Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Lameness, Generally

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Green - Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • If this problem seems severe and has come on suddenly.
  • If the horse cannot bear weight on the limb or seems otherwise distressed.
  • If you think your horse may have sustained a fracture or other severe injury.
  • If severe and obvious lameness is visible at the walk.

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

  • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.
  • Limping is visible at the walk but the horse does not seem distressed.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If you have noticed any alteration in your horse's gait.

Code Green - Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources

  • Even if the horse does not appear to be lame to you.
  • If you wonder whether limitations on your horse's performance could relate to lameness.

Lameness is an alteration in the way a horse moves a limb or multiple limbs that can result from pain or a mechanical change in the function of a limb. Lameness, generally, causes great pain and suffering for horses. It is the problem causing the greatest loss of use for horses, and the most economic impact to the horse industry.

Lameness can be so subtle that it goes undetected by a horse owner or rider for years. In many cases, its only manifestation may be reduced performance which is erroneously attributed to “the way he is.”

Lameness can also be profound, as in horses that hesitate to place any weight on a limb or take a step forward. Lameness can be acute (develop rapidly) or chronic (long-term) and may or may not inhibit a horse’s ability to perform a certain task.

Sometimes lameness is evident only during certain activities. Other times it is constantly evident regardless of the task at hand. Certain lameness conditions are commonly seen in horses engaged in particular disciplines, while being rare in the population otherwise.

Lameness can be caused by literally thousands of different conditions, from an obvious wound or fracture, a sole bruise or “hot nail”, to chronic conditions like osteoarthritis, to vague and poorly defined conditions like a strained muscle, to systemic diseases like laminitis. To make things even more complicated, a primary lameness condition can lead to pain and dysfunction in other limbs and other parts of the body, like the back. That needs to be differentiated from the “primary” lameness condition.


If you think your horse is lame, then stop riding them and seek a veterinary lameness exam. Perform the Whole Horse Exam, putting emphasis on determining which limb is lame, characterizing when and how the lameness appears. Look at and feel the affected limb for swelling, heat, digital pulse. Always pick up the hoof and carefully evaluate the sole. Assess for lameness at walk and trot (if appropriate) to the best of your ability, then get your vet involved.

When in doubt, rest a lame horse in a small enclosure (no larger than 20′ (6 meters) diameter until your vet can determine the nature of the problem, and provide treatment options.


Depending on the severity and nature of the lameness, and many other factors, vets are usually able to narrow down the potential cause of lameness. The veterinary diagnostic process centers around the lameness exam, a methodical series of steps taken to narrow down the location and type of the condition causing lameness.

It is important for horse owners to understand the basics regarding equine limb anatomy and function, common causes of equine lameness and the veterinarian’s role in diagnosing and treating lameness. The more aware you are, the more likely you are to detect or consider lameness, and take steps toward diagnosis and treatment.

What Not To Do

Do not give your horse pain relieving medications and ask them to perform their job, without a diagnosis. You may cause them to over-exert, worsening the injury.

Do not listen to the majority of non-veterinarians, many of whom will be happy to give you strong opinions about what is wrong with your horse and even tell you how to treat it. In most cases, this is nothing more than a guess. There is a tiny minority of non-vet professionals who have real lameness experience and knowledge just from their vast equine experience. They will be the first ones to encourage you to seek a diagnosis from a knowledgeable veterinarian.

Identify or Rule-Out Possible CausesDIAGNOSES

Lameness, Conditions Causing, Generally
Sole, Foot or Hoof Abscess
Joint Capsulitis, Synovitis, Tenosynovitis
Osteoarthritis, OA, Generally
Traumatic Injury Bruise or Contusion
Laminitis, Chronic
Laminitis, Acute
Splints, Splint Exostosis
Sole, Foot, Corn or Heel Bruise
Hoof Pain After Trimming or Shoes Pulled
Fracture of Carpal Bone Chip & Slab
Ligament & Tendon Injuries, Generally
Neck Conditions, Generally
Hoof Wall Cracks, Generally
Contracted Heels
Lameness, Undiagnosed
Sheared Heels
Foot or Hoof Conditions, Undiagnosed
Flexor Tendon Injury, Tendinitis, Bowed Tendon
Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Disease, DSLD
Osteochondrosis, OC, Osteochondritis Dissecans, OCD
Pastern Arthritis, High Ringbone
Sporadic Lymphangitis
Suspensory Ligament Branch Injury
Annular Ligament Disease, Palmar or Plantar
Nail or Other Foreign Body Punctures Foot, Sole or Frog
Deep Digital Flexor Tendinitis in Hoof
Fetlock Arthritis, Osselets
Salmonella Colitis (in Growing Foal or Adult)
Bucked Shins
Coffin Joint Arthritis, Low Ringbone
Club Foot, Flexural Deformity (in Adult)
Fibrotic Myopathy
Foal, Contracted Tendon DDFT, Coffin Joint
Intermittent Upward Fixation of Patella
Back Pain, Generally
Suspensory Ligament Body Injury
Proximal Suspensory Ligament Injury, Front Limb
Proximal Suspensory Ligament Injury, Hind Limb
Strain or Injury Distal Ligaments Proximal Sesamoid
Coffin Joint Collateral Ligament Injury
Lymphedema, Chronic Progressive
Wounds to Heel &/or Pastern, Heel Bulb Area
Peroneus Tertius Rupture
Intervertebral Osteoarthritis
Clostridial Muscle & Fascia Infection (Myonecrosis)
Aging Changes, Generally
Wound or Laceration from Overreach Injury
Hoof Wall Crack, Heel & Quarter
Stress or Hairline Fractures, Generally
Stifle Meniscal & Collateral Ligament Injury
Subchondral Bone Cyst, Generally
Fracture of Splint Bone
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Carpal Canal Tenosynovitis
Pedal Osteitis, Marginal Fractures Coffin Bone
Carpal Hygroma, Synovial Hernia, Ganglion
Cruciate Ligament Injury
Carpal Arthritis, Carpitis
Flexural Deformity Fetlock Joint, SDFT
Pigeon Fever
Conformational Defects, Back, Generally
Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, PPID
Subchondral Bone Cyst, Stifle
Fracture of Cannon Bone, Condylar
Aorto-Iliac Thrombosis
Equine Metabolic Syndrome, EMS
Wound or Laceration of Coronet Band & Hoof Wall
Carbohydrate or Grain Overload
Vasculitis, Generally
Lyme Disease, Borreliosis
Collateral Ligament Injury or Rupture, Generally
Hoof Wall Crack, Blowout
Fracture of Sesamoid Bones
Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, EPM
Navicular Bursa Penetrated by Foreign Body
Fracture of Extensor Process P3
Quittor, Infected Collateral Cartilage
Inferior Check Ligament Strains or Tears
Wound or Laceration involving Lower Limb Flexor Tendon
Pigeon Toe (in Growing Foal or Adult)
Fracture of Radius or Tibia
Fracture of Scapula or Point of Shoulder
Fracture of Femur & 3rd Trochanter Fracture
Radial Exostosis & Osteochondroma
Luxated Patella
Fracture of Humerus
Fracture of Hip, Pelvis
Bone Bruise
Big Head or Bran Disease
Fluoroquinolone Induced Tendinopathy
Equine Canker
Dislocated Hip, Coxo-Femoral Luxation
Pastern Dermatitis, Scratches, Mud Fever
Obesity, Overweight or Fat
Selenium Toxicity
Fescue Toxicosis
Black Walnut Shavings Toxicity
Vesicular Stomatitis, VS
Shoe Boil, Olecranon Bursitis
Upward Curvature of Spine, Lumbar Kyphosis
Hoary Alyssum Toxicity
Granulosa, Theca Cell Tumor & Other Ovarian Tumors
Bacteremia, Septicemia (in Adult)
Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.