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How do horses get them, and can they be treated?

Windgalls, also known as windpuffs, are terms used to describe puffy, fluid-filled swellings above and behind the fetlock of horses. These unsightly bulges cause owners to worry over the integrity of their horses' well-being, but are they serious? 

First of all, what are they?

All equid joints contain synovial fluid--a lubricating substance that allows the joint to move smoothly by acting as a lubricant. Inside the joint, synovial fluid is contained within a sac or capsule that prevents it from leaking out and into the surrounding tissues. When the synovial fluid seeps out of its sac, it accumulates and looks like an extra bump in the fetlock. When palpated, the resulting lump feels soft and mushy, not hard.

Unsoundness indicator or blemish?

Generally, windgalls observed in our horses are considered blemishes rather than a sign that the horse is unsound. However, a windgall can cause discomfort and therefore altered gaits in horses left untreated, unrested, and overworked. Some horses will not pass a prepurchase exam or lameness exam due to having windgalls. This is not to say the horse failed and should not be purchased, but the evidence of past workloads causing them may indicate further testing or exploration regarding long-term soundness. 

Do they hurt the horse?

In most cases, the swellings are not considered painful and seldom cause lameness. Still, the presence of windgalls indicates that care is needed to prevent soundness issues in the future.

How are they caused?

Windgalls develop due to over-secretion of the synovial fluid from the joint capsule that seeps out and into the surrounding tissues. They occur due to irritation of the joint capsule surfaces and are generally an indication that the horse's joints are suffering from overwork. The more the joint is stressed, used, and worked, the larger the swelling becomes due to the increased fluid buildup.

Conformation counts in all things having to do with horses, and problems like club feet, toeing in or out, being base narrow, or sickle hocked may not cause windgalls, but they don't help much, either.

Starting horses too young, hard work, hard ground, performing quick turns, jumping, and other repetitive jobs may also contribute to the development of windgalls. 

Are all windgalls the same?

In short, no. 

Some windgalls show up as swelling on both sides of the tendon and usually in both hind legs. Usually, this type of windgall does not indicate disease and does not cause problems. However, they do often recur. There are also pathologic windgalls that indicate disease.

There are two types of windgalls; Tendinous and articular.

A tendinous windgall is noticed first as a swelling above the sesamoid bones so that the distension causes a bulge between the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament.

The tendinous windgall has nothing to do with the actual tendon but appears as a bulge between the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament. 

This kind of windgall is the most common and seldom causes any real problems. These occur most often in horses that have been worked hard, and they tend to be firmer when palpated. These windgalls are not the squishy-watery kind but are denser. Tendinous windgalls may rise and then regress often in some animals.

The second is called an articular windgall and is noticed first as a swelling at the back of the fetlock joint where the capsule forms a bulge above the sesamoid bones, just behind the cannon bone.  

These articular windgalls often indicate a degenerative joint disease of the fetlock but just as often are seen in sound, non-diseased horses. These may cause stiffness in how a horse travels because the horse cannot flex his joint normally. Still, the horses that manifest this version of a windgall most often go on to live happy, productive lives void of any indication of real pain.

Are all swellings at the fetlock due to windgalls?

No. 

Any swelling near a joint should be looked at by a veterinarian. The peace of mind knowing that the integrity of the joint is not compromised is worth the cost of the ranch call and evaluation. Joint issues in horses are potentially quite serious. Knowing exactly what you are dealing with helps you keep your horse sound and happy. Besides, you'll sleep better knowing it's nothing to worry over.

Swelling of the tendon sheath itself is something to be concerned about, for example. Such swelling could indicate a potentially serious injury or tenosynovitis--inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the tendon sheath.

How are windgalls treated?

Treatment can be simple hydrotherapy in the form of soaking the afflicted joint(s) or applying a poultice and cold compresses. Soak the leg in Epsom salts and lukewarm water for fifteen to twenty minutes, then cold-hose the entire leg for fifteen to twenty minutes. Repeat until the swellings have subsided. 

A poultice may help, and ask your veterinarian if wrapping the leg is indicated. Resting the joints but not confining the horse can be helpful, but remember that movement helps, while overexertion may harm.

Reducing the swelling may be possible by wrapping the leg and providing extra support. The downside is that once the bandages come off, the windgalls pop right back into focus. Wrapping is more of a temporary fix that is not truly a remedy.

Magnetic boots are sometimes helpful to reduce the size of windgalls. But again, the fix may not last long if the workload does not change.

You may also help decrease the swelling of windgalls by using acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, or laser treatments.

In conclusion, although windgalls are not usually indicative of a lameness problem and may be chronic, they can be managed using supportive care. If you observe any lameness developing, be sure to consult with your veterinarian.

***This piece is not written to offer any legal, medical, or professional advice and should not be construed as veterinary advisory recommendation to you or anyone else. Please obtain professional instruction from a qualified person concerning your own objectives and needs.

Keep your horses sound and have fun with them, Happily Ever After!

~Tanya Buck


 

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Tanya Buck
Published on 2021-05-04