What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Swelling of One Lower Limb or Leg


Swelling of a single lower limb typically indicates injury to that leg. This is in contrast to swelling of multiple limbs, which is more likely to indicate a response to a body-wide ailment.

Swelling can ascend UP the limb from a problem within the hoof, or can descend DOWN the limb from an injury higher up the limb. Swelling in the lower limb is a non-specific sign of many different types of injuries. Some of the most critical structures to the horse are in the lower limb. Injury to these structures can be critical. So swelling here always warrants a closer look.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If lameness is noticeable at the walk.
    • If severe and obvious lameness is visible at the walk.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If there is modest or little lameness but significant swelling.
    • Even if the horse does not appear to be lame to you.
    • If the lameness is mild.

your role


What To Do

Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to the presence or absence of fever, and lameness visible at the walk. Compare the look and feel of that limb to the others. Look carefully for any breaks in the skin or hair loss indicating injury.

Flex the lower joints and notice whether there is a pain response. Always check the sole of the hoof, and assess for digital pulse and heat in the hoof. Gently press the whole swollen part with your fingers, looking for a pain response. Move the horse in left and right circles, at the walk, to assess degree of lameness. (It is best not to evaluate the horse at the trot. Depending upon the nature of the injury, this could worsen it.)

What Not To Do

Do not force a horse to exercise that has limb swelling, unless a vet has evaluated the horse and advises exercise. There is always the possibility of worsening an injury.

NEVER purchase a horse with a swelling here without a veterinary pre-purchase exam!

your vet's role

If swelling is mild and the horse seems otherwise normal, your vet may suggest ways for you to treat symptomatically, rest the horse, and monitor for improvement. Confinement to a small area, cold water hosing and supportive bandaging may all be beneficial.

Your vet carefully assesses the swelling and considers the anatomy involved and nature of the injury. They will evaluate the degree of lameness and discuss whether further diagnostics might be necessary to more clearly understand the injury.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Do you see a wound?
  • Do you notice lameness?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • If the horse is lame, how lame?
  • What is the horse's rectal temperature?
  • Is the lameness noticeable to you at the walk?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP