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The Importance of Understanding Motion Disorders in Horses

Either a muscular system, neurological system, spinal cord or all three condition can cause a horse to have gait problems. Stringhalt, shivers and lathyrism is a few of the strange names for the diseases that affect a horses movement.

Adult horses of all breeds are typically affected by stringhalt. Most commonly there is a single case and less commonly there can be an outbreak on a farm. There are differing degrees of over-flexion of the hind limbs in horses with stringhalt. The hind legs are flexed in an exaggerated manner when a horse with stringhalt attempts to walk and the leg is often held up close to the belly.

More interest has been shown in these conditions due to the recent increase in the number of cases of equine protozoal myelitis or EPM. EPM and other disease

produce a change in gait that is similar and requires a careful diagnosis by a veterinarian.

A gait problem is difficult to identify if the case is mild and has only a hitch to the forward motion being noticed. If the hoof slaps on the abdomen with each step then this is an advanced case. For several minutes the leg may be held up for several minutes and the horse may be unable to move without an awkward hopping action if both legs are involved.

Horses may not be able to stand if they are severely affected. In chronic cases muscle loss can occur and sometimes spastic movements can be seen in the forelimbs as well which is characterized by a toe-scuffing and stumbling movement.

The true cause of stringhalt has not yet been identified although certain pasture and climate conditions have been linked to outbreaks.

Horses are at risk if they are grazing in poor pastures that have weeds such as dandelion, catís ear and flatweed. Since simply eating dandelions has not led to this disease it is believed drought and climate may also play a role.

Ingestion of hay that contains caley pea plants causes lathyrism. Ingestion of sweet pea plants in poor pastures has been linked to some cases of lathyrism in the United States.

Another oddity seen in draft horses is shivers. These horses show tremors of the large muscles of the upper leg and will flex one or both hind limbs. When the horse is forced to back up or exercise this gait problem is easily seen. No known toxic plant has been linked to this condition despite the fact that it resembles stringhalt and lathyrism.

Improvement is possible for some horses with these gait problems, especially if it is a plant-associated cause and the horse is taken away from the pasture that is affected. However, more than a year may be required for improvement and in some cases, especially with shivers, the disease may be progressive and no amount of care or therapy will be able to help the condition. Good care and proper nutrition is a part of treatment.

In some non-toxicity cases stringhalt has been cured by cutting a tendon that is near the hock. However, this only works in the cases that result from the neuromuscular system and not by those cases that are caused by genetics or toxicity.

Surgical Treatment for Stringhalt

If stringhalt results from trauma or irritation of the lateral digital extensor tendon then surgery is usually the preferred treatment in these cases. This specific tendon attaches to a muscle on the outside of the thigh before traveling down the leg over the hock joint and then eventually attaching to the tendons on the front of the foot. It has been postulated that some cases of stringhalt are caused by trauma and irritation to the tendon in the area of the hock joint. A piece of the tendon in that area is removed during the surgical procedure. Under general anesthesia with the horse laying down the surgery for stringhalt can be performed or it can also be done while the horse is standing with a tranquilizer.

Read the next horse health tips article on White Line Disease.
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