Lameness can be described as a gait abnormality or asymmetry but quite often as owners we avoid using the word ‘lameness’ describing our lame horse as ‘a bit short’, ‘not quite right’, or a ‘bit footy’. Sometimes a horse is clearly ‘limping’ (to borrow a human phrase), and at other times lameness can manifest as a loss of performance or change in ridden behaviour.
However you word it if your horse’s stride or gait is altered it is clearly a sign of pain, and it is definitely a time to call the vet. Your vet will come out and see your horse, and they will perform a static and dynamic lameness exam to try and assess where the lameness originates from. Sometimes the problem is obvious, such as a wound, or you it might be an old or ongoing issue which has flared up. What I know frustrates owners is when they can’t see where the horse is actually lame, or they think it is the right leg and the vet is talking about the left leg.
If the cause of lameness is not apparent from a static observation then your vet will request that your horse is walked and trotted up and down in a straight line or a level piece of ground. They will view the horse as it walks towards them and away from them, and as the horse turns. Horses can be lame on one or more legs, and your vet will be looking at the stride length in both fore and hindlimbs, as well as the height of your horse’s hips from behind. Your vet may also wish to see the horse lunged and ridden as well depending on how obvious the lameness is.
Many owners will know that if a horse is suffering from a forelimb lameness it’s head will ‘nod’ up and down, in trot, but they often feel confused about how the head nod corresponds with the lame leg. On our Horse First Aid Course we teach owners that the horse will lift it’s head up when the lame leg comes into contact with the ground, and they will drop their head when the sound (i.e. uninjuried) leg hits the ground. This makes sense as the horse is horse will be effectively bracing their body as the lame leg makes contact with the ground.
This is a really good phrase to remember, so if you are viewing your horse trot up together with your vet it will make it easier to see what your vet is seeing. Your vet will be more than happy to explain what they are viewing, but I think as owners we have all said “yes I see it” when in reality we aren’t quite sure.
If you have a lame horse you will of course be calling your vet, but there are two things you might find useful to remember
Whilst there isn’t always a cut or wound when a horse is lame if there is the pain should match the size of the wound, unless the wound is in the ‘wrong’ place (see the next point). Just like a child with a grazed knee whilst they might be a bit sad for a short time they should be up and running around again fairly quickly. Similarly to humans horses do differ in how well they cope with pain or discomfort but a superficial graze should not result in a lame horse.
As owners we should only be attempting to care for very superficial wounds on our own (and you must speak to your vet if you are in any doubt, they will always be more than happy to help you). Whilst the depth of a wound is important, the location of a cut is of paramount importance, particularly if the cut is small. Any wound involving a joint or other synovial structure must be seen by your vet, however small the wound is. If your horse is very lame with a small cut on a joint or tendon this could indicate a potential infection and immediate veterinary attention is required.
Sometimes lameness can be so much harder to spot, and you might find that your horse’s behaviour or performance under saddle changes. Perhaps they struggle to maintain the canter, start striking off on the incorrect leg, refuse jumps or start working above the bit. As an owner or rider it is easy to dismiss such behaviours as a one off, due to rider error, or think that a new saddle or bit is required.
Whilst lameness can certainly be induced by an incorrectly fitting saddle, or a restrictive rider it is quite a ‘chicken and egg’ situation as saddle slip can actually indicate hindlimb lameness. So yes it is vital to having a correctly fitting saddle, but the problem might not stop at the saddle, meaning that involving your vet is a sensible step.
Research has indicated that behaviour perceived as ‘naughty’ or due to inexperience can be a result of pain, and work conducted at the Animal Health Trust found that in some horses these behaviours were not noted in some horses once a nerve block had been administered. Such work is so vital and we must as owners and riders consider the bigger picture if you are noticing changes in your horse’s performance or attitude towards work.
This same study found that defined facial expressions were noted by horses in pain, and work on the Horse Grimace Scale has been very helpful with assessing horses with laminitis. This once again indicates that you are the expert on your own horse, and noting any changes in behaviour or facial expressions could help you spot a potential problem earlier.
Lameness is so much more than a head nod, which it was fascinating to learn more about this topic with the world renowned Dr Sue Dyson at our 2019 Healthy Horse Conference. You can read a review of the day here, and if you’d like to join us on 31st October 2020 for our 2020 Conference then do click here.