Equine Lameness Basics

Contact your veterinarian if you notice any sign of lameness in your horse, as it should never be neglected.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

Equine lameness affects all types horses—whether they are ridden for pleasure, racing, or sport. Lameness, a health condition that affects a horse’s gait, is the most costly health problem in the equine industry in regards to the price of medical treatment and for time lost to rest.

“Lameness is limping in the horse,” said Ashlee Watts, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS,, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Sometimes the limping can be so subtle that it is difficult or impossible to see and sometimes it is very obvious. Lameness usually happens because of a problem with the musculoskeletal system in a limb, such as arthritis in a joint; however, it can also occur because of neck or back pain.”

Orthopedic injuries, or injuries that directly affect the musculoskeletal system, are the most common cause of equine lameness and include any damage to the hoof, bones, joints, or soft tissue.

Watts explained that signs of lameness can vary anywhere from limping to a mild reduction in normal athletic ability. Common signs of more severe lameness include head bobbing while walking or trotting. Head bobbing is usually a tell-tale sign of front limb lameness, while hind limb lameness is usually identified by a hip hike or drop.

Treatments available for equine lameness vary and depend on an accurate diagnosis. “Treatment recommended by your veterinarian will depend on the diagnosis,” Watts said. “Sometimes the treatment recommended is surgery, while other times it is rest, medicine, or something as simple as changing the horse’s shoes. There is a long list of possible therapies because there are a lot of possible causes of equine lameness.”

Although equine lameness is a common health issue in horses, there are ways horse owners can prevent the costly condition. Proper and timely foot care is one of the most important methods of preventative care; however, it is equally important to choose a reliable and trusted farrier.

“Good routine care, such as regular exercise and regular farrier care, is imperative,” said Watts. “Working your horse on proper footing and avoiding heavy mud or overly hard ground will also help prevent lameness. Keeping the horse appropriately fit for the level of exercise that is being performed is also important in preventative care.”

Equine lameness can affect all horse owners and is one of the most expensive health problems in the equine industry; however, the condition can sometimes be prevented through proper care and providing safe footing in stalls and working or exercise areas. Watts urged horse owners to contact their veterinarian if they notice any sign of lameness, as this condition should never be neglected.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners