Swollen joints are always cause for concern, but if both of your horse’s hind fetlocks become puffy in the dead of winter, chances are the cause is a relatively harmless condition known as “stocking up.”
Rather than injury or infection, stocking up is a function of inactivity. The equine lymphatic system, which is responsible for “pumping” excess fluids from between cells back into the circulatory system, works best when aided by movement of surrounding tendons, muscles and ligaments. So when a horse stands still for long periods of time---as he may when confined to a stall during winter months---these fluids can accumulate, particularly in areas farthest from the heart. Most commonly, stocking up is seen in the hind fetlocks, with severity ranging from mild puffiness to an extreme swelling, giving the leg a “stovepipe” appearance. Stocking up doesn’t cause lameness or affect the gait, and each leg will be equally puffy.
Treating stocking up is easy. Simply ride your horse, walk him by hand or turn him out with a companion. With activity, swelling will usually diminish within the hour. But be prepared for the puffiness to return: Many horses stock up repeatedly. Part of the reason is that once the tissues between cells are stretched by accumulating fluid, they are more susceptible to filling again. You can try to prevent the swelling with standing bandages, but there’s no physiological reason to do so, and putting bandages on too tightly can create more serious problems than stocking up.
When winter temperatures fluctuate, keep an eye out for hazards that may suddenly appear in your horse’s pasture. A phenomenon called “frost heave” occurs when the ground expands as it freezes, lifting the soil and any objects it might contain. With each subsequent freeze, those objects---rocks, nails, even old farm machinery buried for years---are brought closer to the surface and eventually break through.
On older properties especially, a large amount of debris can emerge with each thaw, posing a serious risk of injury to the horses kept in those areas.
If you have a paddock that is notorious for the appearance of mystery items all winter, it may have previously been a dumping ground, filled over decades with metal, glass and other debris. The safest option is to keep horses off such areas, but if that’s not feasible, you’ll need to be extra vigilant about checking for hazards during the winter months.
This article was originally published the February 2016 issue, Volume #473 of EQUUS magazine