Stocking up in horses – what you can do!


Stocking up is the term equestrians use to describe the swelling on a horse’s lower legs. This leg swelling should not be confused with lymphangitis or cellulitis, as stocking up has a different mechanism and treatment plan. Stocking up in horses can morph the limbs into stovepipes. You may also hear this called stagnation edema, as a primary underlying cause is lack of movement that affects circulation.


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Signs of stocking up in horses


  • Stocking up is usually bilateral, meaning both legs are affected. Typically, this swelling won’t cause lameness.
  • Stocking up does not usually cause pain and heat. 
  • Check your horse’s temperature, too. Some diseases and conditions also cause stocking up, from an abscess to skin infection to rickettsial disease from ticks, to name a few. A fever can alert you and your vet to possible causes.


one hind leg slightly stocked up

This is a mild stocking up – the pastern area is puffier than the other hind leg.



Stangnation edema vs. cellulitis and lymphangitis


  • Stocking up is alleviated by walking to assist in lymphatic drainage and is a traffic flow problem.


  • Cellulitis and lymphangitis are dangerous, fast-spreading conditions usually caused by a bacterial infection. If you notice that your horse has a tiny scrape or injury, that is enough to cause major infection and swelling.


  • Cellulitis is an infection of the skin’s layers and tissue just below the surface. Lymphangitis is an infection of the vessels of the lymphatic vessels. Both appear the same regarding leg swelling and can affect one leg.


  • There is also usually heat, pain, lameness, and sometimes a fever with these two conditions.


Read more about cellulitis here, and more about lymphangitis here – complete with pictures.


Stocking up is more common in the hind legs, and is caused by lack of movement and the lymph system.


  • Your horse’s circulatory system is a series of vessels and the horse’s heart. The further away the vessels are in the lower limbs, the smaller the veins, arteries, and arterioles become. The capillaries are the smallest blood vessels and leak oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream into the surrounding cells. This is normal.


  • From there, any waste products not used by the cells are moved out of the tissues via the lymph system and lymph nodes. This sewer system is the lymphatic system and serves to flush wastes from the cells.


  • This is an uphill battle for the lymphatic vessels from the legs to the body, and gravity makes it harder. However, horses have muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, digital cushion mechanisms, and the like that can move the lymph fluid out of the legs when the horse is in motion. Pumping the lymph system is most difficult in the hind legs, which are very far from the heart.


  • When horses stand around in stalls, experience hot weather, have heart failure, or lack movement, their legs can suffer extreme swelling due to the pooling of lymph in their legs. As the fluid pools, the drainage will puff up into surrounding tissues. Gravity causes a bit of this too, but there’s nothing we can do about that part.


two horse friends in a foggy pasture

Move it or lose it!  Keep those horses chugging around.


Other things can contribute to swelling and fat horse legs.


  • Skin conditions and irritations can create a leg that looks like it’s stocking up but is really an inflammation due to infection, cellulitis, or something like that. Absolutely get your vet involved in these cases, as permanent damage can occur, and antibiotics and other medications are needed.


  • Scratches, mud fever, and equine pastern dermatitis can also create “stocked-up” legs. When a horse’s skin becomes infected, swelling occurs. This can be a local mild dermatitis or something more widespread that can lead to cellulitis.  


  • Horses that come into contact with black walnut trees or bedding can develop laminitis within an hour of contact. However, as the inflammation goes into the hoof, they will also have swollen legs from top to bottom, including the coronary band.



Treatment for stocking up – movement and more


  • The key to this entire system is movement and avoiding inactivity. And, as many of us know, movement is limited when a horse is stabled for part of the day or for some other reason.


  • Stocking up in horses is most common in older horses, but any horse can develop it. Keep your senior horses moving.


  • The best prevention is helping your horse enjoy movement and riding. Light exercise, turnout, and a daily routine that encourages your horse to roam about are best.


  • Sometimes corrective shoeing, like bar shoes, can provide frog support, which aids in circulation in the lower legs.


  • Many horses with chronically stocked up legs benefit from standing wraps while in a stall, traveling, or any other time movement is limited. Standing wraps are inappropriate for turnout; use a horse sock for those times.


  • Ice wraps or cold hosing can also be helpful.


  • Avoid topical medications like liniments and poultice until your vet can chime in. If it’s not stocking up and liniments are applied, it could make things worse.


standing wraps in red

Standing wraps like quilts or no-bows can be helpful. 


Generalizations about stocked-up horse legs


  • Horses are designed to move around for about 20 hours a day. Exercise, hand walking, turnout, pasture time, and general movement can alleviate stocking up in horses, often in 15 minutes or so, although this will vary from horse to horse.


  • You may also notice that your horse stocks up more easily in warmer weather.


  • Generally speaking, stocking up is not painful for your horse but can morph into secondary problems if it persists for long periods. Secondary skin infections can happen as the skin is stretched and compromised. You may also notice stiffness in your horse that accompanies stocking up.


Does stocking up affect a horse’s performance?


  • When a horse has swollen legs, circulation is compromised, and so is flexibility. Stiffness in the limbs can be uncomfortable, and your horse may feel funny under saddle. Many horses do well with hand walking and extra long warm-ups before exercise to alleviate any discomfort.


horse wearing silver whinny socks for horses

Silver Whinnys, from Sox for Horses, help with all sorts of dermatitis conditions. And you can use them for turn out or staying in.



When to call the vet – lameness or hoof problems are a concern


  • It’s a good idea to talk to your vet whenever you see swelling in your horse’s legs. It’s important to differentiate between stocking up and infections, and sometimes your vet needs to take a peek and perhaps do some bloodwork. A simple CBC looks for excessive white blood cells that indicate infection.


  • There may also be an associated wound, even a tiny one, that is the cause and needs cleaning and topical treatments.



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03/11/2024 02:59 pm GMT

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