Your horse uses his hocks to spin, brake, back up, propel and launch. With those high-intensity tasks, particularly if he works or competes regularly, those hocks can take quite a beating. This complex joint, technically called a tarsus, is prone to conditions both benign and serious that can lead to swelling. Cold hydrotherapy is a tried-and-true treatment method for most hock swelling.
If you discover a puncture wound near the hock, contact your veterinarian immediately -- even a small wound near this joint can be career ending without prompt and professional treatment.
Contact Your Veterinarian
Your first order of treatment is to contact your veterinarian as soon as you notice any swelling, even if your horse is not lame on the leg where swelling is present. Your veterinarian's examination may include a flexion test, during which he bends and holds the affected leg, and then asks you or another handler to trot the horse several steps. If lameness is detected, it provides your vet with clues on whether other procedures, such as radiographs or an ultrasound, are warranted.
It's possible your veterinarian may determine that the swelling won't resolve, resulting in a permanent blemish that won't affect your horse's performance. This is particularly true for conditions such as thoroughpins -- puffiness around the tendons; capped hocks and some bog spavins, which represent fluid buildup.
Bog spavins can indicate present or future joint problems, so ask your vet if an ultrasound or radiograph is warranted for a more thorough examination.
Your horse benefits from cold therapy to treat his swelling much as you do when you have a tissue injury. Since you can't instruct your horse to sit quietly and hold an ice pack on his hock, you have to perform this therapy for him.
A water hose provides an easy and inexpensive way for you to direct cold water directly onto the affected area.
Have him stand in an area that drains well, as you will have to direct a continuous stream of water for several minutes, long enough for his hock to feel cold to your touch. If the water is quite cold, your horse may indicate his objection by moving around, but after several minutes he should become accustomed to it and also gain relief from any related pain.
The cold water constricts the blood vessels in the hock area; when you stop the hydrotherapy, circulation resumes and regenerates his cells with new oxygen and nutrients. If the swelling is caused by a cut or wound, the hydrotherapy provides an added benefit of keeping the wound clean.
Your vet may also recommend ice therapy, particularly if you can't apply water therapy as frequently as he prescribes. You can make an ice wrap using small plastic bags filled with water and then frozen or other frozen packs made for injuries.
Secure the bag to the swollen area by wrapping his hock with a padded bandage, held into place with a flexible adhesive bandage roll. Apply the wrap in a figure-8 configuration, much as you would apply an ankle wrap on a human.
Once the wrap is secure, cut a hole through all of the layers where your horse's hock point sticks out the back. This allows him to flex and move, and will be less stressful and fearful for him if he lies down and has becomes concerned he can't flex his hock enough to get back up.
Reusable commercial ice wraps are now available that make hock wrapping easy and convenient.
Follow Turnout Instructions
Ask your veterinarian if you need to restrict your horse's movements. If the swelling is benign or minor, your horse may be able to adhere to his regular turnout schedule and in some cases, the movement may even help his swelling.
Your vet may prefer limited turnout in a smaller space or less frequent turnout. If your horse needs to be confined in a stall for several days or more, you may need to walk him by hand using a halter and lead rope a few times a day -- with your vet's permission -- to give him some movement. Many horses feel stressed by long periods of stall confinement, so this hand walking is good mental therapy for him, as well.
Swelling from puncture wounds may require more rigorous care, including daily bandage changing.