What does it mean when a horse is lame?

Woman and vet tending to horse
Woman and vet tending to horse

Horse lameness is a common condition that affects horses of all ages and breeds. It can be caused by a wide range of factors, from injuries and infections to arthritis and developmental conditions. Lameness refers to any alteration in the horse’s gait or movement due to pain or dysfunction in one or more limbs. Lameness can have a significant impact on the horse’s well-being and performance, and it’s important to diagnose and treat it promptly.

Causes of Horse Lameness

Horse lameness can have many different causes, and determining the underlying cause is essential for effective treatment. Some common causes of horse lameness include:

  1. Injuries: Injuries to the horse’s limbs, such as fractures, sprains, or strains, can cause lameness. Injuries can occur due to accidents, overexertion, or improper training methods.
  2. Infections: Infections can cause inflammation and pain in the horse’s limbs, leading to lameness. Common infections that can cause lameness include abscesses, cellulitis, and joint infections.
  3. Arthritis: Arthritis is a common cause of lameness in older horses. It’s a degenerative condition that causes inflammation and damage to the horse’s joints, leading to pain and reduced mobility.
  4. Developmental Conditions: Some horses are born with or develop developmental conditions that can cause lameness, such as contracted tendons, angular limb deformities, or osteochondrosis.
  5. Hoof Problems: Problems with the horse’s hooves, such as thrush, white line disease, or laminitis, can cause lameness. Hoof problems can be caused by poor nutrition, improper trimming, or lack of exercise.

Symptoms of Horse Lameness

The symptoms of horse lameness can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Some common signs of horse lameness include:

  1. Uneven Gait: The horse may move with an uneven gait, limping, or appearing to favor one limb over the others.
  2. Reluctance to Move: The horse may be reluctant or unable to move, especially when asked to perform activities such as trotting or cantering.
  3. Reduced Range of Motion: The horse may have a reduced range of motion in the affected limb, and may be unable to flex or extend the joint fully.
  4. Sensitivity to Touch: The horse may be sensitive or painful when pressure is applied to the affected limb, and may flinch or react when touched.
  5. Swelling: The affected limb may be swollen, and the skin may feel warm or tender to the touch.

Diagnosing Horse Lameness

Diagnosing horse lameness can be challenging, as there are many possible causes and symptoms can be subtle. A thorough physical examination is essential, and your veterinarian may also use diagnostic tools such as radiography, ultrasonography, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help identify the underlying cause.

During a physical exam, your veterinarian will evaluate the horse’s gait, range of motion, and sensitivity to touch. They may also perform diagnostic nerve blocks, where local anesthetic is injected into specific nerves to determine the source of the lameness.

Imaging tests such as radiography, ultrasonography, or MRI can help identify bone or soft tissue abnormalities that may be causing the lameness. These tests can provide detailed images of the horse’s joints, bones, and soft tissues, helping your veterinarian make an accurate diagnosis.