Windgalls, or windpuffs, are a soft tissue condition that happens in the lower portion of the deep digital flexor tendon sheath. It’s considered a cosmetic condition as it doesn’t impair or otherwise affect the performance of a horse’s movement.
The terms windgalls and windpuffs will be used interchangeably, as both relate to the same thing. The condition can appear in two or all four legs and creates the appearance of puffy lower legs and fetlock joints.
The good news is that the appearance of windpuffs in horses doesn’t affect their ability to perform, although it can indicate that your horse needs a change in its routines, shoeing, or a reduction in its work schedule to prevent issues associated with windgalls such as arthritis and tendinitis. The condition doesn’t require regular management, although it’s possible to treat a case of windpuffs through medication and leg support.
Windpuffs in horses are just one of those things that happens to a working horse. It’s rarely painful, but it may annoy a horse owner to have a horse with legs that don’t look clean. Read on to learn more about windgalls in horses and how to care for a horse with chronically puffy tendons.
As always, the information in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice for your horse. You should always consult with your vet when treating your horse.
What are Windgalls in Horses?
Windgalls, or digital sheath tenosynovitis, is a common issue in horses and is seen in all four fetlock joints. Another way to describe the condition is “synovial effusion of the tendon sheath.” Windpuffs are the result of the collection of fluid in the superficial and deep digital flexor tendons that extend into the hoof capsule. The condition can cause mild soreness, especially if the horse has been standing in a stall for a long period of time, but it doesn’t affect the overall soundness of the horse.
On occasion, the condition is caused by pathologic damage to the tendons in the lower leg, but otherwise, the condition is idiopathic most of the time. (Idiopathic means an unknown cause, and pathologic refers to damage caused by disease.)
Horses are prone to developing windpuffs for a number of reasons. Horseowners don’t need to worry about their appearance unless the horse is lame and there’s heat in the leg.
In some cases, the tendon sheath will thicken and lose some of its elasticity. This results in the permanent appearance of windpuffs, and no amount of standing wraps or support boot use will resolve the issue. As long as your horse isn’t showing signs of lameness or discomfort, there’s nothing to worry about apart from the visual appearance of bumpy legs.
The swelling from windgalls tends to go down when your horse is in motion. You may notice them disappear after your horse has been in turnout or you’ve been riding them. The action of the leg pumps out the excess synovial fluid, causing a reduction in the appearance of windpuffs. However, they will return once your horse has been put away in its stall for a period of time.
What windgalls in horses are not is a bowed tendon. A bowed tendon has a different appearance along with the presentation of severe lameness after the injury has occurred. Your horse is sound as long as there is no heat or signs of lameness.
What do Windpuffs in Horses Look Like?
Windgalls range in size from small bumps in the rear of the lower leg tendons to puffy fetlock joints that make it look like your horse has a swollen ankle.
Preventing the Formation of Windgalls
Windgalls show up as a response to repeated overuse of the tendons. That is, a horse can overstretch its tendons in any type of activity it’s used for. The tendon sheath becomes inflamed as a result, and allows synovial fluid to pool. Your horse may be mildly lame for a few days after this type of injury, which is the equine equivalent of a sprained ankle.
It’s difficult to prevent windpuffs from forming, even when using support boots and ensuring your horse’s hoof has the best possible breakover line at the toe. All it takes is one bad step or a moment of overexertion to sprain the tendon, even in a support boot. About all you can do as a rider is to minimize the potential for an insult to the tendon and get on top of treating a sore tendon the moment your horse seems slightly lame.
How to Treat Windgalls
Treatment for windgalls, outside of their initial presentation, isn’t usually necessary. The issue resolves on its own with a little stall rest and light exercise, but it will never fully go away. However, you can make efforts to minimize their appearance and help your horse feel better if they seem to be acting sore from the condition.
