The stifle. It’s the largest and one of the most complex joints in the horse’s body. It’s also key to smooth locomotion, transferring energy seamlessly from the large hind-end muscles to the long, delicate lower-limb bones. The stifle helps propel horses across turf, over obstacles, and around tight corners. Not surprisingly, with such huge forces centered on two bones cushioned by two small cartilaginous discs, injury to the stifle generally has a profound negative impact on performance.
“Stifle injuries account for a substantial number of injuries in sport horses,” says David Frisbie, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, professor of equine surgery at Colorado State University’s (CSU) Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, in Fort Collins. Although the exact prevalence of stifle injuries remains unknown, Frisbie estimates that approximately 40% of sport horse injuries can be associated with the stifle.
Chris Kawcak, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, a professor of orthopedics also at CSU, agrees that stifle injuries are a risk for any athletic horse but adds that they’re more prevalent in some disciplines than others. Veterinarians typically see them more frequently in Western performance horses, for instance, than in adult Thoroughbred racehorses.
While the stifle joint’s repetitive forward and backward motion during racing, or any high-speed work, can cause injury, “it’s the lateral-to-medial rotational movements of Western performance horses that tend to put significant stress on the soft tissue and cartilage in the joints,” Kawcak says—in other words, the quick side-to-side movements of spinning, cutting, and running barrels.
Regardless of breed and discipline, joint anatomy remains the same, and how veterinarians diagnose and treat common stifle injuries is transferable. In this article we’ll review stifle anatomy briefly and describe injury diagnosis. And while developmental orthopedic disorders also can result in stifle injury, they have a different cause and are diagnosed and treated differently, so we’ll skip them in this discussion. We’ll also describe the newest methods of treating common stifle injuries.
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