Horse Knee Problems

Horse Knee Problems

Improper structure of the knee causes excessive stress that can lead to issues with horse health and performance.
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From The American Quarter Horse Journal

"You want straightness in that column of bone," says AQHA and World Conformation Association judge Tim Finkenbinder of Collinsville, Texas. "It's just as important as straightness in the side view. It determines how weight distribution and concussive force is handled by the leg."

Deviation in that straightness puts undue pressure on the joints and ligaments, such as in the knee.

In and Out

“Here are three common deviations in the knee we consider potentially to be a problem,” says Dr. Jerry Black, veterinarian and director of undergraduate studies at Colorado State University’s equine sciences program. “All of them compromise the horse’s ability to receive concussion equally on the inside, the outside of the knee and the entire front limb, as he bears weight and receives concussion.”

When a horse is “in at the knee” or “knock-kneed,” the knee angles to the inside of that imaginary plumb line.

“In that deviation, called carpal valgus, the knee sets far to the inside of where it should normally set and the cannon bone is displaced laterally, to the outside of the knee,” Dr. Black explains. “There is significantly more stress placed on the inside of the knee.”

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“Those horses are much more prone to secondary arthritic changes and may tend to have bone chips. They do not stand up well to a significant amount of performance stress.”

Dr. Black adds that it’s common to see the condition in newborn foals, but most grow out of it.

Foals born significantly knock-kneed should certainly have limited exercise because their bones are just not mature enough to take that stress in the knee,” he says. “They should be kept on stall confinement until they get more strength; they typically correct themselves within 60 days.”

Tim adds: “For whatever reason, we just don’t see that many horses that are in at the knees anymore.”

When a horse is “out at the knee” or “bow-legged,” the knees angles to the outside of that imaginary plumb line.

“In the case of carpal varus (out at the knee), again, concussion is not properly received down the leg,” Dr. Black explains. “There is significantly more stress placed on the outside of the knee.”


The third common front-view deviation involving the knee is the “offset knee” or “bench knees.”

“In this case, the cannon bone is offset to the outside, or laterally to the knee itself,” Dr. Black says. “When you look at the horse from the front, the cannon bones can be straight, but they will appear to be set too far to the outside of the knee.

“This causes two problems,” he continues. “No. 1, because the inside of the knee is the more weight-bearing surface of the knee, when the cannon bone is set to the outside, that puts even more stress on the inside of the knee.”

“No. 2, the second metacarpal bone, or splint bone, on the inside of the cannon bone now receives too much force of concussion because it’s positioned into the main weight-bearing area. That horse is more prone to problems with the splint bone, and that shows up as a tearing of the ligament and a typical splint.”

“Splints occur pretty young in the bench-kneed horse; I’ve certainly seen them show up before the horse is in any kind of training.”

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Tim adds that it’s important to understand what can cause a splint when you are evaluating conformation.

“From a judging standpoint, a splint is a red flag, but it’s not something that is an automatic detriment to the horse,” Tim explains. “A splint tells you to look a little closer at the front leg structure.”

The splint could be caused by an injury in the pasture or in performance and is a blemish on the leg; or it could be caused by structural problems like bench knees, which points to unsoundness.

“If a horse is standing there with a pair of big splints, one on each front leg, there’s a reason why, and chances are, it’s a structural problem,” Tim says.

“If a horse has one splint and I don’t see any structural problem that caused that splint, then I’ll call it a working man’s callous, and I’m not going to hold it against the horse.”

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