Lameness in horses is a serious and painful problem with several possible causes, and it is important to notice the signs early to improve the chances of successful treatment. Lameness can show up as a head nod, a "weak hind end", or as a reduction in performance (slower times, loss of ability to perform movements, refuse fences or changes in behavior).
The causes of lameness can stem from hoof inflammation, injury or hoof imbalances. In addition, acute severe lamenesses can be caused by broken bones and injured muscles, tendons or ligaments or foreign bodies in the hoof. Finally, there several types of inflammatory, neurological and infectious diseases that can induce lameness as well.
Preventing, Diagnosing and Treating Equine Lameness
Preventing lameness is always preferable to treating it afterward, but this is not always possible. Some preventative measures you can take, however, are making sure not to overwork your horse, ensure he or she has proper training and conditioning for daily tasks, proper farrier work and hoof care, and regular veterinary checkups. Sound nutrition, proper rest and hydration are also critical for avoiding lameness due to health problems.
When prevention does not work, however, it is important to notice the signs of lameness promptly and to engage the help of your veterinarian right away. During a lameness evaluation we will first watch your horse as he or she walks from a distance, and from all sides to evaluate any asymmetries showing the horse overcompensating in one area because of injury to another area. Then, we examine your horse by touch (“palpation”) to evaluate tissue tenderness, texture, heat, inflammation, etc. in the joints, bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
An evaluation often includes bending and flexing the legs as well as checking your horse’s hooves carefully. If needed the use of nerve blocks, joint blocks, ultrasound and x-rays can further isolate and identify the area with the problem.
After identifying the cause of the lameness, we will recommend a course of treatment. Of course, treatments vary widely, ranging from rest, anti-inflammatory medications and gentle therapeutic walking all the way to surgery—it simply depends on the reason behind the horse’s lameness. As equine veterinary science continues to advance, newer treatments are coming out all the time to help even horses with severe lameness. Everything from stem-cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma to laser therapy and alternative treatments such as acupuncture and equine chiropractic care are possible options.
The most important thing you can do is work to prevent the situations that can lead to lameness. But if you see signs of lameness or poor performance prompt identification and treatment of the issue can help keep your horse sound for years to come.