Swollen Leg in Horses – Possible Causes and Recommended Treatment

Table of Contents

Swollen Leg in Horses – Possible Causes and Recommended Treatment

Table of Contents

man riding a horse

Source: Pexels

What do you do when your perfectly healthy horse suddenly suffers from a swollen leg? How do you give it the attention it deserves? 

Should you be worried and call the vet right away?

In this article, let’s discuss the basics of leg swelling in horses, its possible causes, treatments you can do on your own, the best time to have them seen by a veterinarian, and the best ways to prevent it from reoccurring.

What is a Swollen Leg in Horses?

Swollen legs in horses, also referred to as “filling” or “stocking up,” is a condition where one or more legs are swollen for various reasons. Some causes are minor, while others are more serious. The swelling may also be visible only in the hind legs, one leg alone, or all four.

Moreover, swollen legs occur more frequently the more stable the horse is, like when on box rest or during wintertime. Due to this, the blood flow slows down because the horse is moving less. 

As a result, the fluid builds up in the leg due to gravity and leads to swelling. This condition is common, especially in horses stabled overnight, together with lack of exercise.

If limb swellings are painful and feel warmer (than the other legs) or the horse is very lame, ask the vet for advice. It may be a symptom of underlying severe internal damage to soft tissue or joint infection.

Types of Swelling

  • Cellulitis

This swelling is a bacterial infection of the skin and the soft tissues directly underneath. A leg with cellulitis can be excruciating and feels warm to the touch. Furthermore, the skin is stretched and taut and may ooze fluid.

Why you need to act quickly:

Call a veterinarian immediately before the sun sets. Bacteria start to infect the tissues beneath the skin, which comes on fast, typically less than 12 hours. 

Soon, the bacteria multiplies and produces toxins, causing inflammation and damage to the lymphatic and blood vessels. Fluid will then leak from the impaired blood vessels while the damaged lymphatic system finds it difficult to drain. Leg swelling builds, which restricts circulation further.

Immediate treatment will limit the damage and prevent further complications by reducing swelling, stopping the infection, and getting the horse comfortable ASAP.

  • Oedema

Often spelled as “edema” in some countries, oedema is a swelling caused by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid and inflammation in certain body parts. 

You can press this type of swelling without a pain reaction from the horse, and the horse can stand still even for long periods. It often disappears with increased circulation in the lymphatic system.

  • Lymphangitis

This swelling is a common yet highly concerning condition in horses, which may lead to lameness and long-term problems even when treated correctly and promptly. This condition also involves disruption and inflammation of the lymphatic system, draining fluid from tissues back to the horse’s main vessels.

Horses with lymphangitis will most likely not eat because of the discomfort and fever. They may also be depressed. Some breathe rapidly and sweat, while others tremble. [1] 

However, avoiding unnecessary box rest, regular daily exercise, and treating all wounds (even if tiny) can prevent lymphangitis from happening again.

  • Joint, ligament, and tendon injuries

Strains and sprains involving the joints, ligaments, and tendons often produce pain, swelling, lameness, and inflammation. This swelling requires immediate veterinary attention.

  • Filled legs

This swelling usually affects the hind legs of horses. An abnormal fluid accumulation in the tissues causes this condition and typically goes down with gentle exercise. As long as the swelling disappears and is unaccompanied by heat, it’s often not a cause for concern.

  • Windgalls

Horse owners and vets commonly use this term to describe the swellings behind the fetlock. In many cases, windgalls are non-painful blemishes only and are residual inflammations from old ligament and tendon injuries. They likewise often disappear during movement and exercise.

  • Abscesses

This type of swelling often affects the horse hoof. It happens when a bacteria gets trapped inside. A vet or farrier can locate the foot abscesses and release the infection. Afterward, they poultice the horse’s foot to remove any remaining infection.

  • Arthritis

Arthritis in the horse hock’s small joints is a common condition affecting all horses, including those around seven to eight years old. The horse’s hock joint is equivalent to a human heel and plays a significant role in the hind-limb movement.

  • Degenerative joint disease (DJD)

Another term for osteoarthritis, DJD in horses, is one of the most common diseases equine veterinarians treat daily. With this disease, the cartilage on the ends of the horse’s bones wears down. This results in a horse’s heat, pain, swelling, and loss of joint mobility.

Clues That Your Horse’s Leg is Swelling

swollen leg in horses

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If your horse’s leg is swelling, assessing it first and knowing whether it needs veterinary attention is vital. Here’s what you can do:

First, slowly run your hands over the affected area to feel if it’s warm and identify any tenderness.

If your horse’s skin feels warmer than other areas of their legs or flinches in response even to your gentle touch, it may be an acute inflammatory reaction. It also suggests a developing infection or a recent injury.

With infection, it’s worth checking the horse’s temperature and for any wounds, such as cuts or minor puncture wounds that are oozing. It’s probably a non-acute condition, such as filled legs or windgalls, if neither pain nor heat accompanies the swollen limb.

