Lameness & Checking if your horse is lame

Checking lameness in horses

Horse Health and how can you tell if your horse is lame? Unlike lameness in dogs and other pet animals, horses can’t tell us when they are hurt.

Although, dogs will whine or whimper to indicate distress, a horse is a prey animal and prey animals will not normally make any sounds to show they are weak, hurt or in distress.

Prey animals living in the wild don’t want predators to know when they are vulnerable. But, what is an advantage for a wild animal is a disadvantage for a domestic one.

horse health advice - lameness

As a horse owner you have to learn to be very observant to be able to tell when your horse is suffering.

One of the more obvious ways a horse shows pain is by going lame.

A lame horse hurts somewhere and it’s up to you, the owner, to find out what’s causing that pain and to see that your horse receives the proper treatment to cure the problem.

In most cases, lameness is temporary and the horse recovers with a littel care and attention. Unfortunately, if the lameness is chronic and treatment cannot keep the horse’s discomfort to acceptable levels then euthanasia can be the only option.

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Lameness is easiest to see when your horse is trotting :

If the pain is only in one leg you should notice that the horse is not moving evenly. The severity can range from a barely noticeable hitch in the stride to a reluctance to put any weight on one foot.

A lame horse will often throw his head in rhythm with his stride. If your horse is sore in a front leg, he will throw his head up as the sore side touches the ground. If the lameness is in a back leg, he will lean onto the sound side. He may also drag the toe on the sore side.

If your horse hurts in both front feet or all four feet, you won’t notice a limp. Instead, he will keep his head up and move with a short, stumbling stride.

Usually your horse will, when sound, stand with both front legs perpendicular to the ground. A horse who stands “camped out” instead of keeping his legs under his body is probably in distress.

A relaxed horse will often rest a hind foot, but will keep equal weight on each front foot. A distressed horse will try to take the weight off a front leg by pointing it forward with just the toe on the ground.

An observant horse owner will notice almost immediately when their own horse is lame, but pinpointing the exact site and cause of the lameness is usually a job for a vet.

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What should you do if you notice that your horse is lame?

Remember that a lame horse is in pain. Don’t ride a lame horse unless specifically directed to by your vet.

The first thing to do is find out where your horse hurts and why. There might be an obvious wound, but more than likely it will take some detective work to find the problem. In most cases, it’s best to consult your vet. Calling your vet in early not only saves the horse from suffering any longer than necessary, but it is usually cheaper in the long run.

So….. Where should you start your search?

  • Feet First – check for obvious causes.

    Pick out your horse’s feet and make sure there are no stones wedged into the crevices. Look for dark spots that might indicate a bruised sole. Badly cracked feet can also cause lameness.

    • Have the feet just been trimmed and were they trimmed too short?
      Answer. Keep your horse on soft ground until the hoof grows in.

    • Was your horse recently shod?
      A nail might be too close to the sensitive structures inside the hoof or the shoe might be pinching.
      Answer … Call your farrier.
    • Feel the hooves. Is one hoof hotter than the others?
      Feel the pulse in the artery that passes over the fetlock joint. Is it pounding?
      Answer … Both heat and a pounding pulse are indications of injury. Call your vet.
  • Lower Leg – Check for heat and swelling.

    Your horse may have injured a tendon or a ligament, similar to you suffering a sprained ankle.
    Answer … Your horse will need a long rest period in order to heal, just as you would with a sprained ankle.

  • Joints – Horses can suffer from arthritis and bursitis.

    The stifle, which is the equivalent of our knee, can slip and lock.
    Horses subjected to excesive or stressful work, particularly youngstock, can have bone chips floating in the joints.

  • Back – Many ridden horses have sore backs.

    Even if your horse is not lame, if he objects to saddling, flinches or sinks his back when you brush it, or bucks, then you should suspect a
    sore back.

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Are there any particular diseases you should watch for?

Two commonly seen conditions are laminitis and navicular disease. You should also be alert for tying up syndrome.


Also referred to as founder, is an acutely painful inflammation of the foot. It occurs most often in the front feet although it can affect the hind feet as well. The most common cause is over-eating … More on Laminitis

Navicular Disease …

If your horse is lame on and off with no apparent cause, your veterinarian may suspect navicular disease. The pain is caused by progressive degeneration of the navicular bone, a small bone inside the foot, and the tendon which passes over it.

Navicular disease cannot be cured, but with good but expensive veterinary treatment, corrective shoeing and trimming, your horse’s discomfort can be kept to a minimum for many years. Eventually, however you will have to consider euthanasia when your horse’s pain is too great and quality of life is nil … More on Equine Navicular

Tying Up or Azoturia

If your horse seems to seize up while you are riding him or shows signs of stiffness and is unwilling to move after work, he may be tying up. This is a serious condition caused by a build up of lactic acid in the muscles. Do not try to make the horse move. Cover him with a blanket and call your vet.

Prevent tying up by reducing the amount of oats you feed when your horse working.

Make sure you warm up gradually at the beginning of each riding session and that you carefully cool your horse down afterwards … More on Azoturia