What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Lameness, Generally


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- so called compensatory lameness. That often needs to be differentiated from the "primary" lameness condition.

  • 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.
You also might be observing
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your role


What To Do

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. It is especially important to confine a horse that is on an anti-inflammatory medication like bute. Confined, they are less likely to experience less pain, over-exert and worsen the injury.

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.

your vet's role

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.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • To you knowledge, did your horse have an accident or injure itself lately?
  • Is the horse limping or lame?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • What are the results of the limb exams?
  • If the horse is lame, how lame?
  • Is there digital pulse or heat in the foot of the lame limb?
  • Have you picked the hoof up and examined the walking surface of the hoof?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnostics Your Vet May Perform

Figuring out the cause of the problem. These are tests or procedures used by your vet to determine what’s wrong.

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Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP