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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Overview of Musculoskeletal Disorders in 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


Disorders of the musculoskeletal system most often affect the horse’s ability to move. How severely movement is impaired depends on the type and severity of the problem. Skeletal and joint disorders are the most common, but problems in the musculoskeletal system can also indicate diseases of the muscles, neurologic problems, toxins in the body, hormonal abnormalities, metabolic disorders, infectious diseases, blood and vascular disorders, poor nutrition, and birth defects.

Many different systems in the body rely on the muscles. A horse’s ability to see, breathe, urinate, breed, and even chew and swallow may be affected by a muscular condition. With many disorders, however, the musculoskeletal system is simply the location where signs of other underlying conditions show themselves. Veterinarians often trace the real cause of musculoskeletal trouble back to the nervous system.

Disorders that primarily affect the muscle membrane or muscle fibers are called myopathies. Muscle membrane disorders may be hereditary or acquired. Myopathies involving the actual muscle fiber components include exertional myopathy. Diagnosing a myopathy usually requires laboratory tests.

Tendons stretch very little, so they are prone to injury and may become torn if a large amount of force is applied to them. Such injuries lead to tendinitis, which is inflammation of the tendons. Because tendons and ligaments are relatively poorly supplied with blood, they heal slowly and sometimes imperfectly. Injuries to ligaments and tendons require patience and careful longterm rehabilitation.

Bone diseases are generally present at birth or the result of nutritional deficiencies or injuries. An imbalanced level of minerals in the diet, particularly of trace minerals such as copper, zinc, and magnesium, is a common dietary cause of bone defects. Growing animals that are fed too much protein can also develop nutritional disorders affecting bones. Getting either too much or too little of certain vitamins, particularly vitamins A and D, can influence bone growth and development.

Most bone disorders stem from some sort of trauma, such as fractures or cracks. Bone fractures are classified as simple (the bone is broken into 2 pieces) or compound (there are 3 or more pieces). They are also divided into closed (the skin is not broken) or open (the skin is broken). Infections that cause bone tissue to break down and die can lead to bone disorders. In other situations, diseases of the ligaments or tendons may cause secondary bone troubles.

Movable joints are vulnerable to joint diseases or disorders affecting their membranes, as well as related ligaments, cartilage, and bone. Joint disorders may be caused by trauma to the joint, longterm inflammation, developmental problems, or infections. Traumatic injuries may produce short-term consequences such as dislocation, fracture, or the distortion of a joint. More longterm effects may include arthritis or the rupture of nearby ligaments or membranes.

Chronic or longterm inflammation is most commonly seen in joints associated with movement. The effects of longterm inflammation can be complicated. Any joint injury changes the composition and amount of fluid inside the joint, which affects the amount of pressure on the connecting bones. Injuries also raise the white blood cell count in a joint, which can break down cartilage over time.

Recent years have seen great advances in techniques for diagnosing and healing musculoskeletal disorders. When detected early, the disorders often can be corrected, allowing the horse a full return to healthy life.