Lame Horses Use Muscles Differently, Study Shows

When people sprain an ankle, they tend to put all their weight on the other foot to compensate. Horses respond similarly to lameness, using sound muscles to compensate for the injury, according to a new study.

This means that lameness affects many muscles, not just those around the injury. This "functional adaptation" can result in secondary lameness in an otherwise sound limb, said Dr. Hafsa Zaneb, a graduate from the Veterinary Medicine University in Austria.

"Fixing a lameness-related issue early is the only thing that can help the health and future performance of your horse," she said.

Zaneb and her colleges studied the muscle effects of trotting and walking in sound and lame horses. Using surface electromyography, which measures the electrical activity of muscles, they identified differences in back and pelvic limb muscle function between lame and non-lame horses.

"There are differences in the way horses use their muscles if they are lame. There was an attempt to shift the weight from the lame to the sound side, which may or may not result in observable differences of muscle use depending on severity and duration of the problem," she said.

These lameness-related changes may increase the incidence of muscle pain in lame horses. Owners and trainers should try to differentiate whether the muscle is causing the problem or the lameness is affecting the muscles.

"Identifying the primary cause of lameness, treating lameness very early to prevent a situation where muscles undergo functional adaptations, and allowing the horses enough time to come back to near-sound condition" are the best ways owners and trainers can help their horse, Zaneb said.

The study "Quantitative differences in activity of back and pelvic limb muscles between chronically lame and nonlame horses during walking and trotting" was published in September American Journal of Veterinary Research.

The abstract is available on PubMed.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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