Equine Sports Medicine and Lameness: When it hurts sometimes

Detect equine lameness early! Learn signs, causes & when to seek vet care. Carrollton Equine offers expert exams & diverse treatments. Ensure a strong spring season!

As we wrap up the competition season this fall with our horses, you may notice your horse is just a bit sore. Many horse owners hope a winter off with fix the problem and give them a happy horse again come spring. For minor aches and pains this can often be a fine option; however, there are many injuries that can hang around and ruin spring plans next year if they are not addressed over the winter.

As we all start looking to take it easy this winter, we just wanted to take a moment and discuss a couple common injuries/aches that we see in our competitive equines

Understanding Lameness

Lameness in a horse refers to the abnormal movement of one or more of its limbs. This is most often due to pain with a horse placing less pressure on the sore or affected limb creating an uneven gait. You can also have a functional lameness due to a limb not being able to move at an even pace creating an uneven gait despite a lack of pain.

Common Causes of Lameness in Horses

  • Pain induced:
    • Foot Bruise/Abscess
    • Ringbone
    • Arthritis in one or more joints
    • Splint
    • Tendon/Ligament Injury
    • DOD/OCD lesions
  • Functional:
    • Nerve Damage/Injury
    • Muscle Wasting
    • Fibrotic Changes to Muscles
    • Fused Joints

Signs of Lameness in Horses:

You can help determine how your horse is not moving properly by watching them on the ground and feeling them under saddle.

  • Forelimb Lameness: Abnormal movements occurring in the front limbs are much easier to distinguish than those in the hindlimb as they are generally accompanied by a “head bob” or movement of the horse’s head away from the affected limb. Generally, a horse’s head will move to be “down on sound”. This means that a horse will pick its head up higher when placing the sore front limb on the ground and will drop its head lower to the ground when placing the front limb that is not sore. The head movement is the result of the horse attempting to hop off the sore leg and landing harder on the good leg.
  • Hindlimb Lameness: Abnormal movements occurring in the hind limbs can be more difficult to distinguish because the horse’s head will often move upward when the affected limb hits the ground. This upward movement can be deceiving because it can almost look like the head is going down with the opposing front limb hitting the ground because the hindlimb that hurts is off the ground. A more reliable measure for checking hindlimb movements is to have the horse trot away from you in a straight line and look for a “hip hike” on the affected limb. The horse will not place as much weight on the affected limb keeping the hip from moving downward as much as the sound limb.

More subtle signs to keep in mind with lameness include a reluctance to do different tasks that they normally do without hesitation. For example, if your horse suddenly dislikes going downhills, jumping fences, flying lead changes, or turning to the left or right specifically these are all ways your horse is telling you they cannot do that movement now, often due to pain.

The Role of Lameness in Horse Management

It is an important part of owning a horse to be aware of how your horse normally moves so you can see when there is an irregularity. Many older horses have chronic arthritic changes that will lead to consistent movement issues. Knowing this with your older horses will help you to tell if something more pressing is bothering the horse and allow you to know how to manage it should you enter them into a competition.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

Veterinary care should be sought anytime a horse has trouble doing its job. Whether that job be weekend warrior trail rider or a racehorse, if your horse is having trouble working it is important to investigate possible causes.

Our Commitment to You

At Carrollton Equine, we provide comprehensive lameness examinations to help determine the cause of your horse’s discomfort and offer a variety of management strategies. We can help get your partner feeling better faster with both eastern and western medicinal techniques.

Resources for Pet Owners

To further understand your horse’s lameness we recommend reading the AAEP’s article on lameness found here: https://aaep.org/horsehealth/understanding-lameness

In Conclusion

As we wind down the show season and look forward to a less hectic schedule, we need to remember to look at our faithful athletic partner and make sure they are coming off a busy schedule still moving well. If you think that your horse may not be doing quite as well as normal this fall it is important to get them checked out now so there will be no surprises next spring. Winter is the time to rehab your horse if needed so as not to slow down your show season next year and make sure everyone is at their best.

About The Author

Nicole Kelleher

DVM, CVA, VSMT  |  Owner & Equine Veterinarian

Nicole graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. Since then she has continued to further her education by becoming a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist graduating from the Chi Institute in 2017. She then attended the Healing Oasis school to graduate with her degree in Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (VSMT) in 2021. Dr. Kelleher regularly sees clients utilizing Shenanigans Stables to perform lameness evaluations and treat patients with both acupuncture and VSMT allowing for an integrative approach to the equine athlete.

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