Guide to horse lameness treatment, symptoms, and diagnisis

Lame Horse Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Last Updated on September 1, 2020

I am sure you will agree with me:

It is a terrible feeling going to the barn or the arena only to discover that your horse is lame. And to make matters worse, at times it is difficult to diagnose lameness symptoms in your horse right when they begin, leading to your horse making the problem worse. 

Well, you too can identify and treat equine lameness and get your horse back on his feet (and you back in the saddle) with a complete understanding of equine lameness.

In this post, I will show you exactly how to identify when your horse is lame. Then I will tell you how to treat your horse’s lameness (or when to call the vet) and tips on how to maintain a sound horse for life.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: What is Equine Lameness

What exactly is going on when my horse is lame?

Lameness in a horse is defined as a “mild to severe loss of ability to move normally.” Although most cases involve problems with the foot, lameness can also be the result of problems with a horse’s:

  • Bones
  • Muscles
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments
  • Circulation
  • Brain
  • Metabolism

Symptoms of horse lameness may be obvious, but unfortunately the signs can be so subtle that even an experienced owner may not be able to detect them right away.

lameness symptoms in horses

What are equine lameness symptoms?

Although an equine veterinarian will be able to diagnose lameness in your horse, every horseman needs to be able to identify when their horse is lame.

Here are the 8 most common and easily observed signs of lameness:

  • Slow performance.
  • Not lifting the hooves.
  • Cannot turn smoothly.
  • Being off-balance when standing.
  • Dragging a toe.
  • Head bobbing.
  • Limping.
  • Lifting or holding a foot up.

5 Signs of lameness most owners don’t catch

horses in pain won't stand or lay normally

This is the knowledge that will set you apart from most horse owners. Since the symptoms may not be obvious in many cases, these are the signs to keep a close eye out for. If you see any of these, it may indicate that your horse is in pain.

1) Personality Changes

A horse’s personality is usually consistent, so changes can indicate he is in pain and needs a vet to examine him. He may display signs of irritability, grumpiness; he may seem withdrawn, or show aggression.

2) Isolation from Herd

Sometimes a horse that is not feeling well may isolate himself from the herd. If you notice your horse staying away from the rest of his herd, you should examine him.

3) Decreased Movements

If something is wrong with your horse, then he may be reluctant to move or play like he normally would. Lying down more than usual could indicate foot pain, but if getting up causes pain, then he may not want to lay down.

4) Changes in Appetite

Being in pain can affect a horse’s appetite, so if he isn’t eating as he normally would, it indicates there may be problem.

5) Changes in Physical Condition

If your horse is sweating more than usual for the work they are doing or the weather, then it could be an indication of a medical problem, like lameness. Also, if he is breathing harder or has a quicker pulse, then he could be in pain.

Now that you know what to watch for, you are probably wondering what causes lameness. Let’s look at the most common causes of lameness in your horse.

Watch this video and test your knowledge:

Can you tell if this horse is lame?

Chapter 2: Causes

10 Primary Causes of Lameness in Horses

Horse lameness is one of the more frequent complaints a veterinarian gets when they get calls to examine horses. There are many causes for lameness (as noted earlier), but foot problems are usually the culprit. Here are some of the more common causes of lameness.

1) Foot Abscesses

A common cause of foot pain is an infection just beneath the sole of the hoof called a sub-solar abscess. The cause of such an abscess may be:

  • Changing from wet to dry footing.
  • Getting a bruise from being on hard ground.
  • Being in a dirty, wet stall.
  • Poor hoof conformation.
  • Improper shoeing.

As the abscess develops, it can cause pressure on the foot. Since the hoof wall cannot expand, the pressure on the foot can become very painful for the horse, causing him to become lame.

2) Degenerative Joint Disease

Degenerative joint disease (DJD), or arthritis, is common in older or athletic horses. While the body helps to maintain the cartilage in joints by repairing it after normal wear and tear, the excess wear in athletic horses can impede the repair process.

When too much force is put on the cartilage by the movements of the joints and the impact on them, it can cause inflammation and an increase in blood flow to the area. The cartilage further deteriorates due to the inflammation and increased blood flow cause inflammatory enzymes, heat, and swelling.

The main signs of DJD are mild to severe lameness, heat and swelling around a joint, and a reduction in the range of motion of the joint. The onset of these signs may be progressive, or they can appear suddenly, causing the horse pain.

3) Tendon and Ligament Injuries

A horse’s lower legs contain several important ligaments and tendons, including the:

  • Suspensory ligament
  • Superficial digital flexor tendon
  • Deep digital flexor tendon

This ligament and the two tendons are the most prominent in the horse’s body and are prone to injury. Since the blood supply to them is limited, they can be very slow to heal. Symptoms of injuries to them are lameness, pain on palpation, heat, and swelling near their location.

4) Navicular Syndrome (Disease)

Navicular syndrome describes heel pain involving the navicular bone that is between the coffin and short pastern bones in the horse’s hoof. This disease usually occurs in both front legs and most horses who have it have abnormal hoof-pastern angles.

