How To Tell If your Horse Is Lame

“I think your horse is lame.” Eek! That’s the phrase that causes every horse owner to break out in a cold sweat and start trotting their pony up and down with half the yard looking on, sucking their teeth and casting their opinions! But, with a little bit of knowledge, you can learn how to spot lameness yourself and make some educated decisions around the next steps.

A recent research study showed that nearly half of general riding horses in full work were in fact lame when they were examined by a vet, whilst their owners thought they were sound!

The fact is, your horse doesn’t have to be actually limping to be lame – it can be much more subtle than that which is what makes it so tricky to tell if he is lame or not.

How can you tell?

The key is knowing your horse. If you find that there are some changes in his way of going, then consider lameness. For example, if he starts to prefer one rein over the other, if he starts to refuse to jump, if he doesn’t want to go forward, if he becomes difficult with the farrier, if he struggles with particular movements, especially those he has happily done before – all these are signs that there may be a problem.

What checks can you do?

Start with the feet

Most lameness starts in the foot. Take the horse out of the stable and stand him on a level surface. It may be something as simple as a stone wedged in the sole, frog groove or underneath the shoe. A loose shoe can also cause discomfort. Check for heat – if there’s an abcess in the foot, there is likely to be heat. If you suspect the horse is lame in his foot, it is a good idea to have the shoe removed so that the cause can be investigated further.

Move up the legs

If you cannot find anything in the horse’s feet, the next step is to start moving your hands up the legs feeling each one for any heat, swellings, or any areas that feel painful with gentle pressure applied from your hand.  Start with the coronary band and the heels and work your way up very carefully between the fetlock and the knee or hock, to help rule out any problems in the tendon or ligament area. The knee, elbow and shoulder in the foreleg, and the hock, stifle and hip in the hind leg will also need to be examined.

Walking/Trotting

Next, on a firm, level surface, walk your horse out in hand, and get someone to watch – or better yet, get them to do the leading and you watch.  Have him walk and trot away from you and then towards you in a straight line. If the lameness is not clear, also watch him on a circle ideally  on a lunge line – this will help you to spot any shortness in his stride and as its harder work for the horse than on a straight line, any lameness will show up more clearly.

What to look out for

If your horse is lame in the front leg,  watch for nodding of the horse’s head. As the sound leg bears weight, the horse’s head will go down and as the sore leg bears weight, the head will go up.

If your horse is lame behind, stand behind the horse and watch the point of the hip rise and fall. The hock and hip of the affected leg may be carried higher.

Another useful tip is to listen to the sound of the hooves as they hit the concrete – the horse will put less weight on the painful foot when he lands, so therefore it will sound quieter.

Next steps

If you can’t spot any lameness, then continue to monitor his condition and perhaps get your vet to give him the once over on his next visit. If you do think your horse is lame, contact your vet as soon as possible to organise a professional examination. With a bit of luck it won’t be anything serious, but don’t take any chances. Remember the old adage – no foot no horse!

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