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Stifle Joint Problems: Can You Still Ride Your Horse?

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Our friend’s horse came up lame after a race. His trainer thinks it’s an issue with its stifle joint and intends to resume the horse’s training after a couple of days off. But, I’m not convinced you can ride a horse with a stifle problem so soon after the injury.

It would be best if you didn’t ride your horse with a confirmed stifle injury. The animal should be given approximately 30 days of stall rest with daily walks. Follow the layoff with light riding for 7 to 10 days, and then have the horse re-examined by an experienced veterinarian.

Stifle joint injuries occur in various degrees and must be managed accordingly. The stifle is a complex joint, and it’s difficult to diagnose accurately, so it’s best to get advice from a vet before riding.

Picture of a person pushing on a horses stifle joint with a metal object.

A stifle injury could prevent you from riding your horse.

You must first identify which area of the stifle was damaged and diagnose the cause before deciding to ride your horse.

The stifle is a hinge joint similar to a human knee, except the human knee is upright, and the stifle is angled. The stifle is located at the upper hind limb of the horse and is the largest joint in the horse’s body. It provides support, flexion, and extension.

The stifle is also an element of the stay apparatus, which allows horses to maintain a weight-bearing, for extended periods while relaxing the other hind limb.

The stifle joint has several different ligaments and cartilage discs between the patella, the femur, and the tibia and two strong ligaments supporting the joint on both sides.

The stifle also has support from the top and bottom by more ligaments. Because of all the parts involved in the stifle joint, it is difficult to diagnose and treat its injury.

Picture of a horse holding one leg in the air.

Even though it’s difficult to diagnose a stifle injury, it’s key to know the damage’s location and source before riding your horse.

Short strides are a sign of lameness in the stifle joint.

Lameness in the stifle joint can exhibit in a shortened stride, specifically horses with a stifle injury, avoid reaching forward with their injured hind leg.

Often the lameness is more noticeable on the outside leg when the horse is worked on a lunge line. Additionally, the shortness of stride may be more prominent while walking as opposed to a jog.

A horse’s stifle can be injured in many ways, including through trauma or by gradual wear and tear. Some injuries will heal on their own while others require treatment.

I know of horse owners that give their horses joint supplements. These types of treatments are gaining in popularity, but are they worth the money. I wrote an article all about joint supplements, their benefits, and their shortcomings. You should check it out if you are thinking about giving them to your horse.

Stifle joint disorders.

Osteochondrosis

Osteochondrosis is a disease of the stifle that is more common in younger horses, and it is found across many breeds. The condition can lead to joint effusion and lameness in horses at the age they start training.

Osteochondrosis is a failure of the cartilage to develop into the bone in the limbs of a growing animal. It is abnormal cartilage growth in the joint that thickens, softens, or collapses, or it may separate from the bone.

The disease is typically diagnosed with x-rays of yearling horses, often before clinical signs are noticed.

Picture of a horse with its ears pinned.

Subchondral bone cyst 

subchondral bone cyst is a fluid- and scar-tissue-filled cavity just under the cartilage that covers the bone surface at a joint. These cysts, when in the stifle cause lameness, and are challenging to treat.

The reasons these cysts develop are not fully understood, but they may develop after trauma to the site. The severity of lameness varies and exhibits suddenly.

Lameness may be intermittent, particularly in older horses. In some horses, there is mild swelling around the joint, but in most instances, horses show no outward signs. The cysts can be confirmed with x-rays.

The lesions can be treated conservatively with rest and steroid injections. If the conservative treatment fails, then surgery to remove the cyst contents and lining is an option.

Most horses recover reasonably well from a subchondral cyst; however, the age of the horse factors into the chances of full recovery. Click here to read a study about post-treatment recovery from stifle injuries.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis is the degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. Typical signs of osteoarthritis are heat, swelling, lameness, stiffness, and a popping, grinding, and crackling sound and sensation in the joint.

Osteoarthritis can develop early in young athletic horses, or older horses. The prognosis for full recovery depends on how soon the disease is detected and the age of the animal.

Pain management is paramount. The two most common treatments are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory oral drugs such as Bute; or injections of products that contain hyaluronic acid or polysulfated-based medications.

Another method to treat OA is with corticosteroid joint injections, particularly for equine athletes that are still competing. Shockwave therapy has been used to treat horses suffering from OA in their stifle.

The studies of shockwave therapy are promising; however, testing is continuing, and hopefully, the treatment is successful. But presently, there is no magic bullet to fix osteoarthritis. To read the study on shockwave treatment, click here.

Patellar fractures

Patellar fractures are commonly caused by kicks from other horses or collisions with an obstacle, especially when attempting to clear fences in jumping events.

These are painful injuries, and often require surgery to remove bone fragments or insert screws to stabilize the joint. For a precise diagnosis of the fracture radiographic views are indispensable.

Small fractures can heal without surgery but will require time off and stall rest. Depending on the horse, and the injury you can expect between three and five months of recovery time.

Soft tissue injuries

Stifle lameness typically develops secondary to trauma. The joint is very susceptible to damage in most horses competing in equine athletic events. Whereas some horses show apparent signs of lameness, others may not exhibit overt lameness, yet have significant performance impairment.

Often the biggest problem is getting an accurate diagnosis of the stifle injury. The stifle joint involves soft tissues that connect, support, and surround the joint, such as cartilage, ligaments, muscles, and membranes. The soft tissues of the stifle are often damaged in trauma.

Through diagnostic arthroscopy and MRIs, tears of the soft tissue can be diagnosed. Tears of the meniscal ligaments and cruciate ligament injuries are potentially career-ending, although surgical treatment can be successful in some cases, and horses can resume their careers.

Horses that have sustained substantial tears are difficult to manage successfully. Surgical injections of lesions with bone marrow aspirants combined with rest have been used to treat these, as well as shock wave therapy.

The effectiveness of bone marrow treatment or shock therapy has not been conclusively proven to provide benefits.

Below is a helpful YouTube video that explains the stifle joint and associated problems in performance horses.

Additional information