What is Lameness in Horses?
Lameness is an abnormality of your horse’s gait or stance. The most common cause is pain within joints, bones, tendons, ligaments, or muscles. This pain then leads to an abnormal walk, trot, or canter.
What are the Signs that Your Horse has Lameness?
Lameness can range from being mild to severe. With mild lameness, you may not see the gait abnormality but may only feel that something is ‘off’ when riding. You may also notice a change in performance, behavior, or attitude. In cases of severe lameness, your horse may be unable to bear any weight on its leg or may hold the leg in front of other limbs. As soon as you start to notice any signs of lameness, it is important to have the condition evaluated.
What Tests are Required?
If your horse begins showing signs of lameness, you should contact your veterinarian immediately to have your horse evaluated. Lameness exams can range from simple to extensive, and your veterinarian may need to do some (or all) of the following to diagnose the issue:
- History: Your veterinarian will likely ask questions about what you use your horse for, as certain lameness issues can be associated with certain types of activity (i.e. dressage). They may also ask if your horse has had any lameness or health problems in the past.
- Physical Exam: Your veterinarian will perform a full body examination (including hooves) to check for heat, pain, or swelling.
- Lameness Exam: This part of the exam consists of your horse being evaluated at various gaits and on different surfaces (hard, soft) to determine which limb is affected and the severity of lameness.
- Flexion Tests: This test is helpful to provide additional information, especially if lameness in your horse is subtle. The veterinarian will bend or “flex” your horse’s joint for a period of time and then your horse will be trotted immediately after to evaluate for any increase in lameness.
- Nerve or Joint Blocks: A local anesthetic is injected around your horse’s nerves or directly inside of a joint to desensitize certain areas of your horse’s limb. Afterwards, the horse will be evaluated again for signs of lameness. If there is any improvement after the nerves or joint are desensitized, then it is determined that lameness is likely originating from that area.
- Diagnostic Imaging: Once the veterinarian is able to determine the specific area of the limb causing lameness, an imaging test is typically recommended as a next step. Depending on the body part responsible for your horse’s lameness, your veterinarian may recommend the following: radiographs, ultrasound, bone scan, CT/CAT (computed tomography/computerized axial tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Treatment options vary widely depending on the cause for lameness. A common treatment for lameness involves joint injections and medication to decrease inflammation and pain. However, other lameness conditions may require rest, rehabilitation, specific shoeing recommendations, or even surgery. If surgery is required to treat your horse’s lameness, your veterinarian may choose to consult an ACVS board-certified veterinary surgeon.
What to Expect After Treatment:
Aftercare and outcome varies widely depending on the cause for lameness and the treatment administered.