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Stringhalt – A neuromuscular condition in horses

by Marlen Fischer
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The so-called stringhalt in horses is a neuromuscular condition, which is usually recognisable by an involuntary, exaggerated movement of the hindquarters. The hind legs are jerked upwards and also brought back to the ground in an uncontrolled manner. Ordinarily stringhalt does not cause any great pain to the horse, but often the underlying cause of the condition is quite painful. While the prognosis for recovery is good, the cause often cannot be cured, if it can be diagnosed at all. In rare cases, the disease progresses to chronic stringhalt, which is irreversible. Relapses may also occur after recovery, and change in extent and course, which is why the cause of stringhalt should be addressed in addition to the symptoms.

Stringhalt in horses — When the legs spasm

Stringhalt is a rather rare occurrence nowadays. The movement is similar to the function of strings on a marionette, which is where the name “stringhalt” comes from. The symptoms of the disease are clearly recognisable through this extremely abnormal movement. The origins, on the other hand, are usually manifold and can therefore be difficult to treat in some cases. Stringhalt is most evident when the horse is walking, but affected horses can sometimes also show clear symptoms in trot. At the onset of the disease, the horse usually only makes occasional exaggerated movements with the hind legs, but as the disease progresses, the jerking movements towards toward the belly increase and soon become permanent.

Horse standing on a field

Exercise can have a positive effect on the course of the disease.

If the horse is only exercised gently once the first irregularities occur, it can have a positive effect on the course of the disease. Care should be taken in keeping a certain level of muscle tone and fitness. Regular walking or similar activities can alleviate the symptoms and prevent subsequent damage. Yet chronical changes in the gait can damage the spine and joints and increase the chances of arthritis. In order to avoid such subsequent problems a vet should always be consulted to treat the cause of the disease.

What is stringhalt in horses?

Stringhalt is characterised by a change in hind leg gait, where there is exaggerated flexion of the hind legs when moving. In pronounced cases, the horse pulls its leg up to its belly at an angle when walking. The leg is also put down rather forcefully.

Signs and symptoms of stringhalt

The very distinct symptom of stringhalt is a sudden, exaggerated, upward flexion of the hindlimb. During regular walk or trot, the horse’s hind legs jerk upwards towards the belly. The legs are also put down in a rather abrupt manner. It often affects only one of the hind legs, rarely both legs at the same time.

The gait abnormality is most obvious during tight turns or backing up, which the horse can only perform with difficulty. The hyperflexion is then particularly noticeable. The severity varies greatly from horse to horse. Some show only slight gait abnormalities, others can be very restricted in their movement and only move with difficulty.

Affected horses mostly likely do not feel any pain from the disease, but work under saddle is more strenuous and should be avoided until the condition has subsided. Consequential damage to the spine and joint functionality should not be underestimated, as this can cause considerable pain.

Causes of stringhalt

There are two types of stringhalt: Australian stringhalt is caused by poisoning. The causes of idiopathic stringhalt, on the other hand, are usually unclear and require comprehensive veterinary examinations. Horses can be affected by consuming toxic plants such as the so-called Hypochoeris radicata (more commonly known as Flatweed, False Dandelion or Catsear). It looks similar to the dandelion, which is digestible for horses. The toxic effect of the weed can lead to peripheral nerve damage and thus trigger Australian stringhalt, which, however, can usually be treated relatively quickly.

Horse trotting on field

Stringhalt can be caused by poisoning, other diseases and traumatic situations.

Other causes, which unfortunately are not often clearly identifiable, include for example, changes in the spinal cord, acute disorders of the nervous system, druse, bacterial infestation or phlegmons. In addition, tendon damage, muscle inflammation or bone spavin can also trigger exaggerated hind leg flexion. In any case, consulting an experienced vet is always advised in order to get to the bottom of the disease and find a suitable treatment.

Sometimes the development of stringhalt is followed by other conditions such as osteoarthritis or other joint problems, which always require veterinary treatment. In other cases, horses may develop stringhalt due to experiencing trauma from both physical and psychological impact. Events such as traumatic accidents under saddle or psychological stress due to incorrect care of the animal can lead to stringhalt. Healing this type of trauma can be very demanding for the horse’s owner, especially when the experience is not known in detail.

What is equine stringhalt?

The exaggerated upwards movement of the hind legs is a clear symptom of the stringhalt disease. This gait abnormality is triggered by poisoning, nerve blocks, causative diseases or a physical or psychological trauma suffered in the past.

Treatment of stringhalt

The rare condition always requires individual treatment by a vet, depending on the extent and origin. Should the nervous system or spinal cord be the catalyst, treatment with sympatholytics has proven effective. The medication is supposed to weaken the effects on the nervous system and thus minimise or even completely cure the disease. In addition, substances such as ginkgo biloba and gnaphalium are often used in the treatment of stringhalt.

Acupuncture and homeopathy are also suitable and have a positive effect on recovery. Magnetic field therapy can provide additional relief. Plenty of gentle exercise is also beneficial in the course of the disease. It is therefore advisable to walk the horse often and extensively.

However, if the problem is due to a poor conformation, some veterinarians actually advocate surgery to correct the affected areas. If necessary, the toe extensor, the tendon and possibly also the muscle are surgically optimised to alleviate the movement disorder. Even after appropriate treatment, the symptoms should always be closely monitored for up to a year afterwards. This condition requires a careful and long-lasting follow-up treatment, which should always be accompanied by a vet.

Using homeopathy to treat houndstooth

Alternative medicines can be promising in treating cases of stringhalt. Various globules and a gentle therapy with natural remedies can be a successful healing method. However, even with homeopathic medication, the treatment should, if possible, address the underlying conditions and not just the symptoms. In addition to the medication, osteopathic treatments and the use of magnetic field blankets can be helpful. Acupuncture therapy may also achieve further success. An experienced veterinarian with a focus on homeopathic treatment should be consulted in any case of stringhalt disease.

Stringhalt in horses — No more competitions?

The symptoms of stringhalt usually do not cause the horse any pain. So if the horse is pain-free and moves freely, it can be ridden. Nevertheless, the origin of the symptoms often causes pain and must be diagnosed and treated first. Some time off may be required in this case. Once the horse has fully recovered from stringhalt and any other issues, training can resume again.

girl and black horse at jumping competition

If the horse has fully recovered, participating in competitions is possible.

Depending on how long the horse has been out of work, the level and intensity of training will of course have to be adjusted accordingly. If the horse gradually returns to the level of fitness required for competition, there is nothing to prevent it from doing so. Even if chronic stringhalt can be detected, as long as it does not cause any soreness, it is possible to take part in jumping or western competitions. Only in dressage can the jerking leg action lead to point reductions or even disqualification. However, before considering a return to shows, the horse should be completely recovered and pain-free. Stringhalt should be constantly observed even after successful treatment, so that early intervention can be taken if symptoms reappear.

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