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Pains, Sprains and Other Curious Names

Some of the names given to common blemishes and limb ailments our horses acquire due to wear and tear, conformation faults and/or hereditary misfortune are odd, as is everything in the horse world.

We learned these names as children in Pony Club and just rolled with it because that’s what the bible of horsemanship said it was called. But we are never told why these conditions were given such curious names. 

Today, all shall be revealed. Well, at least regarding the hock area.


This is a term we don’t hear too frequently, but if you’ve been around horses long enough you’ll hear it and wonder what the dickens it is. My friend brought it up the other day in reference to one of the horses at her barn and I immediately wrote it down. Perfect, I thought, something to delve into.

Searching for the meaning was simple. Stringhalt or equine reflex hypertonia is a neuromuscular condition affecting the horse’s hind legs. This affliction often makes the horse look herky-jerky in nature, since one or both limbs seem to move in an exaggerated and involuntarily upward direction sometimes kicking themselves in the belly. This occurs most frequently at the walk but tends to diminish at the trot and all but disappears in the canter. 

Though this is considered an unsoundness it isn’t generally painful, and most horses can remain in work.

But where does the name come from? My first thought was that it was given the name because it looks as though a horse’s hind legs are controlled by strings like a marionette and since the horse might stop moving, we get the halt. That’s a ridiculous notion, of course. 

Trying to find the source of the name is easier said than done. So, I broke the word into two obvious parts, string and halt

As per usual I was surprised. Way back in the day when people spoke Old English, string meant tendons and/or ligaments. We still see it today in the word hamstring. Upon further investigation, a hamstring in a human is made up of five tendons behind the knee. On a horse or other four-legged animals, the hamstring is above and behind the hock. 

The halt portion of stringhalt has nothing to do with the act of halting. In Old English “halt” was their way of saying lame or walking with a limp. 

Also, just for the sake of interest, in Old English hamm meant hollow or bend of the knee and eventually came to mean hock of a quadruped.  

And now the word stringhalt doesn’t seem so weird, does it?


Spavin is a strange word because it means both a bony enlargement and a soft swelling of a horse’s hocks. They are opposite things but with the same name, so to clarify we have simply added the words bone and bog to help us understand which one we are talking about. 

Bone spavin – bony enlargement on the lower aspect of the inside of the hock.

Bog Spavin – a soft swelling to the front of the inner side of the hock. So-called bog, I assume, because it’s soft and spongy like boggy ground.

Interestingly we have the word spavined as well, meaning old, decrepit or broken down. An old retired lumpy and bumpy horse could be called spavined, the same holds true for us I’m afraid. “Betty Sue and her spavined friends are going for a walk, albeit a slow one.”


The other week I wrote A Bit About Bits and spoke about the curb, and I guess because I was focused on the mouth rather than the hocks I forgot that horses can have a curb on their hock(s). 

A curb in this case is a sprained ligament below the point of the hock which then appears bowed. I’m going to go ahead and quote myself here and say, “[i]n reference to horses, the word has been around since the 1500s and comes from Old French courbe, which [means] to bend or curve.” And since a curb looks bowed, I feel safe in saying that’s why it’s called a curb and has nothing whatsoever to do with a bit or a sidewalk. 


Another strange name for yet another calamity of the hock. A thoroughpin is a soft swelling in front of the point of the hock which sometimes can be pushed from one side to the other. 

Once again, I was forced to break the word into two obvious parts, thorough and pin

We are taking it back to Old English once again, circa 1300s, when the word thorough was spelt thurh which is a variant of through, and meant “from end to end, from side to side.” And if we think in terms of a thoroughpin, which can sometimes be pushed through from side-to-side things start to make a little bit of sense. Though I do feel like I am guessing at this. 

Pin is, unsurprisingly, also an Old English word and apart from all the definitions we know of, it also means a projection or point. Since a thoroughpin is a blemish that sticks out and is easily spotted, I think we can deduce that is how we got the long name of thoroughpin. 

And that… is all I know. For now. 

Sources ; ; ;; Penguin Dictionary 2007. Spavin (Pg. 855); Penguin Dictionary 2007. Halt (Pg. 398); The Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship 1976. Bone and bog spavin, curb, thoroughpin (Pg. 238)

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