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Understanding Lameness in Horses: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Understanding Lameness in Horses: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Many horses will experience a condition known as lameness that affects their ability to move around comfortably. Today, our Versailles equine vets discuss the types of lameness in horses, the symptoms and how equine lameness is treated.

What is Lameness in a Horse?

Lameness in horses is the abnormal gait or stance of a horse, usually accompanied by pain. There are a number of reasons why a horse's gait or stance may change suddenly, such as with a number of physical or neurological conditions. Most commonly, the condition or injury affects the musculoskeletal system of the horse. Lameness can affect horses of all sizes, breeds and ages with varying severity.

Symptoms of Horse Lameness

Because the severity can vary, the symptoms associated with lameness in horses can vary as well. Some of the commonly seen signs are:

  • Inflammation or swelling
  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Non-weight bearing on limb
  • Toe pointing
  • Reluctance / Unwillingness to move
  • Asymmetry of the limb
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Limping / Inconsistent leg reach when moving
  • Head bobbing
  • Dragging of the toe
  • Poor performance
  • Reluctance to stand

Causes of Lameness in Horse

As mentioned above, the source of the lameness could be physical or neurological. The two types of lameness in horses are chronic or acute.

Acute lameness: This type of lameness usually occurs quite suddenly and has been a recent issue.

Chronic lameness: This lameness is an ongoing occurrence.

Some of the other causes which can lead to lameness include:

  • Wounds
  • Connective tissue bruising
  • Muscle pain
  • Arthritis
  • Tendon sheath / Bursal inflammation
  • Tendon or ligament injury
  • Bone injury
  • Infections
  • Trauma
  • Nerve paralysis / Damage

Horses with certain lifestyles, such as racehorses, may be more likely to develop specific types of lameness.

Another thing to keep in mind is that all horses are built differently. So some horses may have a build that results in the occurrence of lameness.

Diagnosing Equine Lameness

Some of the key areas of diagnostics that an equine vet will use when diagnosing lameness in horses include:

  • History
  • Standing / Physical exam
  • Exam in motion
  • Flexion testing
  • Hoof test exam
  • Nerve and/or joint blocks
  • Imaging such as radiographs, ultrasounds, MRIs, and others

What to Expect During the Physical Exam

Your vet will begin by asking you about your horse's health history and when the signs of lameness began, as well as your horse's lifestyle.

They will then perform a complete physical exam. This exam may or may not be a standing exam. During this exam, your vet will be looking for the common signs associated with lameness in horses.

Once the physical exam is complete, your vet will likely want to see how your horse moves about. This can include trotting to see the effects of the lameness.

The vet may perform a flexion test to evaluate specific areas of your horse's limbs. They may also perform a hood test, if necessary, afterward. All of these aspects together are part of a complete lameness evaluation.

Once the target area has been determined, your vet may then request that your horse have diagnostic imaging to help gain a clearer view of the issue at hand.

Treatment of Lameness in Horses

Ultimately, the treatment for lameness in horses depends on the underlying cause of the pain.

Your vet may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to help your horse on a short-term basis. But be aware these are not suitable for long periods as they can cause issues with equine digestive systems. If needed, your vet may offer joint injections to help provide your horse with some relief.

These, along with a full treatment plan including rehabilitative therapies, can help get your horse moving again comfortably.

Recovery From Lameness

Usually, the success of recovery lies in how quickly the lameness is diagnosed and treated.

The treatment plan for your horse should also contain a full plan for recovery. This can include information about stall rest and your horse's other needs while they work on healing.

Equine lameness can lead to a number of secondary conditions too including:

  • Arthritis
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Contralateral limb laminitis
  • Navicular syndrome

If you have an older horse, then your vet may recommend turning them out each day. The exercise may help with their lameness.

Preventing Horse Lameness

One of the easiest ways you can help prevent lameness in horses is by ensuring routine preventive care and hoof care. Your horse should also have access to safe areas at all times.

When exercising your horse, be sure to allow for 10 minutes of cool down and warm up. Horses that have not exercised for a period of time should be given an opportunity to ease back into work and exercise.

Supplements may also be helpful if your horse is at a high risk of lameness or other physical conditions. Speak with your vet to learn more about how to help prevent lameness in horses and what you can do when it happens.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding animals or professional advice regarding equine regulations. For the diagnosis of your animal's condition and help to navigate rules governing the care and transportation of equine animals, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your horse is dragging their feet or showing other signs of lameness, please get in touch with Bluegrass Equine Surgery for an examination. 

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Whether you are looking to get involved with our rapidly-growing practice, or are seeking equine veterinary care, Bluegrass Equine Surgery welcomes you to get in touch. 

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