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The driving force of a horse comes from its hocks. Think about how the horse’s leg contracts and pushes the horse forward in a gallop or how a horse sits into his movements in dressage, carrying most of the pressure in his hocks.
A horse’s hock is a complex joint between the upper and lower parts of the hind leg. It’s the equivalent of the human ankle. The hock consists of joints, bones, and ligaments and takes the most abuse because it is the driving joint that pushes the horse forward.
Ever wondered why horses favor one leg more than the other or the reason why they drop their hind hoofs over jumps, clipping poles, and racking up penalties in competitions? Well, chances are he could have a hock problem. So read on to find out more about your horse and the hock.
Where Is the Hock on a Horse?
Hocks on horses are found on the hind legs. It is the joint that connects the lower and upper back leg together. Looking at a horse from the side, you will see an angular bulge pointing backward; this is the hock. You could say it is the evolutionary ankle part of the horse’s hind leg.
What Is a Horse Hock, and What Does it Do?
Hocks are responsible for the drive and action of the hind legs; they are the joints that push the horse forward. It is not just one bone; the hock is a complex combination of four joints connected with ten smaller bones and several ligaments. The equivalent of the human ankle.
Ninety percent of the horses’ mobility is handled by the top ball and socket joint called the tibiotarsal joint, which is a high-motion joint. The bottom three joints act as shock absorbers and are low-motion joints.
The hock is responsible for generating the power the horse gets for jumping or the thrust to push itself into a gallop. In advanced dressage, it’s responsible for carrying the weight once the horse is engaged or the anchor when they need to spin on their back legs in polo.
How Do I Know if My Horse Has Hock Problems?
Diagnosing hock problems can be as simple as feeling or seeing heat and swelling in the hock region to as complicated as determining the “off” feeling you get from your horse.
A few common tell-tale signs may indicate your horse has hock problems and isn’t lazy or disobedient. It was relatively easy to recognize when our horse had a hock injury. We were in the pasture checking on all our animals and noticed one limping and obvious swelling in its hock. I had no idea how serious the injury was, so I immediately called the vet.
He came over, drained the fluid, and sent me to LSU veterinary school with the horse. Once there, they diagnosed the horse with a hock infection and scheduled surgery to examine and clean the joint. After the procedure, they kept him for a couple of days for observation and put him on antibiotics.
They were not certain what caused the condition but felt since it was taken care of early, he would not have any lingering issues. And he hasn’t, we put him in training within a few weeks, and he is currently racing.
Hock injuries are not always so easy to diagnose, but here is what you should look for:
1. Initial Lameness
If your horse starts out with a bit of lameness but gradually works out of his lameness as he warms up, then you may have a hock issue that needs to be addressed. I wrote an article about horse lameness that includes videos that may help you diagnose your animal.
2. Weight Shifting
It’s natural for a horse to shift weight from one leg to another when they stand. However, if you suspect a hock problem keep an eye on their weight shifting to see if they favor one specific leg over the other.
3. Gait Changes
If you feel any changes in your horse’s gait, like shortening of strides or a reluctance to engage his hind quarters. Perhaps even dragging his back legs, don’t jump to conclusions and say the horse is lazy; it could be an underlying hock problem.
4. Less Spring In The Jump
Yes, horses have bad days, and we can sometimes write off a bad day to a tired or unwilling horse. Still, if your horse gradually feels like he has less spring from his back legs and less power driving him over the fences, it could be he is trying to protect his hocks.
Dropping his feet over fences and clipping poles is also an indication that something may be wrong.
5. Hesitance And Resistance
Your horse usually is forward going and has no objections to going downhill or tackling slopes. Still, suddenly, your horse tries to avoid this movement and obstacle at all costs. It’s not the horse being disobedient but rather a sign that the pressure exerted on the hocks is too painful, causing hesitation or resistance to the command.
Another sign is a horse with no problems backing out of a trailer. When they suddenly have an aversion to this, it’s a sign that their hocks should be given a checkout.
6. Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain can be a symptom of many different issues, but horses with hock problems will start to show signs of lower back pain as they use their lower back to compensate for using their hocks to save them some pain.
7. Changes In Appearance
The most obvious of hock issues is a change in appearance. Arthritis may cause pain and swelling, or the horse could have just bumped himself.
Either way, the hock is a crucial joint in the horse’s body, and you should have it checked out by your veterinarian.
To determine if any of the above signs come from hock issues, your vet can do a flexion test to determine if the pain is actually coming from the hock. For a flexion test, get a helper to lead your horse after the vet flexes the joint.
To flex the joint, the vet will pick up the hind leg and raise it up towards the underbelly of the horse and as close to the upper leg of the horse as possible. This causes the hock to flex, holding it for about sixty seconds and then releasing the leg, setting it down on the floor, and having your horse trotted out immediately.
Any hock problems will be marked with a pronounced lameness for a few strides.
Below is a helpful YouTube video that includes an example of how to perform a flexion test for discovering hock issues.
What Do I Do If My Horse Has A Sore Hock?
Once you notice your horse has a sore hock, the best is to call your veterinarian to diagnose the hock’s condition and severity.
Depending on the diagnosis, the horse should be rested for some time. Applying cold packs to reduce inflammation and swelling will also relieve some pain and swelling.
Vets may also suggest injecting the hock with corticosteroids into the joint to help with pain management. Giving your horse a course of phenylbutazone can also help with inflammation and reduce swelling.
How Do You Strengthen A Horse’s Hocks?
Just as any athlete needs regular stretching and exercise to strengthen and keep their muscles in peak form, so does the equine athlete. So, performing various activities to strengthen the horse’s hind quarter and hocks will benefit the horse with stronger and more flexible joints.
Remember that any new exercise can cause stiffness to the horse as the muscles become accustomed to the new routine. Therefore, start small and slow, and avoid over-straining the horse on new exercises.
Cavalettis or trotting poles are a great way to exercise the horse to strengthen the hocks. The slow force of up and down movements of the horse’s legs as he trots over each pole is a great way to strengthen the tensor muscle.
Reining back in a slow, controlled, and collected manner can strengthen the hind quarter of the horse. If you have a slight uphill, this adds intensity to the exercise. Remember to keep it straight and slow. There is no point in the horse rushing backward, zigzagging all over the place, that defeats the object.
This exercise can be done on the horse’s back or in hand.
Slope training using slopes, hills, or inclines is a great way to develop the buttocks muscles in the horse. This strengthens the tensor muscles that provide the spring effect from the back legs.
Always remember to properly warm up your horse before getting into a full workout to avoid any injuries that may occur from cold muscles and tendons.
The hock is the driving force that propels the horse forward and gives them the spring to get over jumps. We don’t often think of the hock as that important on the horse, but without the hock, a horse’s performance is severely impaired.
After our horse had surgery on its hock, it made a full recovery and is currently racing and doing pretty well. So taking care of this joint and ensuring you include a series of exercises to strengthen the hind legs is important.
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.