A new or acute swelling, especially in just one leg or affecting a joint, associated with lameness, and is accompanied by heat, is the reason to call the vet. 

Related: Horse with a Broken Leg – How Can You Aid in Recovery?

Possible Causes of Swollen Legs in Horses

  • Stall confinement after exercise 
  • Infection
  • Trauma
  • Not enough exercise
  • Bruising
  • Overfeeding
  • Skin overexposed to moisture
  • Excessive protein diet
  • Insect bite
  • Inflammation of the vessels
  • Allergic reaction
  • Inflammation of the tissue
  • Inflammation of the skin
  • Obesity
  • Scrapes

If you’re unsure about the cause of the horse’s swollen leg, make an appointment with the veterinarian.

How Do You Treat a Horse With Swollen Legs?

swollen leg in horses

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If the swollen leg is not sore, warm, or lame, but your horse is standing in the same position for too long, here are a few things you can do to treat swollen legs:


Get your horse moving. The swelling in the hind leg is often because the horse has been standing for too long. So, ride or walk your hose by hand. You may also put your horse in a walker to heal its swollen leg.

Related: How to Cool Down a Horse After Riding

Cold Water or Ice Packs

Cold therapy is another go-to treatment for conditions that cause inflammation and pain. The good news is there are now commercially available cold compress ice packs for horses. Some even mold to the horse’s legs well, targeting inflammation and pain quickly.

You may likewise hose your horse’s legs with cold water. Alternating heat and ice comprises and eases the swelling too. However, this is typically recommended only for horses with mild to moderate stocking-up cases.

Antibiotics and Anti-Inflammatories

Call your vet immediately if your horse shows signs of lymphangitis or cellulitis. He will prescribe antibiotics for the infection and an anti-inflammatory for the swelling and pain.

There are various forms of antibiotics, such as ointment, cream, powder, or liquid. These are your first-aid to prevent further swelling and infections. The vet may also recommend regular massage or a medicated poultice to promote circulation in the affected area.

If NSAIDs don’t work, the vet can suggest a next-level pain relief, where they use a range of pain medications.

Appropriate Compression

You can use supportive wraps on the affected limb to reduce swelling, although this is tricky in cellulitis as they may hold in heat.

Nevertheless, in other causes of leg swelling, cold therapy works best with appropriate compression. Adequate pressure should also be applied to the area without further causing possible tendon damage or disrupting blood flow.

Hosing the legs with cold water for 15 to 20 minutes or putting leg brace after exercise may be beneficial if the horse occasionally suffers from swollen legs.

Surgical Drainage

There are cases when pockets of infection still linger, even with appropriate therapy. That’s when surgical drainage may be recommended.

Surgically draining those pockets of infection with the use of advanced ultrasound imaging can resolve problematic cases of a horse’s swollen leg. This procedure is done at an equine hospital or a clinic under general anesthesia.

Equine Acupuncture

Consider equine acupuncture for your horses if you prefer a natural pain treatment. This procedure is good not only for pain treatment but for overall well-being. With acupuncture, it enhances the body’s healing capacity and activates specific treatment points.

Experts now use veterinary acupuncture in treating respiratory, musculoskeletal, reproductive, and gastrointestinal conditions in animals. [2] 

How Can CarnoGel Help Horses With Swollen Legs?

Another excellent option for a swollen leg in horses is a sports gel, particularly CarnoGel.

This horse sports gel is developed with Tartu Pharmacology Institute and the large equestrian communities.

You can apply it to minor leg swellings for the first few days after an injury to shorten downtime and accelerate muscle recovery. It’s also ideal for longer-term health and wellness.

What makes this product effective is it contains carnosine as its main ingredient. Carnosine is a dipeptide comprising two amino acids: beta-alanine and histidine. These two have been extensively researched for their potential health benefits, including improving athletic performance.

As one of the many positive effects of carnosine in the body, it helps buffer lactic acid buildup in the muscle. This product can also improve endurance performance and delay muscle fatigue, which is helpful in horses. [3] 

Should You Walk a Horse With a Swollen Leg?

swollen leg in horses

Source: Pexels

Yes, if not too long and as long as the horse’s pain subsides.

Active longeing, hand-walking, or riding exercises can resolve leg swelling. The activity also promotes circulation in the legs and speeds up recovery. If the horse’s comfort level doesn’t improve a day or two after the treatment, consider the other steps we shared above.

However, remember that support bandaging and cold therapy are your first line of treatment as they prevent swollen legs in horses.

Armed with these essential horse care tips, you and your horse can surely breeze through challenges. If you have any questions about horse sports gel, please contact us.

Article Sources:

[1] https://aaep.org/horsehealth/lymphangitis-frustrating-condition

[2] https://ceh.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/health-topics/acupuncture-horses

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5622748/