Ask Horse Journal: 12/99

A Locking Stifle
My 15-year-old Walking/Saddle horse has pretty severe stifle problems in both back legs. Sometimes I don’t think he will be able to make it down the barn aisle because his legs will stick and drag so much, then he’ll go for weeks acting like a young stallion. He has been X-rayed and treated by one of the best leg veterinarians in Tennessee. His only options were to have my horse blistered, injecting an irritant to create scar tissue, or surgery.

I would like to know if there are any other alternatives and what the effects of surgery or blistering might have on my horse’s future. My horse is used for pleasure only, and I am limited to flat ground as opposed to steep hilly trails because of his stifle problems. I have talked with numerous people and veterinarians about whether or not my horse is in pain and to what degree. I would never consider getting rid of this horse. I just want to make him comfortable.

-Elaine Reynolds
Nashville, TN

From your description and the treatments recommended, it sounds like your horse has a problem with “locking” stifles. The patella (equivalent of your knee cap) has three ligaments — one in the center and one on either side. Stifles lock if the patella slips out of the bone groove where it normally travels and gets hung up off to the side. This is sometimes caused by simple weakness of the ligaments (exercise improves this) and sometimes by an anatomical problem with the patellar groove being too shallow, allowing the patella to slip to the side easily.

Given your horse’s age and the severity of the condition, the anatomical cause is the most likely. The options you were given are on the mark, and you need to have it done ASAP. Allowing the condition to go untreated can lead to arthritic changes in the stifle joint. His alternating periods of severe locking and appearing to feel well probably correlate to the amount of pain he is having. When the patella locks, the ligament on one side is stretched and irritated. The bone may be irritated too, which leads to arthritic changes in the joint. Exercise probably initiates it (not your fault), then he has a period where he is uncomfortable until the irritation quiets down.

Of your options, we feel the internal blister (injection) or surgery would be the best. The vet will inject the internal blister around the ligaments of the patella (not into the stifle joint). As you said, this causes some scarring and shortening of the ligaments, allowing them to hold the patella in place more efficiently. With the surgery, which is simple, the vet makes a small incision and uses a special knife to get underneath and cut the ligament on the side where the patella if coming off track. When the pull of this ligament is released, the patella will stay in place. Both involve minimal discomfort for the horse and you won’t lose riding time.

You mention the horse is used only for pleasure. If you do not ride often or regularly, this could be contributing to the problem, especially with an older horse. Daily work at a steady trot, building up to several miles a day (six to eight at least) often strengthens the stifles enough so that blistering or surgery are no longer needed. You can use liniments or DMSO on the stifle area to control pain and stiffness in the early stages of this conditioning. A regular exercise plan like this will also be needed after an internal blister or the surgical procedure to be sure the ligaments are kept moving and do not scar or heal in a way that interferes with stifle movement.


Right-Handed Horse
I’ve been riding two years and purchased my first horse, a 12-year-old Belgian-Quarter Horse, who had been turned out to pasture for two years. Before that he was a trail horse.

My problem is with the left lead canter. He picks up the right lead the first few attempts before giving the left lead. When practicing our turns and circles, he seems more stiff to the left, and this persists even after warm-up. Also, I noticed that in the pasture he seems to walk a bit “high” on the right side. His massage therapist says his right buttock appears tight and hard. His problem with the left lead canter was present with the last owner as well. However, my trainer says I tend to stick in my right hip and hold my right shoulder tight and high. Are there exercises I can do that will correct the problem’

-Tyna Meers

While you’re sensible to consider both your horse’s past history and your own position, it’s likely that this problem originates more with the horse than with you. The horse has had this problem for a long time, and two years off didn’t help it.

Most riders are conscientious about working equally in both directions to keep the horse supple, but to correct an existing problem you must work much more in the difficult direction. Look at it this way: If you are right-handed and decide you want to learn to write with your left hand, how long would it take you to develop the dexterity you need to write well with your left hand’ You’d probably need to write only with your left hand for weeks or months.

A horse that works better in one direction is no different, which is why he’s still stiff to the left after warm-up. If you have a problem with the left-lead canter, you should warm up to the right and then spend most of your time — 80 percent of your entire session — working on large circles to the left, both at the trot and canter, with brief breaks to the right. But you really need to keep an eye on your watch or count laps, since both you and your horse are more comfortable to the right and you’ll drift back that way without realizing it.

Cantering on the longe line before you ride also will help, but keep your longe circles large, at least 20 meters (about 60 feet; use a 35-foot longe line). Build up to five minutes to the right, then 10 minutes left, with several walk breaks. Your circles and turns under saddle should also be large. Until your horse can comfortably sustain entire circles at 20 meters or larger, they shouldn’t be any tighter because his balance and strength aren’t up to it.

It’s encouraging that your horse is willing to pick up the left lead after several tries, since many horses with this problem won’t pick up the harder lead at all unless they somehow “fall” into it by luck. Since the push-off for the left lead begins with the right hind, and he may have some stiffness there, he seems willing to try what you are asking despite his own discomfort. With consistent remedial conditioning, he should become physically able to always pick up whichever lead you request.

As for your own position, the best solution is on the longe line, but probably not on your own horse while he’s sorting out his own strength and stiffness issues.


Supplements Less Often
I feed a glucosomine/perna mussel supplement to my 21-year-old Quarter Horse mare with arthritis at your recommended dosages (November 1997, May 1999). I keep her in a two-acre pasture with a year-round stream. The owner of the field keeps an eye on my mare for injuries or unusual behaviors but won’t feed her. I come to ride and grain my mare four times a week. At this time, I give her the joint supplement with her sweet feed. Is this often enough’ I called and asked the maker of the joint supplement, and they said they hadn’t had that question asked before. I asked if I should double it on the days I feed, and they thought that would be OK but didn’t have any research as to the effect of feeding the horse the joint supplement only four times a week. Do you have any information on this’

-Annamarie Hanshawy-Reed
Provo, Utah

We haven’t tried feeding joint supplements less frequently than daily either but can tell you that we have seen benefits fade as daily dosages are dropped. Odds are that feeding the joint nutraceutical on a less than daily basis will at least get you less than the best results. Maybe you could find a neighborhood teen who would be willing to do the job for a small compensation or in exchange for a ride now and then. Another option might be an automatic feeding device (see March 1998). Livestock automatic feeders may not be able to handle the small amounts you want dispensed, so you would have to premix your supplement with oats. With a little ingenuity, another option may be to devise a system using a pet or laboratory animal automatic feeder that could be set to deliver the smaller amount and allow you to give only the supplement. In either case a pelleted supplement would be advisable.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Tie Him Correctly.”
Click here to view “Fight Ammonia Problems.”
Click here to view “Leave The Top Hole Open.”
Click here to view “Care With Warfarin.”

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!