Filled Legs - When To Call The Vet

Oedema is a very common problem faced by most horse owners from time-to-time. 'Filled legs', as the condition is colloquially known, is usually simple to resolve, but there are times when it can be indicative of a more serious issue where veterinary attention is required.

So, what causes filled legs and when should you call the vet?

What causes filled legs?

Filled legs refers to a condition where the horse's lower legs become swollen and puffy. This usually happens when a horse has been standing immobile for long periods of time, especially following a day's hard work.

The swelling is caused by an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the affected limbs. When the horse is mobile, his circulation keeps the lymphatic fluid and blood moving around his body, but standing still for long periods allows that fluid to settle, usually in the extremities.

Relieving filled legs

Filling can usually be dispersed simply by turning the horse out for a few hours, by undertaking gentle ridden work, or leading him in hand for an hour or so.

If the horse is prone to filled legs or can't be exercised, applying stable bandages can help to prevent the fluid from leaking out from the tissues and causing swelling.

When to call the vet

There are some occasions when you should seek veterinary advice regarding your horse's filled legs, including:

  1. The swelling does not recede after gentle exercise and persists for more than 24 hours. Low protein levels in the blood, circulatory problems, or heart conditions can all cause prolonged oedema.  
  2. Small punctures or cuts could set up an infection that may cause swelling and lameness.  
  3. The horse has swollen legs without any obvious cause and is lame or very stiff.  
  4. Oedema generally only affects the hind legs. If the horse's front legs are swollen and warm, there could be tendon damage.  
  5. Filling usually affects both legs. If just one limb is swollen, a more serious problem within that limb is indicated.
  6. If the swelling extends above the horse's hock joint and feels hot to the touch, a serious infection may be present.  
  7. If the horse is depressed, lethargic or off his feed, there is clearly a problem that is not restricted to the limb oedema.

In conclusion

Filled legs can simply be a minor inconvenience that is easily resolved. However, if the condition persists for more than a day or so or is accompanied by any of the aforementioned complications, always seek veterinary advice as a matter of urgency.