Learn the Basics of Lameness in Horses
Watch a video of a flexion test and find out what horse owners should know about equine lameness.
Nancy Loving, DVM |
As your horse trots out to pasture to catch up with his equine buddies, you notice something
not quite right with how he is moving. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you are sure
you hadn’t noticed his peculiar trot before. Your mind is spinning as you grab a halter and
head out to retrieve him so you can take a closer look.
Where to Start
Once your horse is in hand, the first thing to do is check his feet for a rock or nail before
asking him for forced movement. Also, run your hand carefully down each leg to look and feel
for swelling, bumps, scabs or lacerations. If you don’t discover any foreign material in a
hoof or any obvious swelling or injury, then put him on a longeline or in a round pen. Move
him out at a trot, which is the best gait for evaluating if there is truly a problem and, if
so, to help identify which leg. You might want to observe him from outside the circle while a
friend does the longeing so you can watch closely for subtle clues.
It may not be as important to define which leg is lame as it is to determine if there is a
problem that would prompt you to call your vet.
Which Leg is Lame?
The trick to determining which leg is lame is to look at the overall picture of your horse’s
movement. It helps to do this periodically when he is sound so you have a visual memory to
compare to when there is a problem. Identification of lameness takes practice, and the more
horses you watch, the better you’ll get.
Do the shoulders swing evenly as he trots? Is the pelvic swing consistent and fluid from side
to side? Or, is there a shortening of his stride and/or a noticeable head bob?
On a straight line, watch him trot toward and away from you. His forelimb strides should look
even when trotting toward you. If he ducks his head or is obviously limping, then there is
clearly a problem. Typically, a horse will raise his head and shoulder when the lame front leg
strikes the ground.
From behind, do both hips rise evenly to the same height? If not, then typically the hip of
the lame leg will rise up higher (hip hike) as he tries to unload it more quickly. There are
exceptions to every rule when it comes to lameness, but these general tendencies give you a
starting point for evaluation.
What Causes Lameness?
Lameness comes in all forms, from acute (sudden and severe) onset to slowly progressing and
chronic. Abrupt injuries can happen when a horse simply takes a bad step or slips on wet
ground, or from a traumatic blow from another horse’s kick. Such injuries are often related
to soft tissue strain of a ligament or tendon, bruising of deep tissue or bone, or a
Hoof bruising or a hoof abscess often causes acute-onset lameness; in some cases, a horse may
appear to have a fracture, failing to put any weight on a throbbing foot. Laminitis is also
quite evident, as a horse stands with his front feet camped out, often shifting weight from
foot to foot. When asked to turn, a laminitic horse is reluctant to do so and turns with
More insidious problems develop due to degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis.
Lameness in these cases tends to come on slowly, perhaps escaping your notice until the
disease progression reaches the point of significantly painful joint degeneration. To improve
your horse’s outcome, it is always best to identify such problems early—this maximizes the
available therapeutic options.
When to Call Your Vet
The best approach to managing any lameness in your horse is to include your veterinarian
immediately. Early identification of a problem helps to avert a more serious progression of
an injury. It is best not to waste time troubleshooting for a variety of possibilities or to
mask a significant problem with anti-inflammatory medications. Instead, your knowledgeable
vet can zero in on the location of the injury by performing a thorough clinical exam with
useful diagnostic tools, like flexion tests, hoof testers, nerve blocks, and radiographs
(x-rays) or ultrasound.
Once an accurate diagnosis is achieved, appropriate remedies can be implemented. A team
effort with your veterinarian quickly gets your horse on the road to recovery, and you back
in the saddle.
Inside a Lameness Exam
Pre-Purchase Exam: Better Quality Assurance
Give us your opinion on
Learn the Basics of Lameness in Horses