Horses are prone to getting strange lumps and bumps throughout their lives. Lumps, bumps or swellings on the legs always need to be checked out by a vet. Any lump could lead to lameness or worse. Ringbone in horses is a strange swelling of the horse’s pasterns or coffin joints. The swelling sometimes goes all the way around the affected joint making the horse appear to have a ring on under the skin, hence the name ringbone.
Besides the swelling, ringbone in horses often causes unusual heat at the swollen area, lameness and tenderness. The more severe the symptoms, the more advanced ringbone is. The bad news is that ringbone is incurable. The good news is that it is treatable.
What Is Ringbone in Horses?
Ringbone is a type of osteoarthritis in horses. It’s a degenerative condition, meaning that it gets worse over time. The ring-shaped swelling under the skin is bony tissue. The coffin joint and especially the pastern joint act as shock absorbents for the horse’s legs.
The average horse weighs about 1,000 pounds. That’s a lot of weight for the pasterns and coffin joints to absorb every time a horse takes a stride. Ringbone seems to be a horse’s way to try and heal after an injury or strain to the area. The short-term solution to the problem can have bad long-term effects for the horse.
What Causes Ringbone in Horses?
Injury and strain on the joints are thought to be the main causes of ringbone in horses. They are more often seen in older horses. But younger horses can also develop it. Horses in high-stress activities such as racing or jumping are most prone.
An indirect cause of ringbone in horses is poor conformation such as being pigeon-toed or toeing in. If the horse is naturally awkward, his or her pasterns and coffin joints are working much harder than a horse with good conformation. Special shoes can help a horse born awkward to have more natural, smoothly flowing gaits.
Treatment Options Available for Ringbone in Horses
The first symptoms of ringbone in horses can be identical to other lameness problems. Lameness, heat and tenderness tend to occur before the tell-tale ring does. Treatment needs to begin before the ring appears. The first thing that needs to get done is to receive a proper diagnosis from a reliable veterinarian. The horse may need an MRI, bone scan or radiograph as well as a hands-on examination in order for the vet to determine if it’s ringbone or not.
If it is ringbone, there are many facets to treatment. These include:
- Rest: If a horse is still asked to work, the ringbone will worsen.
- Corrective shoeing: Shoes and hoof trimming can help keep a horse with bad confirmation from putting full strain on their joints.
- Overweight horses need to lose weight to lessen strain on joints.
- Give nutritional supplements chondroitin and glucosamine to help the horse’s body make more healthy cartilage.
- Give medications such as anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid or polysulfated glycosa-minoglycans. These medications need to be used sparingly. A horse may feel fine and want to work but will still have ringbone and therefore cannot be used to worked hard. These medications may cause bad long-term effects such as cause gastric ulcers. Many of these medications are not allowed to be given to a horse just before a competition or race. Never assume that the rules for one show, rodeo or race are the same for another. They all differ. Read the rules closely to find out what medications are allowed on competition day and what are not.
Surgery can help severe cases but it is not a guaranteed cure. The surgery uses screws to fuse the weakened joint together. However, all other treatments should be tried first before surgery is done.
Prevention of Ringbone in Horses
There is no 100% sure way to prevent ringbone. However, there are some things a horse owner can do to minimize the risks:
- Do not ask the horse to do more than it is physically capable of. Horses need to be carefully trained over long periods of time to build up endurance and strength.
- Keep the horse from getting overweight. Fat horses and ponies put more strain in their joints and can cause ringbone. Fortunately, keeping a horse from getting too fat can also help prevent many other health problems as well as prevent ringbone.
- Get the horse checked out by a vet at the first sign of lameness, heat in the leg, sudden uncharacteristic unwillingness to let a leg or hoof be touched and sudden bad performance in training or competitions. This can help prevent early ringbone from getting worse.
- Letting a horse rest when it has received any sort of leg injury. Even if the horse seems fully recovered after an injury, start out working the horse slowly to avoid re-injury and ringbone.
It’s very hard to prevent ringbone in horses that have poor conformation, especially those with crooked forelegs. Horses with poor conformation should not be bred and pass this problem along to the next generation. However, few horses are blessed with perfect conformation. In order to help horses with less-than-perfect conformation, hooves should get trimmed and shod about every six weeks to help then walk, trot, canter and gallop more normally.
Once upon a time, ringbone in horses was a rider’s nightmare. Any horse diagnosed with it had to immediately retire. Horses that cannot be ridden or pull a wagon usually were considered useless and slaughtered or put down.
Now horses caught in the early stages of ringbone have a good chance of competing for many more years. One such horse was an American Quarter Horse champion team roping horse named Precious Speck. Despite his ringbone, he earned Heading Horse of the Year honors.