The hock joint - what is it and what do you need to know about it?
Your horse’s hocks are the equivalent to the human ankle. The stifle, the next joint up, is the equivalent to the knee. For all horses, the hocks are critical to their health and comfort, as the hocks help support your horse’s entire hind end! They carry weight, they push off, they allow your horse to turn, jump, run, and play.
The entire hock area is actually made up of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and fluid. There are four joints in the hock, four extensor tendons, four collateral ligaments on each side of the hock, and two flexor tendons that run through the hock.
The joints are as follows from top to bottom:
- TCJ - Tarsocrural joint
- PIT - Proximal Intertarsal Joint
- DIT - DIgital intertarsal joint
- TMT - Tarsometatarsal joint
It may (or may not) be interesting to know that the lower joints can actually fuse over time. They can also be fused with surgery.
The lower joints of this horse have fused. Typically they look like a bunch of little cubes.
Many horses experience soreness and changes in the hock joint over time. This is a function of “wear and tear”, injuries, conformation, overall health, fitness level, proper foot care, and even diet. Supporting your horse’s hocks help your athlete stay sound, comfortable, and willing to work.
There are lots of things that you can monitor to make sure your horse’s hock joints are feeling good. Paying attention to even the smallest details can give you valuable information about early changes. Start to notice these things daily:
- Size and shape of the hocks. The hocks should be even in size and shape, from all angles.
- Feel for heat and swelling. It’s true that long term changes to hock health are influenced by the daily and almost invisible inflammation that exercise and age bring, but sudden heat and swelling alert you to a more serious problem, perhaps a new injury.
- Is any hair missing? Some horses that prefer to sleep on the hard earth instead of a cushy bed can wear the hair from their hocks and eventually create hock sores. Of course you have the horses that do this anyway, no matter how cushy their bed is.
- Does he step a little shorter with one hind leg? You can visually see this by watching where the hind legs land in reference to the front legs. The hoof prints provide a visual guide. Some horses with leg issues (from hock or hoof or stifle or hips or somewhere in the back end) often have uneven back leg steps.
- Does he resist moving forward under saddle? If something in your horse hurts, he’s likely going to object to exercise. Other horses may decide that your facilitated dismount is a better idea when something hurts.
- Does he object to having a back leg lifted? Moving joints that hurt stinks - and your horse may try and tell you when you are just doing your regular grooming thing.
- Monitor your horse’s back for soreness. Sore backs often tell you about saddle fit and/or any soreness in the hind leg joints.
What are some things that you can do to help your horse’s hocks with supportive care?
Joints and soft tissues will become heated and develop inflammation as your horse works. This is the “wear and tear” that over time can contribute to joint soreness. The soft tissues that work hard are also subject to soreness, just as your muscles are sore after a work out. Taking care of our horses means attending to this, and as owners and care takers we have lots of options to support your horse’s hocks and surrounding tissues.
- Cold hosing
- Ice therapy
- Shockwave therapy (to be done by your Veterinarian)
- Laser therapies
- Joint supplements
- Intra-articular injections (anti-inflammatories injected into the joint)
- Magnet therapy
Ice Ice Ice Baby!
Working with your Veterinarian to come up with a plan for your horse’s hock health will keep him a happy athlete for many years.
How do you support your horse’s hock health?