Hidden Lameness - Is Your Horse Suffering in Silence?
Source: Dechra Pharmaceuticals PLC
When you think of lameness, you probably think of a limp or change in gait that tells you your horse is hurting somewhere — perhaps from a hoof injury, an inflamed joint, or strained tendon. In fact, signs of lameness can be so subtle that even the most attentive horse owners may not recognize a problem until it becomes serious. But there are cues you can look for and actions you can take to keep your horse feeling healthy and performing at its peak.
Pain Hiding in Plain Sight
Lameness is the single greatest cause of financial loss in the equine industry, often resulting in premature retirement or euthanasia. But what is lameness, exactly?
Often referred to as “unsoundness,” lameness is not a specific disease; rather, it’s a catch-all term used to describe an abnormality in a horse’s movement caused by pain or a reduced range of motion.
Lameness in the front legs is usually easier to recognize since a foreleg limp is often more pronounced and consistent. Noticing hindlimb lameness is more challenging because the heavy muscling of the rear quarters makes it difficult to see or feel any gait abnormalities. Lameness can even appear as back pain or stiffness.
In fact, the signs of lameness can merely present as resistance to work or worsening performance. Unfortunately, many horses “suffer in silence” because of these nonspecific signs. Even bucking or biting can be mistaken for a behavioural problem when limb or joint pain is the true cause.
If your horse is shod, the shoe should be flush with the edge of the hoof and free of debris. Corrective shoes may be helpful in treating lameness, such as bar shoes to treat splayed hooves.
Staying a Step Ahead
While it’s not always possible to prevent lameness, there’s much you can do to reduce your horse’s risks and recognize problems early.
- Become a keen observer of your horse’s gait and overall body movement, so you’re more apt to notice any differences over time.
- Look for gait changes other than just a limp. For example, shorter-than-normal strides or one hind leg reaching farther forward than the other can be signs of lameness.
- Watch for behaviour changes like reluctance to “move out,” which could signal pain too subtle to cause a limp.
- Minimize stress on your horse’s joints and legs by maintaining an adequate body condition score.
- Remember that your horse is an athlete whose performance depends on proper conditioning, including warm-ups before and cool-downs after exercise. Avoid abrupt, strenuous exercise after long periods of inactivity.
- Understand and keep a sharp eye out for the most common types of lameness in your horse’s breed, conformation, and activity. For example, cutting and reining horses can be particularly prone to stifle lameness, while jumping horses may be predisposed to tendonitis in the forelimbs.
- Recognize that back pain or stiffness can be a sign of lameness.
- Make sure your horse gets proper foot care and shoeing, since both can affect your horse’s comfort, balance, and overall movement.
- Don’t attempt to treat lameness without a veterinarian’s diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Many supposed “miracle cures” are ineffective or disguise rather than treat the problem, resulting in needless expense for you, and pain and potential disability for your horse.
Above/Below: A daily hoof check is the ideal time to look for problem signs like punctures, tenderness, swelling, heat or an unpleasant smell.
A Brighter Outlook for Lameness Treatment
Because lameness has so many potential causes, it is critical that you partner with your veterinarian to determine what is wrong and what to do about it. Be prepared to answer questions about your horse’s overall health, activity, diet, and behaviour, since this information can provide clues about the source of your horse’s lameness.
Your veterinarian will also do a thorough lameness exam, which includes flexing your horse’s limbs as well as feeling for swelling, heat, pain, and other signs of injury or disease. There will also be a need to see how your horse moves at different gaits, and possibly see your horse work under saddle. Radiographs (x-rays), ultrasound, MRI, or other types of imaging can be used to provide a clear view of the affected areas.
Once all this information is collected, a diagnosis will be made and treatment can be recommended. This can range from inflammation-reducing injections to surgery to revolutionary new regenerative therapies that stimulate the body to heal itself. Your veterinarian may also suggest complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage, or chiropractic treatment.
Lameness is extremely common and potentially complex, but working with your equine veterinarian to treat problems early on can give you and your horse a critical “leg up” on returning to comfortable, effective performance.
Dechra has become a leader in global equine markets. In Canada we have established ourselves as leaders in the area of equine mobility with leading-edge lameness therapies.
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Main Photo: Lameness can be as subtle as a horse’s hesitation to work or worsening performance under saddle. Credit: Shutterstock/Kento35