Icelandic Horse Connection

Spavin and Icelandic Horses

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One of the more common problems seen in the hock that can significantly interfere with a horse's future soundness is Degenerative Joint Disease, commonly known as Spavin.

Spavin affects some Icelandic Horses. We understand that a veterinarian in Denmark has been attempting to find the cause of spavin in Icelandic Horses. We have seen it "dismissed" as not-an-issue when an exporter is attempting to sell a horse with spavin (or shadows on the hock x-rays). But if the buyer wants to re-sell the horse here in the US, it's worth has declined dramatically.

In an article in Eidfaxi magazine, Issue 4, 1997, entitled "Spavin is a Serious Problem in Icelandic Horses", the following was gleaned:

About 50% of the riding horses in Iceland, aged six to twelve years, reacted to the flexion test or showed some changes in x-rays.

The author indicated that their research showed the spavin was not caused by overuse or conformation flaws as previously thought. It would be very interesting to know how this conclusion was reached. The research done also showed that horses with higher action had no more spavin than the general numbers.

It was indicated in the study that spavin was most likely inherited. An abstract of a study in regard to spavin and Icelandic Horses is quoted below*.

Horses with negative responses to flexions texts should not be considered saleable horses.

The article supports the seriousness of lameness due to spavin, and the fact that Icelandic Horses appear to have more spavin than trotting breeds.

If the problem is genetic, is that being addressed by the Icelandic Horse community?

With the conformation of the first prized horses, it appears that the leg conformation that leans towards spavin is being rewarded. Is this a good thing to do, knowing the problems it causes?

Or do egos, ribbons, and wins take precedence over the breeding for good conformation and good using horses? Spavin is characterised by ossification (the bony enlargement of the bones) of the joint making up the hock joint, the end result being a stiffening of this joint.

Bone spavin is a form of arthritis and causes inflammation, swelling, and lameness. Spavin can be caused by faulty conformation, strain, or excessive concussion. The causitive factors may also range from sport related stress such as with trotting race horses, horses forced into extreme ventroflexion, to overworking a carthorse. Treatments range from rest, corrective shoeing, the application of blistering ointment, to surgery.

The following are some excerpts regarding hock damage from experts in their fields. This may help solve the problem of spavin with Icelandic Horses:

  • Joyce C. Harman, DVM MRCVS

    "As the horse's back becomes hollow or stiff, his hind legs cannot engage properly, and the front feet tend to hit the ground heel first. Essentially the horse is in a "parked out" position similar to that of a gaited horse. This parked-out stance is an exaggerated example of how a horse with a hollow back looks and moves. Unnatural strain is placed on the stifles and hocks creating lameness or soreness..."

  • Liz Graves, gaited horse judge, trainer, clinician:

    "It is our job to know when a horse is naturally ventroflexed and should have a regular maintenance program to keep them strong and not over stressed to perform their desired gait efficiently and correctly. It is also our responsibility to know when we the riders are forcing a horse to be more ventroflexed than necessary or to know when a horse is being asked to ventroflex but is not meant to do so structurally.

    At some point, with age and/or suspicion of stress over time one should be aware of hock stress. X-rays in later years can help to see at what point a horse may need special supplements to help possible bone friction or loss of joint lubrication which can be common of those horse that are over or improperly used. It is my experience to see some arthritic development in horses even as young as 4 due to what is being asked of them at an early age."

  • Dr. Robert Baird:

    "Horses under saddle frequently develop thickening of the spines of T18 and L1, the two vertebrae which comprise the thoraco-lumbar joint (Figure 2). This thickening may result in back pain and leg lameness. Impulsion is the action of driving the basculed body forward with the propulsive muscles of the hindquarters, not the hocks. A horse without a bascule is a horse without impulsion. A horse without impulsion is grossly inefficient, and is prone to injury and premature unsoundness."

  • Rose Miller, TWH:

    "We also need to look at the pelvic slope. It should be moderately sloped, not tending toward flat, or the horse will 'leave his hocks behind' as he travels. High hocks predispose the horse to "travel downhill" especially if they are quite a bit higher than his knees and he will have trouble getting his hocks up under himself."

  • Lee Ziegler, gaited horse judge, trainer, clinician:

    "Camped-out hind legs. A horse with hocks that fall considerably behind the plumb with his buttocks will have trouble flexing at the joints, stepping under his body, and attaining a round position."

  • From Washington State University, Horse Conformation Analysis:

    "Deviations of Hindleg Conformation: Post Leg--Post leg is upright, which causes concussion in hock, predisposing stifle problems and bone spavins. Pounding breaks down the lubricating fluid in the hock."

  • From Principles of Conformation Analysis:

    "Long boned hind limbs: The downside of this construction is that if the hind limb is too crooked--especially at the hock joint--curbs and spavins are likely, and engagement of the hindquarter becomes difficult for the horse."

  • Carla Huston BES, Body Type and Proper Movement:

    "In the hindlimb a common fault is cow-hocks. The horse stands base-narrow to the hock and base-wide from the hock to the feet. The hocks point toward one another, and the feet are widely separated. Along with being a common conformation defect it is also one of the worst. There is excessive stress on the inside of the hock joint and many times bone spavin is a result."

  • Susan Harris, Horse Gaits, Balance, and Movement:

    "Cow hocks and bowed hocks are weaker than normal hocks and rotate as the horse moves; this causes grinding stress to the bones of the hock and may lead to hock ailments such as spavin."

