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Question of the Week: Stocking Up

A vet describes this common condition and how to avoid it.


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Q: What causes "Stocking Up" and how do I treat it?

A: Stocking up is a common equine term referring to generalized swelling in a horse’s distal limbs. Medically this condition is known as a type of localized edema, or accumulation of fluid in the subcutaneous tissues. Stocking up is most often seen in horses that are stalled for a majority of the time, although some horses seem more prone to stocking up than others within the same barn management system.

The biology behind this form of edema is based in fluid dynamics. When a horse is standing still for long periods, his circulation slows and becomes less efficient. When blood is moved more sluggishly through the circulatory system, blood constituents such as plasma proteins have a chance to leak out of the blood vessels (think of it as these proteins being so bored with a sluggish circulation that they go in search of adventure elsewhere out of the circulatory system). These proteins have a strong “colloid pressure” which is a fancy fluid dynamic term meaning fluid is drawn to where these proteins are located. In effect, these proteins pull fluid out of the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissues, causing these tissues to swell (become edematous), and therefore appear “stocked up”. The reason this edema is most prevalent in the horse’s legs, usually below the hock and knee, is simply due to gravity.

Since excessive stall time and resultant sluggish circulation are the primary causes of stocking up, the most effective way to combat this condition is to increase a horse’s time outside the stall, be it by pasture-boarding the horse and/or simply riding more frequently. A horse’s natural nomadic movements during grazing are enough to prevent stocking up in pastured animals, but many horses do not have the luxury of wide-open fields 24/7. In cases such as these, daily workouts are the best way to help combat stocking up in the stall-bound horse. Keep in mind that the frequency of exercise is the key to decreasing stocking up and not the length. Indeed, stalling a hot horse after a two-hour ride may actually increase his chances of stocking up the next day. Ideally, a fifteen-minute hand walk in the morning and a ride or lunging session in the evening should be enough to ward off lower limb edema.

Actually, stocking up in horses is exactly what also happens to some humans after a long day on their feet – some people come home with swollen ankles while others aren’t bothered at all. Likewise with horses, some mounts become extremely stiff and reluctant to move after becoming “stocky” while others don’t seem to mind much. If you have a horse that is particularly sensitive to swollen legs, TLC and empathy are the best aides, along with a slow, gentle hand walk for ten to fifteen minutes. As the horse moves, the fluid will slowly dissipate and the resultant pressure on the legs will recede.

Standing leg wraps are often used to combat stocking up in horses. While these wraps can and do help, it is important to remember they are only treating the symptom and not the problem as a whole. These wraps act to prevent swelling by maintaining even pressure throughout the entire lower limb. Two key words for standing wraps are: maintaining and even. The application of standing wraps seems more of an art form than a science as these wraps require a delicate balance of being tight enough to stay on and apply adequate pressure to prevent fluid accumulation, while not being too tight to restrict blood flow. Cold water hosing can also be beneficial in some cases, especially if there is some heat noticed in your horse’s legs.

Sometimes horse owners are tempted to give their mount a tablet of phenylbutazone (bute) to help combat a particularly bad case of stocking up. Like standing wraps, this is merely helping the symptom and not tackling the problem as a whole. A bute once in a while is OK to help with your horse’s aches and pains (ask your vet for proper dosage!) but is not a panacea by any means. If your horse chronically stocks up, it’s time to re-evaluate his stall management.

-- Anna O'Brien

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Question of the Week: Stocking Up

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Reader Comments

vivien    International

7/20/2014 7:30:21 AM

Thank you for this very informative article. My horse is stocking up even though she is not stalled at all, only in pasture.

LesterLou    Lebanon, MO

10/26/2011 5:20:41 PM

I appreciate this information. My horse is a pasture horse and stocks up when stalled/highlined overnight after long trail rides.

Emma    Winter Park, FL

10/10/2011 4:55:26 AM

good artical

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

10/9/2011 11:46:04 PM

I'm glad my horses are out and about.

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