Horse Care Tips

Ringbone Reality Check: What It Could Mean for Your Horse

horse ringbone
Written by Holly N.

Natural Treatments to Consider

Does a diagnosis of ringbone mean your horse is no longer fit to ride? Not necessarily. With the correct medication and farrier support, some horses can continue light work for years. Unfortunately, others experience such lameness and chronic pain that euthanasia is the only humane option.

Ringbone is a degenerative condition affecting the joints in the horse’s lower legs. It causes pain, inflammation, and lameness but, with the proper support and management, some horses recover sufficiently to return to ridden work. The earlier you diagnose and treat the symptoms of ringbone, the better your horse’s chances of recovery.

Ringbone: What is it?

Ringbone is a type of arthritis that affects both the coffin and pastern joints. Ringbone occurs when the cartilage in the affected joint is exposed to extreme stress. As the cartilage deteriorates, it triggers the body’s inflammatory response, causing swelling and discomfort. The body then develops scar tissue to protect the damaged cartilage, which then ossifies, fusing the joint.

Eventually, a ridge of bone forms around the affected joint, which is why the condition is known as ringbone.

Ringbone is a painful condition that begins with slight swelling and tenderness in the lower joints. It is, however, a degenerative disease that can cause the joint to fuse completely, impairing normal movement and causing persistent lameness and discomfort.

horse ringbone

Source: Horse Rookie

What are signs of ringbone in horses?

The early symptoms of ringbone are only visible through an MRI scan or radiograph, but as the condition develops, you may notice some swelling or tenderness in the affected area. Intermittent lameness usually follows, becoming increasingly severe and persistent as the condition worsens.

A short or choppy stride could also be an early sign of ringbone, while joint deformity may occur further down the line.

What is high ringbone vs. low ringbone?

There are two types of ringbone. High ringbone affects the joint between the long pastern and short pastern bones, while low ringtone occurs in the joint between the short pastern and coffin bones. In extreme cases, both types will be present.

horse ringbone

Source: Horse Rookie

What is false ringbone in horses?

False ringbone, also known as periarticular ringbone, is similar to ringbone but doesn’t occur within the joint itself. False ringbone also causes inflammation, heat, and lameness but involves the tendons and ligaments around the joint rather than the joint itself.

The symptoms of false ringbone are the same as those of true ringbone, and only a radiograph can confirm the diagnosis.

Causes of Ringbone in Horses

Some horses have a genetic predisposition to developing ringbone, but the condition has many possible causes, including:

  • Poor conformation or a conformation abnormality, such as pigeon toes, or crooked legs.
  • Strain and stress from athletic activity, such as jumping on hard ground.
  • High-speed exercise involving tight turns, such as barrel racing.
  • Prior injury to the affected joint, including fractures and penetrating wounds.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) – a disease that causes a malformation of the cartilage layer during a horse’s early years, creating a cycle of inflammation.

Infection and tumors can also trigger the condition.

Managing Ringbone: Outlook & Treatment

Ringbone is a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. A holistic, lifelong management program can slow its development and make your horse more comfortable. Many horses with ringbone survive happily for years with some recovering enough to be ridden again.

The best treatment plan for a horse suffering from ringbone addresses the inflammation and protects the cartilage surface.

It involves balancing the hoof to reduce stress on the joints, treating the inflammation, and complementary therapies, including physiotherapy, exercise management, and supplements.

horse ringbone

Source: Canva

Your vet will usually prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, such as phenylbutazone (bute), or firocoxib (Equioxx). Low-level exercise, in the form of turn-out time, helps decrease inflammation in the joint by stimulating the circulation.

Your farrier also can help by moving the breakover point back so that the foot comes off the ground faster, alleviating some of the pressure on the joint. Plastic shoes can help reduce concussion, easing the pain associated with ringbone.

Supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), and avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASU) can also assist by reducing inflammation, relieving pain, and encouraging the growth of healthy cartilage.

How long can a horse live with ringbone?

A horse can live for many years with ringbone once the site has healed. As the condition develops, the two bones in the joint grow together, forming a single unit. This process reduces the friction within the joint, allowing the inflammation and pain to ease.

Once the fusion is complete, your horse should be able to stand and move comfortably for many years to come.

When is ringbone considered to be severe?

Low ringbone is considered more severe than high ringbone. Low ringbone affects the joint between the coffin and short pastern bones, situated below the coronary band in the horse’s hoof.

Inflammation here causes debilitating pain and persistent lameness.

In extreme cases, the pain and associated lameness are so severe that the horse’s quality of life is diminished to the point that human euthanasia may be the only option.

Do horses with ringbone need shoes?

Supportive shoeing can help alleviate pressure on the joint. Open-heel shoes or bar shoes can be used together with pour-in pads to increase the weight-bearing surface area and reduce pressure on the hoof wall.

A horse with ringbone may also benefit from being barefoot and wearing hoof boots with concussion pads.

This approach encourages flexibility in the hoof capsule, which enables it to absorb shock more effectively, thereby reducing the pressure on the joint.

horse ringbone

Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What can you do for a horse with ringbone?

Consult with your veterinarian and farrier to create a holistic approach to supporting your horse. The best treatment protocols involve anti-inflammatories, supplements, low-level exercise, and corrective shoeing or hoof care.

You could also try experimental therapies like extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT).

Q: How do you treat low ringbone in horses?

The best treatment protocols can help ease the pain and inflammation associated with low ringbone, although this is often more severe and debilitating than high ringbone.

Another option is to have the coffin joint surgically fused which should “help make a horse pasture sound.”

Q: What are the best supplements for ringbone in horses?

The best supplements for ringbone are those that combat inflammation and improve joint health. Cosequin ASU contains glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), a combination that reduces the breakdown of cartilage and promotes joint health.

Absorbine Bute-Less pastes and pellets contain devil’s claw and yucca extract, both of which are natural anti-inflammatories.

Q: Should you buy a horse with ringbone?

You should only consider buying a horse with ringbone if you’re willing to commit to a long-term treatment plan. Over time, the joint should fuse, making life more comfortable for the horse.

It may even become rideable, but there’s no guarantee. A horse with high ringbone is more likely to return to ridden work than one suffering from low ringbone.

Q: How do you shoe a horse with ringbone?

There is no one-size-fits-all farrier solution to ringbone. Some horses benefit from being barefoot, others from wearing hoof boots with shock-absorbing pads.

Moving the breakover point further can help reduce the pressure on the joint, but may not be the answer in every instance. The best approach is to work with your farrier to create a tailor-made treatment program.

Q: Is ringbone common?

Ringbone is a relatively common diagnosis. This arthritic, degenerative disease affects all horses, regardless of age, discipline, or breed.

Parting Thoughts

There is no cure for ringbone, but therapies and supplements can treat the symptoms and make your horse’s life more comfortable during the fusion process.

Over time, the joint affected by ringbone starts to fuse, reducing the friction inside the joint. This is a natural process, after which the horse may be comfortable enough to be ridden. You can also opt to have the joint surgically fused to alleviate the pain and inflammation.

Ringbone is not a death sentence, and many horses go on to enjoy many more happy years in the company of their owners.

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About the author


Holly N.

Holly started riding as a six years old in the UK and competed regularly in local events, including showjumping, cross country, showing, working hunter, and gymkhana. She now lives and rides in South Africa, working as a trail guide with Wild Coast Horseback Adventures. Her interests are primarily in the areas of DIY horse ownership, trail riding, barefoot horses, endurance, competitive trail riding, and South African breeds.