Horses with navicular syndrome often land toe first when walking or trotting. Quarter horses, thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods are the most often affected by the syndrome.

5) Heel Pain

There can be many causes of heel pain, including navicular syndrome. Heel pain can be the result of injuries to the suspensory ligament or the impar ligament, which connects the navicular bone to the back of the coffin bone. Heel pain can be difficult to diagnose, but an MRI can help find its cause.

Injuries can also occur when the horse steps into a hole, steps on a stone, or by twisting his ankle on a trail ride. They may even injure themselves when bucking or playing in a pasture.

6) Bursitis

The bursa sacs are important for the cushion and lubrication of the horse’s joints. They can become inflamed and fill with fluids if trauma occurs to a joint. This can then lead to pain and lameness.

Horse bursitis can happen in any joint, but it is most common in the knees, elbows, hocks, and shoulders.

Septic bursitis is characterized by an infection in the joint. This is a serious condition that requires veterinarian intervention.

Your vet will drain the infected area and thoroughly clean it.

7) Hoof Conformation

Poor hoof conformation can lead to numerous problems including lameness.

An inappropriate hoof angle can occur due to poor or infrequent farrier work and trimmings.

Common issues with hoof conformation include too long of a toe and too shallow of a heel.

8) Diet

Too high levels of carbohydrates in a horse’s diet can lead to laminitis, which is a serious disease where significant swelling of the horse’e feet occurs.

The swelling stems from the release of endotoxins and lactic acid.

Horse’s can also experience “tying up”, also called exertion myopathy or azoturia, from eating a diet too high in carbohydrates relative to their workload.

9) Leg Deformities

Leg deformities can result from injury or birth. Foals are particularly susceptible to sustaining injuries to their legs.

And while most foals’s who exhibit leg crookedness early on will straighten out by the time they reach one year old, some foals legs will remain crooked beyond one year.

Leg deformities often occur in the fetlocks, knees, and coffin joint.

10) Keratomas

Keratomas are benign tumors which manifest as circular mass within the hoof. The color ranges from white to ivory and they grow in the hoof capsule.

This causes pain to the horse, resulting in lameness.

Chapter 3: Treatment

What should you do when your horse is lame?

The most important thing you can do to help your horse when they are lame is to catch it early. If left untreated, lameness can lead to severe and permenant damage.

To do this you must be observant of any of the symptoms or signs of lameness.

If you notice your horse favoring a leg, a foot, limping, or exhibiting any of the other signs listed above, there are several things you can do while you are waiting for your vet or farrier to arrive.

1) Examine the favored leg

First, examine the leg they are favoring by running your hand down it and noting whether the horse flinches, while checking for heat or swelling.

2) Examine the foot

If there is no reaction or problem found with the leg, examine their foot by lifting it and checking for stones caught in the hoof.

Also, look at the shoe to see if it has come loose. Many cases of lameness are caused by poor shoeing. If you suspect shoeing is the problem, have a farrier examine your horse and re-shoe him.

3) Wrap his leg

Put your horse in a clean stall to rest if you do find some swelling or heat while examining his leg. Also, put a pressure wrap on the area to provide support for the leg. By being proactive, you can prevent further complications and help your horse quickly recover.

Veterinarian Treatments for Lameness and the Grading System

vets wrapping horse's legs

When a veterinarian examines a horse for lameness, they grade its severity on a scale from one to five.

  • Grade 1: The injury is not recognizable when the horse walks but is when he trots. An indication of the problem is when the head of the horse drops when the good foot lands but lifts when the affected side lands. The cause of lameness is often non-progressive chronic diseases.
  • Grade 2: Lameness is not apparent while walking, but it is while trotting. The head and neck often lift when the sore foot hits the ground to try to reduce the weight on the limb.
  • Grade 3: Lameness is obvious whether the horse is walking or trotting. Head and neck lifting occur with forelimb lameness, and head nodding occurs with hind limb lameness.
  • Grade 4: A horse may be reluctant to jog with lameness this severe, and he will not place his foot completely flat while bearing weight.
  • Grade 5: The horse will not bear weight on the affected limb. Some of the causes of lameness this severe are a broken limb, sub-solar abscesses, severe tendinitis, septic arthritis.
What will the vet do to help?

Vets may use tools like x-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs, and CTs to diagnose the cause of a horse’s lameness so they can treat it correctly. With some horses, an arthroscopy may be necessary to examine the damage to joints or tendons internally.

Most veterinarians will start treating their equine patients by resting them. Resting the horse in its stall helps to reduce inflammation, which can worsen if the horse continues to work. A vet may also wrap the leg with a pressure wrap to provide support for it.

If the injury is severe, then a vet may give the horse injections of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, so they are more comfortable while resting. A horse may need to rest for a few days, a few weeks, or in some cases, a few months.

Sometimes surgery is necessary to help a horse heal from severe lameness, and they will usually undergo rehabilitation. While some owners may be able to rehabilitate their horses, those with more severe injuries may need to go to a rehabilitation center to get proper treatment.

