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Components of the Musculoskeletal System of Horses

By Russell R. Hanson, DVM, DACVS, DACVECC, Professor of Equine Surgery, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University ; Joerg A. Auer, DrMedVet, Dr h c, MS, DACVS, DECVS, Professor and Director, Equine Department, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zürich ; Andrew P. Bathe, MA, VetMB, DACVS, DEO, MRCVS ; Leo B. Jeffcott, MA, BVM, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, VD, Dean, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney ; Svend E. Kold, DMV, MRCVS, RCVS Specialist in Equine Surgery (Orthopedics) ; C. Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, DSc, FRCVS, DACVS, DACVSMR, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University ; Dale A. Moore, MS, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Associate Professor, Veterinary Medical Teaching and Research Center, University of California-Davis ; Sheldon Padgett, DVM, MS, DACVS ; Tracy A. Turner, DVM, MS, Anoka Equine Veterinary Services ; Stephanie J. Valberg, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, ACVSMR, Professor, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota Equine Center ; John F. Van Vleet, DVM, PhD, Professor of Veterinary Pathology, School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University


Bones provide rigid structure to the body and shield internal organs from damage. They also house bone marrow, where blood cells are formed, and they maintain the body’s reservoir of calcium. Old bone tissue is constantly replaced with new bone tissue in a process called remodeling. This helps keep the bones healthy.

Bones come together to form joints. The type of joint formed determines the degree and direction of motion. For example, joints with a ball-and-socket formation allow for rotation, while hinge joints only allow bending and straightening. Some joints do not move at all. In a joint, the ends of the bones are covered with cartilage, which is a smooth protective tissue that helps reduce friction as joints move.

The skeleton of the horse

There are several different types of muscles in the body. Two of these, skeletal muscle and smooth muscle, are part of the musculoskeletal system. Skeletal muscles are responsible for posture and movement. They are attached to bones and arranged around the joints. Smooth muscle helps facilitate many processes in the body such as the flow of blood (by surrounding arteries) and the movement of food along the digestive tract.

Tendons are tough bands of connective tissue made up mostly of a protein called collagen. They stretch very little. Tendons attach each end of a muscle to a bone. At selected points, they are located within sheaths that allow them to move easily. Ligaments are also tough cords formed of connective tissue. Unlike tendons, they can stretch to some extent. Ligaments surround joints and help to support and stabilize them. They can also connect one bone to another.

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