Many vets spend their careers striving to become experts at evaluating, diagnosing and treating lameness. Horse owners need not become experts, but I believe should understand the basic ideas behind equine lameness.
It is important for you to be able to recognize when your horse is lame, possibly identify the limb(s) that is lame (forelimb lameness is easier to identify than hind limb lameness), and roughly determine the severity of the lameness. By sharing this information with your vet, you can help them identify the problem.
After your horse sustains a limb injury, it is very important for you to be accustomed to evaluating your horse for the degree of lameness, because this will help you determine the effectiveness of treatment and the healing process. Obvious or severe lameness is detectible at the walk. Less obvious lameness conditions will not be seen at the walk but become visible at the trot.
Perform this skill on a hard, even surface, preferably pavement, concrete, or very hard-packed soil.
With a handler at the head of the haltered horse, begin by observing the horse standing. Watch for a moment. Do you think that the horse’s conformation predisposes it to lameness? How so? Does the horse rest a hind limb, or keep a front foot or both front feet placed abnormally forward? Have the handler step the horse forward one step and watch a bit more.
Now have your handler lead the horse directly away from you on this hard, even surface.... Is the horse walking up normally or are they resistant and dragging on the lead? Pay attention from this perspective to how low the horse’s rear fetlocks settle with each step, and to the symmetry of movement of the hips….. Is one side held higher than the other as weight is borne? Which one? Do the hind limbs move relatively straight or do they swing in or out when viewed from behind? Do the hooves appear to land flat or on the inside or outside?
Now have your handler turn the horse in a 5 meter left hand circle, on a long lead. Does the horse hesitate or raise the head as the left forefoot is placed on the ground and they bear weight? Does the inside front fetlock sink fully with weight bearing? Does the horse seem to resist turning in a circle, or do they willingly do it?
Now have your handler turn the horse in a 5 meter right hand circle, on a long lead…… Does the horse seem to resist turning in a circle or do they willingly do it? Does the horse hesitate or raise the head as the right forefoot is placed on the ground and they bear weight? Does the inside front fetlock sink fully with weight bearing?
Now have your handler walk the horse back toward you. Does the horse raise their head when bearing weight on either of the front limbs? If so, which front limb is on the ground as the head is raised?.... That will be the lame limb….. From this view, do the front fetlocks settle equally in weight bearing? Does each forefoot appear to land flat on the ground, or on either the inside or outside first? Does the limb breakover straight, or does it wing inward or outward?
Now stand to the side of the horse and have the handler walk the horse by you. Does each limb track the same?...... Does one hind limb track shorter than the other, in other words, is the length of each step the same? Does the horse land flat footed, on the toe or heel?
Once you have seen all this, write your findings down before you forget.
Tips for safety & Success
When vets refer to a horse's limbs, we designate left and right by the horse's left and right, not yours. Use the flattest, hardest surface you can when examining your horse for lameness at the walk. A concrete alleyway is ideal. Work in a well-lit area if possible.
Note, it is very helpful if you can send a video to your vet of the suspected lameness, and it is best if you have an assistant walk the horse so you can watch.
The handler should use pressure and instant release to ask a horse forward. As your horse steps forward, their head should be free of pressure. Carefully study the movement of the horse's head and shoulders to help you identify the lame leg. In forelimb lameness, a horse's head raises as the lame leg hits the ground.
The lameness grading scale I use is similar to the AAEP's scale: There is argument that it is not specific enough, but it will suffice for our needs here.
Grade 1: Barely noticeable, and only at times during the exam. Usually only noticeable on one of the turns.
Grade 2: More consistently noticeable and can see during both straights and one turn but not the other.
Grade 3: Consistently more noticeable both ways and both turns.
Grade 4: Difficulty walking but will put foot on the ground. Pronounced limp with each step.
Grade 5: Non-weight bearing or toe-touching lame. Hops when affected limb is on the ground.
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