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


Swelling of Multiple Joints


Joint swelling results from excess fluid within the joint capsule, thickening of the structures surrounding the joint, or a combination of both. Swelling of multiple joints is relatively rare in horses.

It can result from conformation or wear-related causes. This is common in performance horses of any discipline that have had long careers of heavy or fast work. Many of these old campaigners have multiple fetlock joints and tendon sheaths that contain excess fluid and thickened joint lining. This is a response to repetitive trauma over a long period. It may or may not be accompanied by lameness.

In younger horses with no history of repetitive work-related trauma, we consider inflammatory conditions, infectious diseases and developmental diseases like osteochondrosis (OCD) as being possible causes for swelling of multiple joints.

In foals, multiple swollen joints with severe lameness and reluctance to move is typical of infected (septic) joints, a life-threatening problem. Swelling above joints in growing horses is associated with inflammation and swelling of the growth plates (physitis).

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If the horse is reluctant to move, along with this sign.
    • If lameness is noticeable at the walk.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
    • If the horse seems stiff, or digital pulse is present.
  • Code Yellow

    Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment
    • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.
    • If you do not notice lameness or pain, only a swelling.

your role


What To Do

Assess the horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), and assess the horse for lameness at the walk and trot. Consider the anatomy of the lower limb and compare opposite limbs. If the horse is lame, place them in a stall or small turnout until your vet can examine them.

your vet's role

Your vet considers the history and their exam findings to determine the most likely cause. The most common diagnostic test we use to assess the health of a joint is x-ray, but we also use many other diagnostics, depending upon the conditions we want to rule out.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • Do you notice any lameness?
  • When did you first notice the swelling?
  • When did you last notice that your horse was ok?
  • Is the horse performing to your expectation under saddle?
  • Describe the type of exercise and riding that you do with your horse.
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnostics Your Vet May Perform

Figuring out the cause of the problem. These are tests or procedures used by your vet to determine what’s wrong.

Very Common
Less Common
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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
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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

Very Common
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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP