each day, and when his appetite picked up again his leg seemed to return to normal. Frustrating as it is because there was no obvious cause, but as it was mild swelling with no pain and it went down quickly we tried not to worry too much. I think the horse was off his hay so fidgeted more in his stable because of boredom and knocked his leg. Perhaps causing a contusion which filled overnight and then went down during the day.

Another horse I know came in from the field with a slightly filled hindlimb earlier this week. Again, not lame or in pain, but we couldn’t find a wound or injury. However, I found a bramble in her tail so I think she was investigating the brambles and got a thorn in that leg, triggering the swelling. The leg just needed monitoring over the following days to see if the swelling reduces and to ensure the thorn comes out, if it already hasn’t.