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Equine Lameness: What You Need to Know

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 is a problem if your horse‘s gait is abnormal in any way. In some cases, the way a horse’s head bobs can indicate that he or she is having difficulty. 

Lameness can stem from hoof inflammation, injury or shoddy farrier work. Broken bones and injured muscles, tendons or ligaments can cause lameness. If your horse has been injured or has conformation problems and is favoring one side of the body over the other, this can also cause lameness. Overwork and improper conditioning can also cause problems, and there are several types of inflammatory, neurological and infectious diseases that can induce lameness too.

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. Your equine veterinarian 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, the vet examines your horse by touch (“palpation”) to evaluate tissue tenderness, texture, heat, inflammation, etc. in the joints, bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. 

The veterinarian will also bend and flex the legs and check your horse’s hooves carefully. Even sound is important during these evaluations: the vet will actually listen to the sound and rhythm of your horse’s gait for unevenness. Nerve blocks, joint blocks and x-rays can further isolate the area with the problem. After this, the veterinarian will use a scoring system from 0 (no noticeable problems) to 5 (severe lameness, even during rest) to rank how bad the lameness is.

After isolating the cause of the lameness, your equine vet can 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—and if lameness strikes, act fast with the help of an experienced equine veterinarian.

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