Can I prevent my horse from becoming lame?

image001By Dr. Emmanuel Engeli, Med.Vet., DVM, Diplomate ECVS, Diplomate ACVS, MRCVS

European, American & Royal College of Vet. Surgeons Specialist in Equine Surgery

Consultant for Equine Orthopaedics


Lady Dane Veterinary Centre, Faversham –


We all know that being overweight is a significant problem in people and that it can contribute to or actually cause orthopaedic and medical problems. The same applies to horses and recent studies indicate that the majority of UK horses are, to a greater or lesser extent, overweight. If a horse carries more weight than necessary this will put undue stress on joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles and increases the risk of injury to these structures.

image003It has to make sense to keep horses lean and avoid overfeeding to achieve ‘show condition’. Most horses will do well on just good quality hay and grass (with any necessary supplements) and don’t actually need large amounts of hard feed to provide them with additional energy, unless work demands are high or the time available for eating is reduced.

Horses were made to live outside and some conditions can actually be prevented by turning them out as much as possible. This helps to keep your horse’s musculoskeletal system from seizing up when he/she is not working and contributes to the maintenance of fitness. 


Hoof Care, Shoeing & Vigilance


Keep your horse’s feet regularly trimmed and shod to prevent the toe from getting too long and to avoid other foot imbalances from developing. Foot imbalance is thought to be one of the main contributors to collateral ligament injuries of the coffin joint in horses, which is a debilitating condition. There is a considerable individual variation in hoof growth rates (slower in the winter and faster in the summer) and it is important to establish with your farrier the appropriate time interval between trimming visits for your horse. For most horses it will be necessary to have the hooves trimmed and reshod at least every 6 weeks, if not more frequently.

Observe your horse for any behavioral changes. Develop the habit of palpating your horse’s limbs carefully before and after exercise to detect the earliest signs of heat, swelling or pain that may signal the presence of an injury that could deteriorate with inappropriate exercise. I recommend calling your vet if you identify any of the above signs as he or she will be able to advise you on how best to proceed regarding rest or continued exercise.


Fitness & Planning

Always warm your horse up well for 10 to15 minutes at the walk before trotting, cantering or jumping; this will help to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. To avoid fatigue of bones and soft tissues and prevent your horse from getting bored and developing stereotypical behavior, I recommend varying the type of exercise that the horse is exposed to. Any increase in the type and level of exercise should be implemented very gradually to allow the bones and soft tissues to strengthen and fitten. In other words, avoid exposing your horse to a 2-hour sponsored ride if he or she is usually only ridden for 30 minutes every other day.

image005Consider human training for long-distance running.  Exercise should be carefully planned and an appropriate training program assembled in order not to push the body over the edge.

Joint Supplements

There is some scientific and anecdotal evidence to suggest that starting your middle-aged or older horse on a joint supplement containing Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulphate might improve his/her joint health. One has to keep in mind that the sector of equine feed supplements is unregulated and some of the products that are being sold might not actually contain what the labels claim. A recent North American study revealed that up to 40% of the 23 analysed joint supplements contained lower levels of the ingredients than was claimed on the labels. In order to save owners from wasting money on products that fail to provide their horse with therapeutically effective levels of Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulphate, I always recommend buying a product from a manufacturer who guarantees the source, purity and concentration of ingredients through sound, verifiable and independent quality control.

Annual Performance Reviews

To help owners form an objective assessment of their horse’s current physical condition, veterinary surgeons have started to offer Annual Performance Reviews to enable regular (more frequent when necessary) screening of horses for lameness, poor performance and underlying diseases. These examinations usually take place at the beginning or end of the most strenuous part of the horse’s year, from the beginning of November through to the end of March.

Performance reviews consist of a detailed evaluation of the horse for the presence of any lameness issues by a suitable team of veterinary surgeons, and a discussion of the significance and likely duration of any issues uncovered.  For instance, some older horses will be “a little stiff behind” but warm up within minutes and work quite satisfactorily and perfectly comfortably all day.  Conversely, subtle foot balance problems may be detected in the absence of lameness but intervention at this stage may help prevent career changing lameness later.

If required, blood samples can be collected to rule out certain muscle diseases and detect underlying medical conditions at an early stage in their development. If no abnormalities are uncovered, the samples taken from a healthy animal enable us to establish base-line values, which can then be used to provide a highly individual reference in the future should a horse become “under the weather” or sick in any way.

Some practices provide the option to have a professional rider assess the horse under saddle to give impartial assessments of a horse’s stage of training and ability.  Similarly, as an additional piece in the jigsaw, it may be possible to have the horse’s saddle fit assessed by a proficient saddler.  The use of the latest digital pressure mats help to measure the pressures exerted by the saddle and remove doubt from what can be a rather subjective analysis. Saddle fit can then be adjusted and optimized accordingly.

With a little luck and by following the above guidelines, we can have our horses fit, lean, equipped and ready for the tasks ahead.



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