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Capped Hock

Here's how to treat the swelling on the point of your horse's hock, known as capped hocks, before your vet arrives.

©Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

What You See
A soft, fluid-filled swelling, about the size of a kiwi fruit, sticking up from the point of your horse's hock. Your horse isn't lame, and he doesn't seem to mind when you probe the swelling with your fingers.

What Should You Do?
1. Call your veterinarian for an appointment within the next 24 hours.

Why: This isn't an emergency requiring immediate care, but you shouldn't delay treatment for more than a day. In most cases, a capped hock results from direct trauma to the point of the hock. Trauma most likely occurred when your horse kicked at something (such as a stall or trailer wall), banging the point of his hock, or when he slipped on a hard surface while trying to stand up from a lying-down position.

Swelling is due to enlargement of the bursa, a fluid-filled sac encasing the point of the bone to protect it from just this sort of trauma. Swift veterinary treatment can dramatically reduce--and even eliminate--swelling. The longer a capped hock goes untreated, the greater chance inflamed tissues will become permanently thickened, resulting in a lifelong blemish.

2. Alternate hot and cold treatments.

Why: To limit inflammation, stimulate circulation, and reduce swelling.

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How:

  • Gather 1/2 gallon well-crushed ice or frozen peas, a 1-gallon resealable freezer bag, a package of Epsom salts, a small terry-cloth towel, and 1 gallon warm water (the water temperature should be similar to a hot bath) in a 2-gallon bucket.
  • Dump the crushed ice or frozen peas into the freezer bag, squeeze out any excess air, seal closed, and set aside.
  • Mix 1/2 cup Epsom salts in the bucket of warm water. Tie your horse to a sturdy post, or ask a helper to hold him. Soak the terry-cloth towel in the salt solution, wring it out, fold it in half, then hold it over your horse's capped hock for 2 minutes. Drop the towel back in the warm water.
  • Place the cold pack over your horse's capped hock, and hold it there for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat the hot/cold cycle three more times this session.
  • Perform the four-cycle session three times per day until your veterinary appointment.

3. Prepare and apply a soothing poultice.

Why: To encourage the reabsorption of any edema (fluid trapped within the skin and deeper tissues), and to discourage any additional inflammation.

How: Prepare the poultice by combining 1/2 cup Epsom salts with just enough water to make a paste. You can also use raw oatmeal (the "quick" kind) instead of Epsom salts. (Commercial poultices are also available; check the labels, and avoid those designed to generate heat or cause blistering.)

Spread 1/2 to 1 cup of the poultice over the point of your horse's hock, and down onto the joint and any adjacent tissues that appear to be swollen. Loosely cover the poultice with plastic cling wrap. Finally, cover the plastic wrap with a polo wrap or track bandage. (The type with a hook-and-loop fastener is safer than one with a string-tie.) Apply the wrap or bandage in a figure-eight configuration that leaves the hock's plastic-covered point exposed. Leave on about 1 hour while he's confined to his stall, then remove all wrappings until the next treatment.

Prognosis
Good to guarded. Your vet will probably clip and disinfect the skin over the swelling, tap it (insert a needle into your horse's bursa and withdraw fluid), and then inject a small amount of anti-inflammatory medication. He or she may also inject an astringent-type medication to help dry up the tissues.

Your vet will also discuss preventive measures, depending on the injury's cause. These may include installing kick boards in your horse's stall; changing stabling arrangements so he isn't kept next to a horse that upsets him; changing his bedding if he's having difficulty rising without slipping; and/or applying tall shipping wraps if he's kicking in the trailer. (Note: Some horses kick more when their hind limbs are wrapped, so consult a professional trainer for assistance, if necessary.)

Exercise your horse very carefully for the next 2 weeks. Limit his exercise to 1/2-hour walks, once or twice daily-in hand or under saddle-to keep his circulation flowing without irritating his hock's already aggravated bursa. Your vet might also recommend that you continue the hot/cold and poultice applications during those 2 weeks. Generally, at the end of this time, what you see is what you get, so it's worth your while to be diligent with treatment.

Dr. Hayes is an Idaho-based equine practitioner.

This article first appeared in the January, 2001 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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