There are options to treat the windpuffs, but they will never completely go away due to the nature of the injury. Once the tendon sheath has been expanded, it’s unlikely to contract, and gravity will pull synovial fluid into the area of expansion. Synovial fluid is a vital part of the operation of the tendon, and the horse’s body is designed to keep it supplied with the lubricant for its operation. Essentially, the expansion of the tendon sheath gives the horse’s body the ability to put more volume into the space.
If you want to reduce the appearance of windgalls, you can try using DMSO and putting standing wraps on your horse overnight. You can also add a chondroitin sulfate/glucosamine/hyaluronic acid supplement into your horse’s feed as these are building blocks of connective tissue and help with tendon lubricity. The main thing to understand with windgalls in horses is the fact that you cannot “sweat” out the inflammation as it’s inside the tendon and protected by the tendon sheath.
In the event you give your horse an antiinflammatory and the appearance of the windgalls goes down, you most likely have a more serious tendon injury on your hands. This is the point where getting a veterinary exam is a good idea to rule out a serious injury.
Veterinary lameness exam
The appearance of windgalls is alarming, especially because the appearance of puffiness in the joints is usually related to an injury of some type. The fact that windgalls can be a little warm to the touch when they first appear also increases the concern that there’s something wrong. This is the time to schedule a lameness exam with your vet to rule out an injury.
A lameness exam consists of the vet putting your horse through a series of tests and using imaging technology to look at the tendons in the leg. Your horse will go through a manual flexion test, be asked to walk and trot away, and then be examined with an ultrasound tool. The vet is looking for signs of injury to the tendons in order to determine a plan of treatment.
The ultrasound is the most definitive part of the exam, but it’s usually done after the flexion test. The physical manipulation of the legs helps the vet determine where they should focus their attention first. The ultrasound rules in or out the cause of the injury and informs the vet of the appropriate treatment.
The cause of a windpuff shows up clearly on the ultrasound because the tendon sheath bulges out in the affected area. Normally, a tendon sheath shows up as a mostly straight line on the ultrasound. The injury that relates to the windpuff causes the tendon to lose its straight appearance and look like a balloon or bump on the ultrasound. This visual confirms the diagnosis of a windpuff, and your vet will then inform you of what you can expect from your horse going forward.
Prognosis for a Horse with Windgalls
In most cases, the prognosis for a horse with windgalls is excellent. The horse may have a brief period of lameness after undergoing an incident that caused the tendon to hyperstretch, but once the tendon heals, the horse returns to its previous level of soundness. The appearance of windpuffs in horses is almost always cosmetic in nature, and is more likely to annoy the horse owner than it is to affect the horse’s way of moving.
Having said that, there’s always the possibility that the condition can be the result of a more serious injury. If you notice your horse favoring a leg with windgalls, check the leg for heat and inflammation. There may be a tear or other insult to the tendons in the area that needs further investigation and veterinary treatment. Your vet can ultrasound the affected leg to uncover the issue, and give you guidance on how to treat and care for the issue to return your horse to soundness.
Understanding the Difference Between Windgalls and Osselets
Osselets and windgalls in horses have a similar visual appearance in that they make the fetlock region look bumpy. Both are found on two or all four legs, and both are benign conditions that won’t cause soundness problems once the initial injury heals.
A horse can also have both conditions at the same time, as windpuffs can form from the same conditions that cause osselets. The main difference between the two conditions comes down to the fact that an osselet is a change in the bony structure of the fetlock, and a windgall is a change to the tendons that aid in the flexion of the lower leg and hoof.
In general, windpuffs in horses are nothing to be worried about. You can buy a horse with windpuffs and know that it’s not something that will affect its soundness or ability to perform. You also don’t have to worry about their appearance if they develop while you’re training and competing outside of a brief recovery period after the initial injury.
Windgalls are purely cosmetic in nature, and don’t require long-term treatment. The wisest course of action for a horse with windpuffs is to enjoy them, ride as you intend, and care for their health as needed.