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René from Texas, writes:

Dear Dr. Dave,

I have a gelding that just turned seven. His hocks have always had small fluid pockets, but now they are starting to get larger. He shows no lameness. His X-ray showed to be clean. Also this weekend, the right hock was swollen. I put DMSO on it, and wrapped it. The swelling went down. Is this common for young horse? If not, what do you recommend.

Hello René,

Thank you for your question about your horse's hocks. I hope I can be of some help.

Hocks, like all joints within the body, are a meeting of two or more bones at a place of movement. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage which provide a smooth slick surface. The total joint is contained within a joint capsule which is made up of a synovial lining and tough connective tissue. The synovial lining produces synovium which is a clear viscous slippery liquid which lubricates the joint, as well as aids in shock absorption. On a normal joint, the capsule is full of synovium but is relatively "form-fit" so you do not see it.

If a joint is stressed or begins to wear more than normal, the synovial lining of the capsule produces more synovium to protect the joint. This is what causes the small fluid pockets, which in the hocks are referred to as "bog spavins."

In my experience, I see many small bog spavins on working horses, especially ones that use their hocks a lot like barrel horses, cutting horses, rope horses, and hunter/jumpers. I almost consider them "normal" for an athlete. However, if they begin to enlarge, I believe this is a warning sign of possible impending problems.

It should be noted that radiographs will only show boney changes; they do not recognize cartilage. This means that your horse may have some beginning cartilaginous damage which the synovial lining is responding to by increasing the amount of fluid being produced.

There are many treatments for bog spavins. It seems that every veterinarian has his/her's favorite, yet the common practice usually involves draining off the excess synovial fluid and injecting some form of hyaluronic acid, possibly combined with an anti-inflammatory steroid.

I consider a seven year-old barrel horse as still a youngster, not yet fully in his prime. Assuming your horse has acceptable conformation, I worry that he is putting undue stress on his hocks, or that the hocks are showing signs of premature wear-n-tear.

Topical treatment, such as the DMSO you used, will work for a while to decrease the inflammation, however it is only treating the symptoms and not the cause. If the right hock swelling was just a one-time event then I would not be too worried. However, if it continues to swell, I would recommend you have your veterinarian examine it again.

I hope this additional information about hocks allows you to make wise, educated decisions on the exercise program and management of your horse.

Thank you again for your question.

Happy Trails and Short Clocks,

Dr. Dave