Lameness in Horses

By Jill Firth PG Dip(AM) CertEd

As part of good horse care and keeping horses in good health, recognising the early signs of lameness usually ensures a speedy recovery. This is an introduction to lameness in horses, the signs and symptoms and how to tell which leg is affected. It also gives information on how to consider a differential diagnosis, for example whether the lameness could be attributed to back problems in horses.

Unfortunately lameness in horses is part and parcel of horse ownership, at some point in the horse’s life he or she will, most probably, be lame. As part of good horse care, horse owners and riders should familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of equine lameness and be able to decide whether the lameness is likely to be hoof or leg related, or could be attributed to the horse’s back.

Any lame horse should always be seen by a Veterinary Surgeon in the first instance, as some limb lamenesses can manifest themselves as a back problem and vice versa. Although the attending Veterinary Surgeon should consider all the signs and symptoms, diagnose the problem and prescribe the correct treatment, the horse owner should know when the horse is lame, however slightly, so as not to make matters worse by keeping the horse in work.

Signs and Symptoms

Obvious signs and symptoms of lameness include wounds, tendon and ligament injuries, heat and swelling or other noticeable injuries to a leg or hoof which will make the horse lame. However sometimes the horse is only slightly lame and it is not easy to tell which leg is affected. In this case you have to look for signs which may be quite subtle.

When a horse is lame in a front leg or a front foot, the following signs may be seen:

  • The horse will be reluctant to put its weight on the lame leg.
  • On moving, the horse will raise its head as it puts the lame leg to the ground in order to keep as much weight as possible off this leg.
  • When it puts the sound leg to the ground it will put extra weight on it and drop its head down as a result.
  • This will be more evident when the horse is trotting and may vary from a slight head nod to a pronounced movement up and down of the head and neck.
  • So if a horse nods its head when the right foreleg hits the ground it will probably be lame in the left foreleg.
  • The horse may take a slightly shorter stride with one foreleg.
  • The horse may not place a front foot normally.

When a horse is lame in a hind leg or hind foot the following signs may be seen:

  • The horse may rest the lame leg and not want to take the weight onto it.
  • When watched from behind, particularly in trot, the horse will raise the hip of the lame leg higher than the hip of the sound leg.
  • The horse’s hip will appear to dip when the sound leg hits the ground.
  • The horse may take a shorter stride with one hind leg.
  • Limb or foot placement may not be normal.
  • The horse may catch or drag a hind toe.

Hind limb lameness is more difficult to see so an additional test may be required, such as:

  • Turning the horse in tight circles to both the left and the right will show whether the horse is reluctant to take his weight on a particular hind leg.

Differential diagnosis

It is said that a large proportion of all equine lameness is in the foot. Indeed most Vets will start at the hooves and work their way up the leg when investigating any lameness in horses.

However, when the most pronounced symptom is a shortening of the stride length with one foreleg it is not easy to tell whether the lameness is lower leg or not, and, horse owners often mistakenly believe this to be shoulder lameness. In the absence of a head nod, and particularly when riding, a shortened stride can feel like the shoulder is stiff and not swinging forwards freely. But, shoulder lameness in horses is quite rare so the hoof and leg should always be investigated first.

When it comes to hind legs it is even harder to tell as four legged animals are very good at disguising hind limb lameness.

The “hip hike” or dropping of one hip is almost always confused with a back or pelvic problem, as is a shortened stride or dragging of the hind toes. But these symptoms can equally be attributed to problems in the hock, stifle, hind suspensory ligaments and others structures, as well as being related to the horse’s back. So the first port of call should always be your Vet.

As a very general rule of thumb, a back problem usually causes an alteration in gait patterns or stride length, or a behavioural or equitation problem rather than a limp – however slight. If your horse is limping or head nodding it is probably hoof or leg related.

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