Chapter 4: Prevention

4 Important Steps to Equine Lameness Prevention

Being able to recognize horse lameness and knowing the causes for it can give you the knowledge you need to protect your horse from further injury.

The information can also help you determine when to call in a vet to examine and treat your horse to relieve his pain and help him heal as quickly as possible.

But like most things in life, the best treatment is a good prevention plan.

In order to keep your horse from becoming lame again, follow these 5 steps

1) Proper hoof care

proper hoof picking technique

This simple but powerful tip is incredibly important in promoting overall hoof health and preventing lameness.

  • checkPick your horses hoofs prior to every ride. Your goal is to remove stones or any other foreign objects from your horses hoof before putting their feet through the stress of work. 
  • checkWhile picking, you are also going to inspect your horses shoe for improper fit or looseness. If you find any issues with your horses shoes, call your farrier immediately and have the problem fixed.
  • checkYou will also pick your horses hoofs every time you bring him in for the night, again removing rocks or other objects. 
  • checkFinally, pick your horses feet prior to turning him out each morning. This helps to prevent thrush by removing any packed manure from your horses foot.  

-Additionally, ensure to use quality hoof care products for your horse. Low quality products can be a waste under the best circumstances, or harmful under the worst.

Things to look for when picking your horses hoof
  • checkCracks – Always inspect for cracks in your horses hoofs. Many cracks are of minimal concern and will grow out without causing issues with your horse. But some can worsen over time and effect the structure of the hoof. 
  • checkAbscesses – If your horse is emitting heat at the touch, it may be caused by an abscess. Abscesses can be caused from a number of situations including, a shoe nail in the quick, a puncture of the sole of the hoof, or a bruised hoof.  As noted earlier, abscesses can lead to laminitis and must be addressed promptly as it can prove fatal if left untreated.
  • checkPunctures Check for hoof punctures from foreign objects such as nails, screws, or sharp rocks. If you do find a puncture while picking your horse’s hoof, do not remove it. Punctures require immediate veterinarian attention to diagnose the severity and damage of the puncture. Your vet will decide the best course of treatment for the particular location and depth of the puncture. 
  • checkThrush – Is an infection caused from prolonged standing in manure, mud, or other wet conditions. Thrush is characterized by an oozing from the frog of the hoof, and accompanied by a strong, and offensive smell. If caught early, thrush is easy to treat with over the counter medications and by ensuring your horse is kept in clean and dry conditions. 
2) Optimal Nutrition for Hoof Health

Horse nutrition is a complex subject made more confusing with conflicting advice from friends and the internet.

Keep in mind, when in doubt, talk to your vet.

With that said, here are the key horse hoof nutrition points to consider:

  • Do not feed your horse a diet high in bran. Bran contains high amounts of phytate which contains phosphorus. Excessive phosphorus inhibits the absorption of calcium, which is essential for hoof health.
  • Fatty acids found in grain, grain oils, and soybeans (whole cooked) are important for numerous processes, including maintaining appropriate hoof moisture levels. Fatty acids can be supplemented if lacking in the horse’s diet.
  • Appropriate zinc intake is necessary for the formation of keratin. Without keratin, the horse’s hoof will be soft and brittle. Zinc is present naturally in the horses diet but can be supplemented if necessary. 
3) Proper Warm up and Cool Down

A good warm up and cool down routine will do wonders in reducing injury induced lameness in your horse. Do it every time you saddle up.

  • check Start with a good grooming. Massaging your horse’s large muscles while working a curry comb or medium bristle brush will begin the warm up process. A good pre-exercise brushing will loosen your horses muscles and alleviate muscle tension. 
  • checkAlways begin your exercise with at least 10 minutes of walking.This can be in the saddle or on the lunge line.The key is to get the horses blood flowing and to continue loosening up their muscles.
  • checkFollowing the walk, begin a working trot or jog. This will continue to loosen the horse’s muscles and tendons.At the trot, begin asking for your horse to “give” while incorporating circles and serpentine exercises. Continue the jogging for approximately 5-10 minutes and you have completed an excellent warm-up that will help keep your horse injury free.
  • checkNever put your horse away hot: Always cool him down.Walk until your horse’s respiration is at a normal level and he is normal temperature when you touch his neck with your bare hand.If temperatures are high, you may want to hose him down to finish up your cool down.
4) Check your Pastures

Many pasture injuries can be avoided with frequent pasture checks.

This is as simple as walking your entire pastures looking for potential dangers to your horse.

* Fill holes,  ruts, and large divots

* Remove large rocks

* Look for down fencing

* Remove any other objects that may injure your horse

Always be sure to check your horse’s pasture following heavy rain and high wind conditions.

Wrapping it up

There are few things that scare us more than a horse that isn’t sound. There is always the fear that it will come back, or never go away.

Make sure to study your horse’s behavior. The more attuned you are to your horse when they are feeling healthy, the quicker you will pick up on their signals they display when they are not feeling well.

Institute a hoof care routine that includes the tips listed above and you will drastically improve your horse’s odds of remaining sound.

Let us know if you have any tips we didn’t cover in the comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *