A Cow-Hocked Filly

This photo shows her typical cow-hocked tripod stance before starting Vita Royal. This picture was taken in March, 2000.

By Kate Hester

“Must be the draft blood,” said my friends. “Cow hocks are typical of draft horses.” I heard several variations on this theme from people who looked at my Thoroughbred/English Shire filly, Chelan. My vet assured me, “She’ll grow out of it. Lots of foals look like their back legs are growing from the same spot.”

But, despite having two parents with good clean hind limbs, as Chelan grew, her cow hocks became more pronounced. As a three-year-old, she consistently displayed a decidedly unattractive tripod stance. Chelan’s stance was not a compensation for an injury, nor were the cow hocks genetic. They were “environmental cow hocks” – a result of exposure to environmental toxins, probably from the moment of conception.


Most environmental toxins enter the body through food and water. These toxic chemicals number in the millions, and are rapidly increasing each year. One of the most common pollutants is nitrate. Nitrate runoff results from the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and from manure and sewage, and industrial wastes.

Once released into the environment, nitrates are easily dissolved in water. The resulting acid water droplets can be carried long distances by prevailing winds, returning to earth as acid rain, snow or fog. The water can also evaporate, leaving the acid to be deposited “dry” in the form of nitrogen salts, causing the same damage as when dissolved in rain and snow. In this form, they can also do internal damage to plants as they are taken up from the soil. Nitrate is tasteless and odorless, and contaminates the bulk of ground and surface water supplies worldwide. The legal limit in the U.S. for human exposure from water supplies is 10mg/L, but there are no regulatory standards for livestock, and horses are far more susceptible to nitrate toxicity than are humans.


Nitrate is converted to nitrite by common bacteria in the stomachs of monogastric animals like humans and horses. Horses have an added exposure in that their cecums also harbor a very favorable environment for these bacteria as well. Thus, the horse converts a higher percentage of nitrites from nitrates ingested, resulting in even more toxicity from the same nitrate exposure deemed safe for humans. The human equivalent of the cecum is the appendix, which no longer functions well, limiting further exposure.

Nitrates and nitrites convert to nitric acid, which is itself a natural product of mammalian metabolism, but not nearly in the quantities generated by exposure to nitrate from polluted drinking waters. Thus, the body's natural detoxifying and recycling pathways become quickly overloaded. When tissues are unable to detox or purge a toxin from the body, the next line of defense is to dilute the toxin. The excess water retention results in inflammation.
Let's examine what happens when the body is chronically overloaded by just this one pollutant.


Nitrate enters the digestive system, converts to nitrite, associates with other chemicals and free radicals producing nitric acid, peroxynitrite and other compounds, and enters the bloodstream. Constant exposure to nitric acid damages blood vessel valves that control and regulate blood pressure causing chronically low blood pressure. Nitrates also compromise thyroid function, by binding to the amino acid tyrosine, the backbone of the thyroid molecule. Nitrated tyrosine can no longer manufacture thyroxine, precipitating hypothyroid manifestations. Herbicides also depress thyroid function by inhibiting manufacture of tyrosine in the body, providing a double whammy against thyroid production. Thyroid regulates the uptake and metabolism of calcium and magnesium, which are the body’s main acid neutralizers.

Damaged blood vessels and valves now cannot properly assimilate lymph returning to bloodstream and also "leak" fluid from blood, which excessively overloads lymphatics. Lymphatic ducts and nodes are also damaged by the acidity of the nitric acid compounds and leak into peripheral tissues causing obesity, lymphedema and lymphatic toxicity. The first overloading assaults often manifest as "hives,” whether the overload results from toxicity due to nitrate or another pollutant.

Since most initial assaults on a body are through the digestive tract, the inguinal nodes around the abdomen and groin are affected first. Leakage from this abdominal area pools under skin and between the bellies of muscles on the inside thigh area. Acid of all types causes muscles to shorten and cramp. Constant leakage of acidic compounds causes micro spasms of inner thigh muscles, causing soreness in the bellies of muscles and "burning" on palpation at muscle endings where ligaments attach muscles to bone. This is especially felt around the knee area on humans and stifle and hock area of a horse.

These constant spasms cause abnormal muscle balance on either side of the hind leg and over time the hind legs are drawn in together and twisted so that the toes point outward, developing "environmental cow hocks." With legs drawn in due to this muscle acidity, balance is now compromised as the two hind legs function more as one, and the front legs begin to splay out forming Nature's most stable mathematical position, a tripod stance.



 Some of the consequences of this "environmental cow hock" stance are the following:


  • changed physics of weight bearing forces on a body
  • altered movement patterns
  • stress from movement and weight bearing on muscles not designed to carry the burden of these incapacitated muscles
  • in humans, constant contractions and spasms, combined with adaptations for movement can angle the pelvic girdle to be wider at the top or hip and narrower at the bottom compromising birthing. Pelvic girdle changes may also affect horses as well.
  • changes in the rear end muscles, combined with possible
    alterations of the pelvic girdle, place more stress on the lower
    lumbar region and predispose this area to trauma from altered use,
    and arthritic changes of many types.
  • altered, compromised rear end function potentially causing hock and stifle problems. Weight bearing surfaces of joints are not bearing weight evenly, because of the abnormal angling of limbs.
  • altered rear end function affecting the rest of the body, too, causing
    stiff and sore back, inability to collect, unbalanced front end,
    shoulder, neck and head carriage problems too, as a horse attempts to
    compensate for what his rear end cannot do.

Since "everything is connected to everything else," environmental illness complications can also trigger responses that have been misinterpreted as behavior problems and bad attitude. Many training problems could be avoided by recognizing the presence of environmental illness. Misinterpretation of such symptoms as behavior or training problems can lead to inappropriate discipline of affected horses, resulting in further damage and real training problems.

"Environmental cow hocks" is not singularly caused by any one chemical pollutant, but is a combination of chemicals and their individual, yet similar effects. The focus on nitrates is because the problem has become so widespread as to touch us all - even organic farmers who tap into the same water supply as you and I. It rains on everyone!


The most effective method of changing “environmental cow hocks” as well as other symptoms of environmental illness is to eliminate the cause rather than to treat the symptom. Both the external living conditions of the horse and the internal physical environment of the horse may be altered to eliminate as many of the environmental toxins as possible.


This photo, taken in August, 2000 shows her improved stance after five months of the Vita Royal program.

When the body chemistry of the affected individual is restored, the result of the excess acidity – in the case of Chelan, muscle spasms resulting in cow hocks – will gradually disappear. This could be termed a biochemical myofascial release, resulting in improved structural balance and balanced movement.

In March of 2000, Chelan was put on the Vita Royal program for Environmental Illness, which is a comprehensive program of detoxification and nutritional restructuring designed to restore healthy body chemistry. With no other changes in her lifestyle or living conditions, her cow hocks gradually disappeared and her balance, both static and dynamic, improved dramatically. She was put on a maintenance diet and supplementation on July 24, 2000 with a beautiful hind stance.

However, as of September 1, her stance began to degenerate and the last symptom to disappear, which was her stance in confined quarters, was again in evidence. She was immediately put back on the Environmental Illness protocol and her stance is once again beautifully wide and square.

The fact that Chelan relapsed when taken off the Environmental Illness program demonstrates that the environmental toxins that probably created her cow hocks in the first place are still present in her environment.


The most important factor in the living conditions of the horse is the water supply. If possible, it is preferable for horses to drink water from sources that are processed for human consumption. Streams and rivers are often directly affected by runoff from agriculture and industry and even ponds and lakes are depositories for local runoff and secondary pollution from acid rain.

A simple inexpensive kit can be purchased to test for nitrates at www.nitrate.com. Although this is by no means a comprehensive water purity test, it does offer information regarding the most common pollutant. Charcoal filter systems are available at reasonable cost to additionally purify your water before pumping it into your horse tank. In an ideal world, we would all drink distilled water.

The next step for Chelan (which should have been the first action taken) will be to install a filter system to ensure a cleaner water source.

For more information:

Vita Royal Products, Inc.

4267 S. State Road

Davison, MI 48423

(810) 653-5478



About the author:

Kate Hester is a freelance equine journalist and lives with several horses, including Chelan, and many other assorted wonderful animals at Lazy Dog Farm. Visit www.users.kih.net/~lazydogfarm/ and http://albums.photopoint.com/j/AlbumIndex?u=252213&a=1874644 for more photos of her horses' progress.