Is He Really Lame?

You want your horse to be sound and stay sound. But calling the vet out for a thorough workup every time your horse stumbles or acts stiff can get costly, and waste your veterinarian's valuable time--especially if those problems turn out to be training troubles in disguise. On the other hand, leaving a sore horse untreated might exacerbate the current problem or create a snowball effect, leading to additional pains and discomfort throughout the horse's body. Once that happens, you're almost guaranteed a longer layup and more costly treatment than if you'd simply had your veterinarian out at the first sign of real trouble.

So, how do you know when to call for help in time to handle real lameness issues before they get out of hand, without wasting your money and your veterinarian's time on non-physical problems? Start by knowing your horse's physiology and normal behavior thoroughly, then learn the basics of lameness detection.

Inspect Daily

It's easy to say, "Just check your horse for unusual swellings, stiffness, or sensitivity." But, says Bill Moyer, DVM, a lameness specialist and head of the Department of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, "Things like heat and swelling are only obvious if you've looked at your horse enough to know what's normal."

A daily inspection will do the trick, and it doesn't have to be an intense, hour-long ordeal. Just be observant as you groom, handle, ride, and hang out with your horse.

For instance, with your horse standing still, get to know what's normal in areas such as:

  • Symmetry of muscles, joints, and hooves. It's not unusual for one hoof to be shaped slightly differently than another or for one pastern to be slightly "puffier" than another.

  • Wear patterns on hooves (or shoes, if the horse is shod).

  • Sensitivity to brushing. For instance, some horses normally flinch if you brush too hard over their loin; others flinch only if they're sore.

  • General attitude and related habits, such as ear-pinning or tail-swishing, or, on the opposite extreme, falling asleep in the cross-ties or mooching for treats. Any change from normal behavior might signal a health problem.

  • Appetite. Is he normally finicky, or does he eat everything he can get his lips around?

  • Sensitivity to saddling, cinching, and mounting.

  • Normal temperature, respiration, and heart rate.

Take note of your horse's behavior and action when he's moving in-hand and under saddle. Pay particular attention to stride, rhythm, straightness, levelness of hips and shoulders, and head carriage. Evaluate him under various circumstances, for instance:

  • On varying terrains--hard, soft, rocky, or sandy surfaces; up and down hills.

  • In different environments--indoor and outdoor arenas, trails, unfamiliar areas.

  • On straightaways, circles or curves, and sharp turns.

Consider writing notes regarding "unusual normalcies." For instance, a leg that typically stocks up every night or a horse whose stride always shortens on hard ground. You might even want to periodically videotape your horse (front and side views) as he is standing, moving in-hand, and being ridden. This gives you a standard to compare against if you think that something has changed.

Spot the Changes

Once you know what's normal for your horse, you can spot changes in the pattern, explains Moyer. For instance, if your horse usually enjoys a good back brushing, but today flinched under your curry mitt, you can reasonably assume he's feeling discomfort. Or, if he's normally bold and eager over fences, but is now resisting and refusing, it's logical to think that he might be sore.

But, says Moyer, "You also have to ask yourself, 'Is this consistent?' " In other words, has your horse demonstrated this change in pattern for at least a couple of days? Unless your horse is obviously dead lame or refusing to bear weight on a limb (in which case you need to call a vet immediately), wait to see if the problem continues for more than one day. After all, horses, like people, can have bad days and can experience temporary stiffness or soreness due to a previous hard workout, over-exuberant play, fights, etc. If a problem doesn't recur, it's probably not cause for concern.

On the other hand, sometimes a horse will be stiff or sore during a warm-up, but "work out of it" and be fine later in the ride. In those cases, you could be dealing with the early stages of a lameness-related disorder and should consider getting a veterinarian's opinion, again assuming that this is a consistent, daily pattern.

Don't worry about trying to pinpoint which part of the horse's body is lame, says Moyer. "Knowing which leg it is ahead of time isn't going to solve the problem," he notes. And don't be tempted to try diagnosing a problem with hoof testers, either. "They look and act like ice tongs," he says. "They take considerable experience to use, and you can cause damage if you use them incorrectly." There's another liability, too: Hoof testers elicit a pain response from the horse, which can cause him to lash out and possibly injure you.

Rule Out Other Factors

If you're dealing with a performance change (resistance, altered gait, etc.) rather than a purely physical alteration (swelling, lumps, and bumps), you need to consider external factors, too. These, says Moyer, can include equipment, rider interference, terrain, weather, the amount of exercise the horse has had lately, and miscellaneous distractions.

"If something does come up in the midst of a ride, the first thing I'd suggest doing is looking around at the environment to see if something has changed there to cause the change in your horse," said Moyer.

For instance, if your horse typically works in an arena, and you take him out for a rare trail ride, nervousness or excitement can cause him to appear stiff and resistant, and might cause changes in his stride. Similarly, a new feature on his home turf (i.e., a new flower-filled jump in the ring) or a change in the weather (such as strong wind gusts) can create performance changes that might mimic lameness symptoms.

If you don't see any environmental causes, get off and check your equipment, says Moyer. Make sure nothing is pinching, rubbing, sliding, or otherwise distracting or hurting the horse. Look at your equipment from the bit and headstall, to the saddle and pad, to leg gear and shoes. If your gear checks out okay, transfer your inspection to the horse's limbs, says Moyer. You might have missed a clue during your pre-ride grooming session, or something could have occurred during your ride that you didn't catch.

If everything seems fine, get back on, and see if you notice any improvement. If not, or if you found a physical cause during your check, end your ride. (If you're on the trail, you might want to get off and walk the horse home.) Then, says Moyer, "You need to make a judgement call: Do you wait to see what tomorrow brings, or do you call the vet out now?"

He suggests that if the horse is unwilling to put a limb down, "You must think the worst and get someone out. It could be anything from a puncture wound to a broken leg." Likewise, if the horse is standing with both front feet forward and you are having a hard time getting him to move at all, he says, "It's wise to assume it could be laminitis, and the sooner you can get him worked on, the more likely you are to have a pleasing outcome."

On the other hand, if you've spotted something less immediately threatening, such as swelling, you might want to try first aid and a night's rest. If there's no improvement the next day--or if the problem has worsened--you should strongly consider getting an expert's advice. In the long run, it could actually save you money, and save your horse from unnecessary pain.

What the Vet Will Do

The goal of a lameness exam is to determine the site(s) of pain. Although specifics vary depending on the situation, the veterinarian will commonly follow this pattern:

  1. Gather a history from you, with as many details as possible, including when the problem appeared (be honest—this is an important part of the vet’s diagnosis), any patterns you’ve noticed (such as stiffness only on turns, not straightaways), and your thoughts on what might be wrong.
  2. Conduct a physical exam, including visual inspection and palpation.
  3. Watch the horse move without a rider.
  4. Perform manipulative tests (such as joint flexion).
  5. Watch the horse move with a rider.
  6. Conduct diagnostic anesthesia (such as nerve blocks or joint blocks) if necessary.
  7. Perform imaging (such as X rays or ultrasound) if necessary. 

What Do You Look For?

Symptoms of physical discomfort are countless, but these are some of the most common ones. Remember to compare them to what you know is normal for your horse.


  • Resting one or more legs in an abnormal way, such as farther ahead or farther behind its usual position;
  • Loss of muscle mass;
  • Unusual asymmetries of muscles, joints, hooves;
  • Tail hanging to the left or right (a tail that’s never been "set");
  • A new bump or ridge on the topline, or new growths, bumps, or swellings anywhere on the body.


  • Unusual anger or resistance, especially when grooming, handling, and picking up legs; or while saddling, cinching up the girth, mounting, or blanketing;
  • Increased tail swishing and/or head-shaking;
  • Lethargy;
  • Noticeable flinching or sinking under the rider’s weight;
  • General change in behavior or appetite.


  • Resistance or unwillingness to work;
  • Change in head and neck carriage (such as head bobbing or a stiff neck);
  • Change in rhythm or length of stride or the straightness or evenness of hoof falls;
  • Jarring or uneven movement, especially if asymmetrical;
  • Lack of impulsion, unwillingness to move forward or faster;
  • Resistance to backing or jumping;
  • Difficulty turning, moving haunches, changing gaits, or stopping;
  • Twisting through neck, back, and/or pelvis;
  • Uneven contact on the reins and/or bit;
  • Overall stiffness;
  • Dragging the toes;
  • Hind legs moving either wider apart or closer together than usual.

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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