Under the broad umbrella of arthritis ailments is “ringbone,” an affliction most likely seen in performance horses such as those used for events like cutting and reining. Ringbone is typically set off by an “inside event” near the vulnerable joints.
Dr. Jacob Goodin, Morrie Waud Equine Center, UW School of Veterinary Medicine, explained that ringbone is a progressive osteoarthritis of either the pastern or coffin bone joints. There are high and low variations of ringbone with the high ringbone affecting the pastern joints and the low ringbone affecting the joints associated with the coffin bone in the hoof.
“It can start with repeated stress or a small chip or fractures near the joint,” Goodin said. “Ringbone is a progressive osteoarthritis and if left unmanaged it can progress quickly. If you catch it early you often can manage ringbone but you can’t stop it”
In addition to an event, there are a series of things which contribute to ringbone development. Repeated tension and trauma to the joints contribute to ringbone development but poor conformation of the feet and legs or poor shoeing also are important factors, Goodin said.
“A horse with a more upright leg is probably more predisposed to ringbone. But it has more to do with what a horse does than genetics alone. Good confirmation means the horse is going to be less prone to such injury,” Goodin stated.
Diagnosis begins with a lameness exam. Radiograph images will reveal the growths and pinpoint the exact locations of the osteoarthritis. The exams will determine the severity of the ringbone and start the decision making process. Ringbone near a joint generally has a worse prognosis for the horse's continued use than one found farther from a joint. A rapidly progressing ringbone also has a poorer prognosis.
“How you manage ringbone depends on the severity of the condition, the owner and how the horse is used,” Goodin said. “We’ll look at it differently for a high value performance horse that needs to get back to work right away compared to a horse ridden infrequently for pleasure.”
There are three tiers of ringbone management. The first level is pain management with a substance such as bute (phenylbutazone). Caught early, an anti inflammatory medication and activity therapy may do the trick for a mild case of ringbone.
On the next management level are steroid injections. The injections reduce inflammation and pain and can help get the horse back to work. A final tier in the process is surgery. Surgery fuses the bones to eliminate the friction of movement.
“Before doing surgery we have to consider the goals of the owner and how the horse is used,” Goodin said. “Surgery is invasive and carries some risk. It’s also expensive running in the area $5,000 to $6,000. Ringbone is an arthritic condition so in all cases it’s best to keep the animal as active as possible. Stall rest won’t fix it. We can’t stop ringbone but we can manage it.”
Horses not being used for strenuous activity, such as jumping or cutting, often can be ridden successfully for a long time. Whether or not your horse can continue to compete in intense sports will depend on the specifics of the case.
Goodin added that ringbone management, including surgery, is now reasonably effective. A horse diagnosed with ringbone stands a good chance of being able to return to a productive life. It’s a matter of finding the problem early, using the right level of management and maintaining vigilance.