The Equine Hock Joint
 By Winniefield Park   •   20th Dec 2016   •   2,196 views   •   0 comments

The largest joints in your horse’s legs are the hock joints. Although they are half way up the horse’s back legs they aren’t at all like the knees we have about half way up our own legs. They are more like our ankles and they act as both a shock absorber and to extend and contract the back legs. Stand on your toes, and from the side, you can see how the ankle, along with the heel bone are shaped somewhat like a horse’s hock. Although the hock joint looks like one big joint, it is actually a combination of four smaller joints, that make up what is called the tarsus area of the horse’s anatomy.

The uppermost joint that makes up your horse’s hock is the largest and is responsible for the most of the range of motion - the extending and contracting of the horse’s lower leg. The three lower joints, each separated by a rectangular block of bone aid with the range of motion, and also provide a shock absorber system. The two top joints do the majority of the work. Below the hock are bones somewhat similar to the toe bones in your foot. This ‘on your toes’ build of the horse’s hind legs make the legs lighter, and aids in sudden bursts of speed.

All of the joints in the hock are connected with ligaments. Ligaments are fibrous strands of connective tissue that is very strong and flexible. A tendon, called the digital flexor tendon runs down the inside of the hock to the cannon bone. Tendons bend, but they are not flexible like ligaments. The digital flexor is like a guy wire for the horse’s back leg, supporting the weight of the haunches. The superficial digital flexor is the easily felt ‘cord’ down the back of the horse’s leg from the hock to the fetlock joint. This is similar to our Achilles tendon.

Between each joint in the hock are pads of cartilage. This is strong but flexible material that protects the bones from making contact with each other. Protecting the cartilage, and aiding in the smooth movement of the joint in synovial fluid.

So while the hock looks like a big strong joint, there are actually many different parts. And, any one of these parts is susceptible to strain. Hock injuries in performance horses are common. Jumpers, reiners, horses that work cattle, dressage horses, race horses and many others can become unsound due to strain on their hocks. Bone spavins and bog spavins are two common problems that horses can develop in their hocks. Both tend to develop in the lower, relatively stationary joints in the hock structure. Bone spavins are actually a type of osteoarthritis that results in a calcified deposit around the hock joint. Bog spavins are build ups of fluid caused by inflammation. Poor conformation can also be a factor in hock unsoundess. Angles that are too little or too great mean greater strain is placed on the joints within the hock, and there is greater potential for injury.

So how do you protect these joints. Many injuries are caused by working too hard with too little conditioning. If your sport requires lots of hock flexion, fast turns, hard stops and high jumps, make sure you bring your horse into the work with lots of preparation to strengthen all of their muscles. Watch your horse’s hocks for any signs of stiffness, pain or swelling. And, let your horse have adequate time to rest and repair between workouts.

As a horse ages, hocks are easily a site for arthritis. Supplements and gentle exercise can help keep a senior horse comfortable and sound.
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