  • Sara Wyche, Understanding the Horse's Back: (under construction)

*Abstract: Age-at-onset of bone spavin (BS) in horses was defined as a double-censored survival variable. A small material of binary responses to a radiographic examination of the distal tarsus in 439 Icelandic horses sired by 17 stallions was analysed. In order to test different models larger simulated data were generated according to an exponential proportional hazard model and subject to censoring. The resulting survivor functions were similar. The bias in survivor functions caused by double censoring in the material was reduced by use of the self-consistency (S-C) algorithm. Using a binary threshold model and the Weibull regression model, an analysis of age-at-onset of spavin resulted in severe underestimation of sire variance components in the simulated data. Survival analysis with model led to less biased estimates. Application of this method on the real data resulted in an effective heritability estimate of h2=0.33, which can be compared with an estimate of h2=0.1 based on an analysis of radiographic signs (RS) using the binary threshold model. These results indicate that the age-at-onset of RS, which reflect the predisposition of BS, is a trait with medium-high heritability.


Back in June, there was a conference in Iceland to talk about the diseases of the Icelandic Horse.

Spavin was a large portion of the meeting.

As previously mentioned in the Spavin Study, 23 skeletons from a thousand years ago were found and 7 of them had spavin. That's consistant with the current heredity figure of spavin at 33%.

There was a discussion about the lack of official reports and statistics in Iceland about spavin.

A vet from Sweden put forth the information that spavin is three times more common in Icelandic Horses than in other horse breeds. The information came from a vet who works at the animal research institute, who has access to information about all equine breeds in that country.

Discussion included medications (not helpful) and surgery for spavin (not feasible).

The interesting thing is that Holland has gotten spavin under control, almost eradicating it within a 20 year time frame, by not allowing stallions showing spavin to have a breeding license.

The head vet of Iceland suggests that all stallions be x-rayed; the breeding advisor takes that a step further by including mares also. He says the problem is money and resistance by the breeders.

Conclusions of the conference about spavin is that it can be controlled and that only Iceland has not addressed the issue.


Bone Diseases of the Saga Horse - A 1000 Years Old Story
S. Bj÷rnsdˇttir , E. J÷rundsson and L. Arnadˇttir

The Icelandic horse has evolved as an isolated breed since the settlement of the country in the 8th and 9th centuries. Bones from some of the first horses that were brought to the country, the Saga -horse, have been found in graves documented to originate from heathen times, i.e. before year 1000. The bones are preserved at the National Museum of Iceland.

The aim of the present study was to register all bones from horses that are preserved from heathen graves in Iceland, measure the variation in the bone conformation, study bone diseases and to prepare a more extensive research project on the origin of the Icelandic horse in collaboration with museums and scientific institutions in other countries.

Preliminary results: Bones from 23 of the best preserved graves have been registered. Obvious signs of diseases were seen in bones from 10 horses. Seven horses had bone spavin. Two of them had also osteoarthrosis (OA) in the lumbar vertebrae, one had OA in the lumbar vertebrae and ossifying spondylosis in the thoracic vertebrae, and two of the horses with spavin also had splints. Two other horses had splints and in one horse OA was found in both lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. The age of the horses, at death, has not yet been determined but hopefully it will be possible as some teeth are preserved in many cases.

Bone spavin and splints are common diseases in the Icelandic horse today although the latter condition is less studied and documented. It is, however, an interesting observation that both diseases were also common in Icelandic horses 1000 years ago when the use of the horses for riding and many other environmental factors were very different from now. The serious changes found in the spinal vertebrae were unexpected and raise questions about the condition of the vertebrae in the horses nowadays.


Culling rate of Icelandic horses due to bone spavin.
Bjornsdottir S, Arnason T, Lord P.

Holar Agricultural College, Saudarkrokur, Iceland. systa@holar.is

A survival analysis was used to compare the culling rate of Icelandic horses due to the presence of radiographic and clinical signs of bone spavin. A follow-up study of 508 horses from a survey five years earlier was performed. In the original survey 46% of the horses had radiographic signs of bone spavin (RS) and/or lameness after flexion test of the tarsus. The horse owners were interviewed by telephone. The owners were asked if the horses were still used for riding and if not, they were regarded as culled. The owners were then asked when and why the horses were culled. During the 5 years, 98 horses had been culled, 151 had been withdrawn (sold or selected for breeding) and 259 were still used for riding. Hind limb lameness (HLL) was the most common reason for culling (n = 42). The rate of culling was low up to the age of 11 years, when it rose to 0.05 for horses with RS. The risk ratio for culling was twice as high for horses with RS compared with horses without RS and 5.5 times higher for culling because of HLL. The risk of culling (prognostic value) was highest for the combination of RS with lameness after flexion test, next highest for RS and lowest for lameness after flexion test as the only finding. It was concluded that bone spavin affects the duration of use of Icelandic horses and is the most common cause of culling due to disease of riding horses in the age range of 7-17 years.

Links to Tables in the study:

[] Distribution of causes of culling of 98 Icelandic horses [click here]

[] Survival table for Icelandic riding horses, distributed by age and RS [click here]

[] Survival table for Icelandic riding horses, distributed by age and lameness after flexion test [click here]

[] Survival table, regarding to culling because of HLL, for Icelandic riding horses, distributed by age and RS[click here]

[] Survival table, regarding to culling because of HLL, for Icelandic riding horses, distributed by age and lameness after flexion test. [click here]


Perhaps the problem may be nutrition?

It seems that we do not have as much spavin in domestic Icelandic Horses in the US, altho no studies have been performed.
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