Preventing lameness

Lameness is one of the most common health problems affecting horses with most horses experiencing a degree of lameness at some point in their life.

When a horse is lame and cannot race or compete, it can be very frustrating and often costly for owners, and most importantly, it can mean that a horse is in some degree of pain. It is therefore important that owners take preventative measures to avoid lameness and learn to identify the telltale signs.

A horse is considered lame when its gait is affected by pain or restriction of movement.

The most common site of lameness is the foot but it can also originate in other parts of the leg including the joints, tendons or ligaments or muscles, or elsewhere in the body such as the head, neck, back or pelvis.

Symptoms of lameness vary widely from a subtle change in gait, short striding or a reduction in performance, to more obvious signs such as limping, dragging a leg or barely being able to walk.

There is a vast array of causes of lameness but some of the most common include:

  • Traumatic injuries: sprains, strains, fractures and other injuries to the musculosketetal system (bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and joints) or damage to the nervous system (brain, spinal cord or nerves)
  • Metabolic diseases: laminitis (also called founder) which is an inflammation in the foot; navicular disease which is an inflammation or degeneration within the hoof, and its surrounding tissues; or azoturia (tying up) which is similar to a muscle cramp, that can happen suddenly when a horse is active
  • Degenerative disease: joint disease such as arthritis
  • Infections: infected wounds, skin, or joints, or foot abscess’
  • Developmental conditions in young, growing horses: such as epiphysitis, a bone disease, or osteochondrosis, a disease that affects the cartilage and bone in joints.

Sometimes the cause of lameness can be very obvious, for example in the case of a visible injury, but often examination by a vet is required to diagnose the cause and in turn determine the best treatment.

Vets use a range of techniques to diagnose lameness. At Camden Equine Centre we conduct physical examinations; visual examinations of the horse undertaking different activities such as trotting and walking in a straight line and a circle, on hard and soft surfaces; and flexion tests. We also have a Lameness Locator which uses inertial sensors to accurately record the horse’s gait, and this record can be compared between visits to identify an issue early.

If a problem is found, then further investigation can be performed such as nerve blocks to localize the issue to a region, and then diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds, Nuclear Scintigraphy (bonescan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), all of which can be conducted on site using Camden Equine Centre’s, state of the art equine imaging facilities.

Once an issue is identified our vets provide advice regarding specific therapies such as systemic anti-arthritis medicines, monthly injectables and daily oral medications.

Although there are many treatment options, very serious cases of lameness can result in the horse having to be euthanised, therefore prevention is always better than cure.

Below are just some of the ways you can help prevent lameness in your horse:

  • Do a daily once over – check for abscesses, wounds and hoof cracks so they can be treated before becoming infected; look out for lumps, bumps, swellings or hot spots, especially around the lower leg areas and tendons; pick out any rocks, debris, mud or manure from your horses hooves; and take note of any changes in odour, discharges, or increases in heat in the foot area, all of which could indicate early stages of disease
  • Practice a good exercise routine – in order to keep your horse in good condition have a regular exercise schedule rather than taking several days off between rides. When you do exercise or ride your horse, give them adequate time to warm up and cool down to avoid joint and leg injury. Use this time to also watch your horse trot so you can become familiar with what is a normal gait for them to allow you to identify any changes
  • Schedule regular appointments with your farrier – as the most common source of lameness is the foot, scheduling in regular appointments with your farrier to ensure your horses hooves are trimmed, balanced and/or shod is an important step in preventing lameness.
  • Maintain a safe and hygienic environment – ensure that all stalls and paddocks are free of hazards such as tree debris, rocks, sharp metals, nails and wire that could injure your horse. Ensure your horses stalls have a level floor, is cleaned daily, kept dry and has sufficient bedding such as straw or wood shavings to cushion their feet and encourage them to rest.