Lameness in your equine partner

When it comes to lameness in your horse, you need to know what to watch out for. Here are some tips for developing your eye.

Lameness in horses can range from extremely subtle to very dramatic. It’s important to realize that not all gait abnormalities are caused by lameness, which arises due to pain. Some gait abnormalities result from a horse’s conformation while others are associated with certain neurologic conditions. In this article, we’re going to focus on steps you can take to improve your evaluation of lameness in your horse.

Begin by asking yourself a few questions

  1. When did the lameness start?
  2. Is the lameness consistent?
  3. Are there any areas of obvious heat, pain or swelling?
  4. At what gaits is the lameness observed?
  5. Do different riders influence the lameness?

Put your eyes to work

Once you have asked yourself some basic questions about your horse’s lameness, it’s time to put your eyes to work. The key to developing a good eye is to be thorough and consistent.

  • Start with the horse standing squarely on flat, level ground and observe him from the front, the rear and both sides. Compare each side of the horse and note any asymmetries in muscle tone and development. Also note any large conformation flaws. For example, a horse whose front limbs are toed-in will exhibit a “paddling” motion when trotting; it is essential to know that this is not a lameness.
  • Next, you will need a suitable ground surface to evaluate the horse while he’s moving. Find a firm, level, straight, non-slippery area where the horse can be walked and trotted in a straight line for ten to 15 strides. Keep in mind that a barefoot horse may be sore when trotting on rocky surfaces if his feet are not used to such conditions.

Properly handling the horse is also important. The handler should be comfortable with the horse and should not hold the lead too tightly; this can restrict the horse’s head movements and influence his gait.

Have the horse walk in a straight line away from you, turn, and walk straight back. Watch and listen for a consistent rhythm. A sore leg will generally strike the ground more lightly while the opposite limb hits harder. Pay attention to how the horse turns. Generally, a sound horse will turn without hesitation, and the entire turn should be fluid. Observe whether the front end and hindquarters follow the same lines. In some hind-end lamenesses, the hindquarters will be shifted to one side or another. Walk the horse up and down the area until you are comfortable with any noteworthy gait abnormalities.

  • After observing the horse at a walk, repeat the same sequence at a trot. The horse should move out promptly and be forward. Even a horse that is normally ridden at a slow pace should be asked to move briskly to best observe any lameness.

Trotting is the typical gait where a head bob may be seen. A horse is said to be “head-bobbing lame” when his head moves up and down in sequence with the footfalls of the front limbs. The head will lower when weight is placed on the sound (or less painful) limb. When weight is being placed on the painful front limb, the head will go up. Moving the head upwards allows the horse to transfer more weight off the sore front leg.

A horse is said to be “head-bobbing lame” when his head moves up and down in sequence with the footfalls of the front limbs.

Some front-end abnormalities will be more subtle and the horse may not display a head bob at all. It can also be helpful to not only observe the moving horse from directly behind or in front, but also from the side. It may take several repetitions of trotting to decide which leg is abnormal.

  • Hind-end lamenesses are best seen while watching the horse move directly away from you. Watch the movement of his hips. You may have heard of terms like “hip hike” or “hip drop”; however, the total amount of vertical movement in each hip is the most significant factor. The lame leg will have more total vertical motion compared to the sound leg.

Try focusing on the point of the hip, and compare left and right. Some horses have more natural hip movement than others, so it is important to compare each side to the other in the same horse, and not one horse to another.

When viewed from the side, a lame hind leg may also appear to move more quickly or have a shorter stride as the horse tries to reduce the duration and degree of weight bearing.

Another area to watch is the fetlock, in both the front and hind legs. A lame leg will show less dropping of the fetlock (fetlock extension) compared to the sound leg.

  • After watching the horse move in a straight line at the walk and trot, you may also want to try lunging. Some lamenesses will show up more on a circle than a straight line. Depending on the condition, a lameness may seem worse going one direction versus another, thus it is important to note if there is a discrepancy in the degree of lameness circling to the left versus right. In most cases, gait abnormalities are best seen at the trot because the trot is an even two-beat gait.

However, sometimes the canter can be worthwhile watching as well. Canter is best observed on the lunge line, and again, you will be watching for an evenness between the two sides as well as equal weight bearing. The horse should be encouraged to move forward in a true three-beat canter.

Attention should also be paid to how the horse transitions between the trot and canter. A lame horse may display abrupt or rough transitions when figuring out how to best unload the painful leg. Again, the handler plays a crucial role here. The horse should be allowed to transition naturally, ideally with voice cues, rather than with pulls on the lunge line.

A lame horse may display abrupt or rough transitions when figuring out how to best unload the painful leg.

As the observer, place yourself outside the lunging circle. It is harder to watch if you are having to turn yourself at the same time.

  • In some circumstances, it is beneficial to watch the horse under saddle as well. Some abnormalities will be more exaggerated with a rider on board, or while performing certain movements.

Evaluating gait abnormalities takes patience and practice. Stick with a step-wise approach and you will be well on your way to developing an eye for lameness in your equine partner.