All horse owners and caretakers should know the basic anatomy of the equine front limb, and be able to refer to these structures when discussing an equine health issue with their vet.
The list of important structures includes basic hoof structure (the coronet band, wall, sole, toe, quarter, heel, heel bulbs, frog and sulci), and the approximate location of the coffin joint, pastern, fetlock, flexor tendons and suspensory ligament, cannon bone, splint bones, carpus (knee), forearm, elbow, shoulder joint, scapula and withers.
Know what your horse’s limbs look and feel like in health, so that you can better assess them when you suspect a problem. Always compare the size and location of the structures of one limb to the opposite limb.
Halter the horse. Start by standing in front of the horse, with the horse standing on level ground and their front limbs positioned as squarely as possible. Think about the horse's conformation (even if you don't know much about conformation).
Envision an imaginary line that drops straight down from the point of your horse’s shoulder through all major bones, joints and the foot. Does this line symmetrically split all major anatomical landmarks? Or are there deviations at some point? Describe them.
Starting at the hoof, let your eyes travel upward and look at the mentioned structures. Hoof, heel bulbs, pastern, fetlock, flexor tendons, extensor tendons, splint bones, cannon bone, carpus, forearm, elbow and shoulder. Compare the shape and size of the left and right joints, hooves and other forelimb structures. Are they similar?
Now stand on the left side of the horse. Starting at the horse’s foot, let your eyes move up. Does the hoof wall angle match the angle of the pastern or is it more or less steep? Do you notice any obvious enlargements of the joints or flexor tendons? How is the horse’s conformation?
Now, with the horse bearing weight on the limb, feel for heat in the hoof and digital pulse at the fetlock. Run your hands up the limb over the same important structures that were mentioned. Hoof, heel bulbs, pastern, fetlock, flexor tendons, extensor tendons, splint bones, cannon bone, carpus, forearm, elbow and shoulder. The joint and tendon surfaces should be cool, flat and smooth and not painful to pressure or manipulation. Do the structures feel the same as on the opposite limb?
Now lift the forelimb. Allow the lower limb to hand freely, and sight down over both heels. Assess the height of the heels and hoof balance. Feel the range of motion of lower limb and carpus. Does the horse resist this? Feel and gently press on the pasterns, fetlocks, flexor tendons and all the joints. Gently squeeze along the length of the now-resting flexor tendons. Does your horse respond in discomfort? Repeat for the right forelimb. Is the conformation, feel, and the horse’s response to manipulation similar in both limbs?
Tips for safety & Success
Be sure to use good horsemanship when working with the hind limbs. Maintain contact with the horse and avoid surprising them with sudden contact.
When assessing the limbs of an unfamiliar horse, work with an experienced handler at the head of the horse to make this procedure easier and safer. If you do not have a helper, you will need to work on the horse tied or restrain the horse's head at the same time as you work on the limb.
Whenever handling legs and feet, always keep your back straight and your shoulders above your hips to reduce the chance for back injury.
When lifting the limbs, try to consciously keep the horse's limb under the horse, and not pulled out to the side. Horses resent having their limbs unnecessarily strained, and will resist if attention is not paid to keeping them comfortable.
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