My horse has gone lame – what should I do?

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 –

What causes lameness in horses?

Signs of lameness are in most cases caused by pain originating from one of the limbs, but conditions affecting the neck, back or pelvis can also lead to gait changes.  The horse favors one limb in an attempt to take weight off an injured limb or to decrease stress in the neck or back.  As in people, lameness can be caused by a slight tweaking of a structure somewhere in a limb, which will resolve in a few days or might be a symptom of a more serious condition like a bowed tendon, arthritis, navicular disease etc..

How does one recognize lameness in either the front- or hindlimbs? 

image003The lame horse may be found resting the affected limb more than the other limbs.  She/he may show an abnormal stance or resent having the good (non-affected) limb picked up.  Your horse’s behavior may also change and she/he might become grumpier or less enthusiastic to exercise, especially when affected by a low-grade, but long-standing lameness.  At exercise, an obvious frontlimb lameness is recognized by the head dropping onto the non-affected frontlimb, short-striding, tripping  and stumbling at the walk and trot.  When a frontlimb lameness is mild or if it affects both frontlimbs concurrently, which is a frequent occurrence, a horse may only show a short-striding pottery frontlimb gait with occasional tripping.  These signs may be subtle, but it is vital for the owner and/or trainer to notice them and to have the horse assessed by a veterinarian experienced with lameness investigations.  Any delay in diagnosing and treating such conditions can seriously reduce your horse’s chances of making a full recovery.

An obvious hindlimb lameness is usually characterized by short-striding of the affected limb, a one-sided dropping or rising of the quarters, asymmetry behind etc..  More subtle hindlimb lameness signs to watch out for are frequent lead changes and a disunited action at the canter or even problems with lateral work etc..  Most frequently owners however report to me that their horse just simply does not feel right behind.  If you have a gut feeling that something has changed or is otherwise not right, call your vet to have your horse thoroughly checked out.


What to do if your horse has gone lame?

The first step is to stop all exercise, to prevent further injury.  Secondly, confine your horse to a box or small pen (size of a box) as soon as possible to prevent aggravation of the injury.  Turnout of a lame horse in a paddock or pasture is in my opinion contraindicated because horses will trot or even canter around despite injury.  Horses are flight animals with a survival strategy of pain suppression allowing them to get away from predators, even when injured.   Thirdly, whenever you get a chance, have a good feel of your horse’s limbs.  If you believe that your horse is lame in the near-fore, start by palpating the off-fore to familiarize yourself with how the normal limb should feel like.  This will then be followed up by a detailed palpation of the near-fore in a standing and non-weightbearing position.  Heat, swelling and a pain response are what you are looking for.

image004I recommend calling your vet if you should identify any of the above signs and especially if your horse is obviously lame at the walk.  If she/he is not or hardly lame at the walk, you can certainly consider keeping her/him confined for 1 – 2 weeks and watch carefully to see if the lameness improves.  However, a lameness investigation is definitely indicated if your horse’s lameness persists for longer than two weeks.

Low-dose pain killers can be used in lame horses on an as-needed-basis but you should always first consult with your own vet before giving your horse any medication.  Any administration of pain killers (like many other drugs given to horses) requires the owner to sign Section IX of their horse’s passport to confirm that their horse is not intended for human consumption.  Once Section IX has been signed by the owner, this decision cannot be reversed and the horse must not enter the food chain under any circumstances.  Pain killers should furthermore only be given in combination with strict confinement to a box or small pen.  These drugs are very effective at reducing pain levels and will make your horse feel so much better, that if turned out, there is a real risk that your horse’s injury will be aggravated by the uncontrolled exercise.  If you are expecting for a vet to come out anytime soon to examine your horse, I recommend not giving any pain killers and so avoid masking any pain or lameness.  This will allow your vet to assess the horse’s baseline lameness and investigate its cause(s).

View the second part in this series…….The Lameness Examination – What to expect?

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