Lameness is a broad terminology used to define a horse that is suffering restriction of movement, says Melbourne equine veterinarian Dr Ian Church.

Specifically, it is used to describe a change in a horse’s gait, usually as a result of pain in a limb.

It can however be the result of an ailment in any part of the horse’s body and may be related to a bone or soft tissue injury.

It can range from barely detectable to severe, it may be acute or chronic, persistent or intermittent.

What causes lameness in horses?

There are 16 basic causes of lameness which vets have conveniently configured into the acronym “DAMNIT”:

  • D: degenerative, developmental
  • A: allergic, autoimmune
  • M: metabolic, mechanical
  • N: neoplastic (tumours), nutritional
  • I: infectious, inflammatory, immune-mediated, ischemic (low-blood flow), iatrogenic (man-made), idiopathic (unknown)
  • T: traumatic, toxic

The most common triggers of lameness

Most horses will experience lameness at some stage in their lives.

The most common causes are:

Stone bruises – this occurs in both shod and unshod horses. Stones can bruise the sole resulting in bleeding. They may also lead to abscesses in the heel which can be extremely painful.

Trauma – lacerations, fractures, wounds and potential infections in any other part of a horse’s body may cause lameness.

Overloading – fractures, sprains and strains resulting from overwork.

Laminitis – also known as founder, laminitis is the inflammation of laminae of the hoof, the tissue between the hoof wall and coffin bone. It is more common in ponies and disrupts the flow of blood to the foot, resulting in separation of the laminae.

Arthritis – inflammation of joints which can strike younger horses as well as older and may be the result of trauma, infection or an auto-immune disorder.

Signs of lameness in horses

To be the best ally for your horse, you should understand the following to assist in the early detection of lameness.

Knowledge – read up on basic equine anatomy and remember, most lameness emanates from the legs.

Breed – focus specifically on your own breed, type, conformation and discipline knowing what may indicate lameness.

Conformation – there’s a relationship between form, function and lameness. Understand what to look out for.

Saddle – a horse that struggles under saddle or resists is trying to tell you something. Back soreness and stiffness are also pointers.

Precautions – Conditioning and fitness, nutrition, hoof care and equating conformation with a horse’s use will all help prevent injury and lameness.

How your equine veterinarian will identify lameness

Determining the source of lameness is not normally as simple as it may seem, based on how a horse moves.

Assessing and identifying the source can be quite the challenge and requires the implementation and marrying of a number of skills.

This involves an intimate knowledge of a horse’s anatomy as well as the particular horse’s medical history, its breed characteristics, conformation, biomechanics and an eagle eye to assess its gait when walking, trotting and cantering if it is able.

Successful diagnosis often requires a mix of experience and intuition as a vet evaluates all the telltale signs of injury from balance through to subtlety of movement.

There are also a number of tests which can be performed.

These range from hoof testers, measuring the sensitivity of the hoof capsule to nerve and joint blocks, ultrasounds and MRIs.

Quantifying lameness

Vets use a grading system with a five-point scale to quantify a horse’s degree of lameness.

The grades are:

0 – no detectable lameness 

1 – lameness difficult to identify and inconsistently apparent

2 – lameness difficult to detect when walking or trotting in a straight line but apparent in particular circumstances

3 – lameness apparent while trotting in all circumstances

4 – lameness apparent with an obvious head nod, hip hike or shortened stride.

5 – obvious lameness with a horse unable to bear weight either while in motion or at rest. 

How to treat lameness in horses

Treatments for lameness vary markedly depending on the diagnosis.

Some of the more common ones include:

Surgery – arthroscopy is used for many leg injuries which involves exploratory surgery in the joint with the use of a tiny camera.

Steroids – injections for inflammation to joints caused by arthritic pain.

Anti-inflammatories – to manage chronic pain in older or debilitated horses.

Complementary therapies – chiropractic, massage and acupuncture may sometimes be used in conjunction with other techniques.

Regenerative therapies – injections of stem cells, platelet rich plasma and pulsed extra-corporeal shockwave therapies are examples of newer methods which assist the horse’s body in healing itself.

Contact Newmarket Equine today

The cost of lameness in the equine industry runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

If you suspect your horse is lame, it is wise to call a professional equine veterinarian for proper assessment and diagnosis.

This will guard against further injury and discomfort for the horse as well as avoiding asking them to perform while they are under duress.

Lameness examinations are conducted on your property where our veterinarians can provide professional services in the horse’s own environment. 

The veterinarian can then design a treatment plan and provide further diagnostic tests should they be required.

Please contact the office for more information.

The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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