What Does Lame Horse Mean

When a horse “goes lame,” it means the horse is unable to walk or maintain a normal stance. Some forms of lameness may only hobble the horse and limit its movement, while severe forms of being lame may cause the horse to remain put.

Lameness in a horse is usually caused by some sort of pain. It can also be the result of a mechanical dysfunction or be part of a neurologic condition.

It is one of the most common veterinary health issues that is treated in horses, especially those that are involved in racing, competitive events, or recreational riding. It is also one of the costliest health concerns within the equine world, including loss of use and the time it takes to diagnose and treat the condition.

What Are the Causes of Lameness in Horses?

Pain that is caused by an injury or an orthopedic disease or condition are the most common causes of lameness. Laminitis, which affects the hoof of the horse, is particularly common. Horses which are highly active, overweight, or suffer from a metabolic condition may all be at a higher risk of suffering from laminitis.

Additional causes of lameness that are due to pain include circulatory disease conditions, infections, genetic conditions like HYPP, or age-related conditions like arthritis.

When pain is the primary cause of lameness, treating the condition which causes the pain will usually resolve the lack of movement. This may involve treating the affected area, offering painkillers to the horse, and other specific tasks that may be prescribed by the treating veterinarian.

Mechanical lameness occurs when there is an abnormality which affects the movement of the horse. Scar tissue, for example, may build up within a joint and that would prevent the horse from completing a normal movement motion. The difference between mechanical lameness and other forms of this condition is that the mechanical version does not typically cause pain to the horse. 

Most forms of mechanical lameness do occur because of a previous injury. Tendons may stiffen, scar tissues may form, or other issues may cause the horse to stop moving its forward or hind legs properly. Even damage to the horse’s muscles from something as simple as an injection can result in mechanical lameness.

The other form of lameness in horses, neurological lameness, occurs when the horse becomes lame, but there is no immediate cause for it that can be seen upon evaluation. Certain forms of muscle atrophy or a condition like Shivers or Stringhalt may cause this form of lameness as well.

What Are the Signs of Lameness in Horses?

A horse that manifests a change in its gait in any way may be suffering from lameness. Hind leg lameness is often more difficult to spot than front leg lameness from a visual standpoint, but by knowing how the horse moves, either form of lameness can usually be spotted by a vigilant owner or handler.

When lameness is affecting the front leg or foot, the most common sign the horse will offer is a bobbing of the head. The horse will raise its neck and head whenever the leg affected by lameness hits the ground. That helps to remove some of the pressure off the affected leg. Horses may also try to lessen the impact felt on an affected leg by stiffening the limb just before it hits the ground. 

If the lameness is affecting only a hind leg, the signs of the condition can be very subtle. Look for changes in performance to the hip, pelvis, and sacrum especially. The horse may tend to shift its weight to avoid placement on the affected leg or hoof and that may alter the direction of its gait slightly as well.

Some horses may “hike up” their hips to reduce the amount of pressure that is placed on a hind leg affected by lameness.

Additional signs of lameness include lengthening the stride to reduce time on the affected leg. Some horses many angle their gait forward or backward, depending upon where the discomfort or issue with lameness is occurring.

And the most obvious sign of lameness is that the horse decides not to move at all. Even when standing, they may refuse to put any weight on the affected limb.

Why the Hoof Is So Important

A majority of lameness issues that are seen in horses originate at the hoof. When being examined for this condition, the balance, shoe, wear pattern, and shape of the hoof will be looked at closely. The presence of a crack or sheer may be the cause of lameness.

If a horse is suffering from chronic lameness, the shape of capsule may alter because it is bearing a different amount of weight. That creates a heel that is higher, narrow, and more upright compared to the “normal” hoof.

When laminitis is present, there may also be changes to the shape of the hoof wall. A mild case of laminitis may not show any outward symptoms, but growth rings on the hoof will indicate the presence of an infection.

The shape and size of the frog and the shape of the bars are also good indications if there is laminitis or an infection present that may be causing lameness.

How to Prevent Lameness in Horses

Preventing lameness in all cases is an impossible task. When cared-based best practices are followed, however, there are many times when lameness can be stopped before it starts.

All horses should visit a farrier regularly to have their hoof care managed. Most horses will require visits every 4-6 weeks. Some horses may be able to go for an extended period if they are not shoed or ridden on a regular basis. Horses that see high levels of activity may need to visit more frequently.

The hoofs of the horse should be picked clean on a regular basis as well. Not only will this remove foreign objects that could initiate an infection, it will also allow handlers and owners to inspect the hoof wall to see if cracks are present.

If there is the presence of pus or a foul-smelling black fluid around the hoof or the frog, then the hoof must be cleaned immediately and medical care given to the horse. These are indications that an infection or laminitis is present.

Keeping a horse at a healthy weight will also help to prevent lameness. Ensure the horse is receiving a good combination of grains and pasture time without high-load calories being introduced to the diet every day. Hay is usually better than alfalfa or clover and certain grain combinations can provide a lower carbohydrate mix for the horse that reduces the chances of weight gain.

Any horse may experience lameness, including horses that are active and healthy. By recognizing the symptoms and taking preventative measures, it may be possible to stop this health issue before it starts.