What is Stringhalt?
Stringhalt can occur at every stride at walk but will lessen when the equine is trotting and will not be apparent at all when the horse is cantering. The hyperflexion can range from mild to extreme and can be unilateral or bilateral. Atrophy of the thigh muscles is usually present when the condition is severe. Generally seen in the hind legs, it can affect all four limbs.
Stringhalt in horses is defined as a gait abnormality, neurologically related, characterized by exaggerated upward flexion of the hindlimb and occurring at every stride at walk.
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Symptoms of Stringhalt in Horses
The symptoms that you would see in a horse suffering from stringhalt would be:
- A momentary motion like a jerk, a jump or a hop with the hind leg held up high near the stomach
- The movements will be more pronounced when the horse is turning or backing up
- This motion will be apparent at a walk, less so at a trot and may not show up at all at a canter
- The motion may be unilateral (one hind leg only) or bilateral (both hind legs)
- Severe cases can sometimes involve the horse actually kicking himself in the abdomen when the involuntary exaggerated flexion occurs as he walks
These symptoms differ from those in horses having locked patella in that the leg is held up high in stringhalt while the leg is locked lower with the hoof touching the ground in a locked patella condition.
This disease is thought to be neurological in nature and its known heritage goes back to the Renaissance period. It was given its name by William Shakespeare. Stringhalt in horses generally occurs in the hind legs but can also present in the forelegs and can be unilateral or bilateral as noted above. It is a disease that has been found in not only horses but in other hooved animals as well. There are two types of stringhalt in horses:
- Australian stringhalt is a temporary disease thought to be caused by ingestion of certain vegetation and may resolve on its own
- Classic stringhalt has no known cause, has no geographic boundaries and doesn’t resolve on its own
- Arthrosis (degenerative joint disease) and osteochondritis dissecans OCD (a cartilage disorder) could also be at the root of this disease
In severe cases of this disease, the horse can be found to actually kick himself in the abdomen when the muscle contractions occur when they are just trying to walk.
Causes of Stringhalt in Horses
As noted above, there are two types of stringhalt: Australian and classic. The exaggerated involuntary motion is caused by the digital extensor muscles contracting excessively or when there is insufficient opposition in the digital extensor muscles. Here is what we know about each of them:
- Occurs in the United States as well
- Temporary condition
- Will usually resolve on its own
- Caused by ingestion of toxic plants like flaxseed, common dandelion and little mallow but it seems that not all of these plants are toxic all of the time
- It is felt that there is some environmental factor involved in the toxicity especially in view of the fact that the most frequent season for this malady seems to be summer and fall
- Not connected to plant toxicity but could be related to neck or back injuries but not enough is known to note a specific cause
- Afflicted horses seldom recover and the condition worsens over time
- Can affect one or both hind legs
- These horses should not be ridden and probably won’t do well with any type of ground work
Arthrosis (degenerative joint disease) and osteochondritis dissecans OCD (a cartilage disorder) could also be at the root of this disease.
Diagnosis of Stringhalt in Horses
In order to obtain the most accurate diagnosis of this disease, you will likely need the expertise of a veterinary professional who is knowledgeable in the field of neuromuscular dysfunction. It should be noted here that those horses with Australian stringhalt won’t need the extensive neuro testing as the classic sufferers will need because the cause of the Australian type is much more apparent. Your vet will do a thorough orthopedic type of examination which will include x-rays and ultrasound imaging techniques to ascertain if any structural abnormalities are present. This is important because structural abnormalities can cause neurological problems.
Your horse may need to be hospitalized for several days, depending on the findings by your vet. For some horses, they will need to get assessments on several successive days and may wish to utilize electromyography (EMG) to get a better picture of what is going on with your horse. Neurological conditions are quite complicated in horses just as they are in humans.
Treatment of Stringhalt in Horses
The treatment options will vary, as one might expect, depending on which type of stringhalt is diagnosed. For the Australian type, removal of the horse from the pasture from which he ingested the toxic plant will be the first step and, perhaps, will be the only action needed. In many cases of Australian stringhalt, the horse responds immediately to removal from the toxic plant and the disease resolves on its own. For those horses suffering from the classic type, they should be rested and kept as calm as possible.
Some medications like muscle relaxers, anti-convulsive medications and medications that work directly on the nervous system have been found to have brought some relief, at least temporarily, to some horses. There are surgical options which involve resectioning the tendon that runs along the hock. This option will sometimes work for some horses. Another treatment option might include large doses of thiamine and phenytoin.
Recovery of Stringhalt in Horses
Unfortunately, some horses suffering from long standing classic stringhalt will experience only temporary relief from the disease with any or all of the treatment options mentioned above. There is a great deal of research that is ongoing and researchers are looking for ways to reduce the neuro effects to allow the equine to have a longer and more productive life. There are a number of drugs being tested and retested in the labs and, hopefully, one day there will be more options for returning the afflicted horses to some level of productivity. Perhaps even some retraining of some of the basics may be an option one day. In the meantime, do all you can to keep your horse rested and calm and treat the symptoms if possible even if only temporary relief is achieved.
Stringhalt Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
I bought a filly 2 weeks ago from the Kuwait government auction. She has a problem with her hind legs, I am sure if she is stringhalt positive. Is there a medication for it, if she needs a surgery how much will it cost me?
Stringhalt is an upward flexion of the hind limb with each stride; a diagnosis should be confirmed by your Veterinarian. Medical treatment with thiamine and phenytoin may be effective; surgical correction by tendonectomy in severe cases may correct the condition. Cost of surgery would be dependent on location and I am not familiar with prices in Kuwait but severity and your Veterinarian (General or Specialist). Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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