Horse Health

Evaluating the Lame Horse

November 11, 2010

Stress, strain or injury can take a toll on any horse.

Working your horse on a longe line is a good way to evaluate soundness.

From The American Association of Equine Practitioners

Stress, strain or injury can take a toll on any horse, even one with no obvious conformation defects. When lameness occurs, you should contact your veterinarian immediately. An examination can save you time, money and frustration by diagnosing and treating the problem immediately, possibly preventing further damage. The goal of such early examinations is to keep small problems from becoming big ones.

Lameness evaluations are also routine in most purchase examinations. When your veterinarian evaluates an animal you are considering for purchase, you may be forewarned about potential problems and should be able to make a more informed decision.

Lameness Defined
Traditionally, lameness has been defined as any alteration of the horse’s gait. In addition, lameness can be manifested in such ways as a change in attitude or performance. These abnormalities can be caused by pain in the neck, withers, shoulders, back, loin, hips, legs or feet. Identifying the source of the problem is essential to proper treatment.

Cuts and wounds are inevitably going to happen to your horse. Are you prepared? Download AQHA’s FREE Horse Wound Care report so you will be able to properly treat your horse in the event of an injury.

Examination Procedures
Veterinarians have specific systems for performing examinations, depending on the reasons for the evaluation. However, essential features of a thorough examination include the following:

  • The medical history of the horse. The veterinarian asks the owner questions relating to the past and present difficulties of the horse. He or she also inquires about exercise or work requirements and any other pertinent information.
  • A visual appraisal of the horse at rest. The veterinarian will study conformation, balance and weight bearing, and look for any evidence of injury or stress.
  • A thorough hands-on exam during which the veterinarian palpates the horse, checking muscles, joints, bones and tendons for evidence of pain, heat, swelling or any other physical abnormalities.
  • Application of hoof testers to the feet. This instrument allows the veterinarian to apply pressure to the soles of the feet to check for undue sensitivity or pain. Many practitioners will concentrate on the front feet, as 60-65 percent of the horse’s weight will be supported by the front limbs.
  • Evaluation of the horse in motion. The veterinarian watches the horse walking and trotting. Gait evaluation on different ground surfaces (soft to hard) may give valuable information as to the nature of a particular lameness. Observing the horse from the front, back and both side views, the veterinarian notes any deviations in gait (such as winging or paddling), failure to land squarely on all four feet and the unnatural shifting of weight from one limb to another. The horse also walks and trots in circles, on a longe line, in a round pen and under saddle. The veterinarian looks for certain signals, such as shortening of the stride, irregular foot placement, head bobbing, stiffness, weight shifting, etc.
  • Joint flexion tests. The veterinarian holds the horse’s limbs in a flexed position and then releases the leg. As the horse trots away, the veterinarian watches for signs of pain, weight shifting or irregular movement. Flexing the joints in this manner may reveal problems that are not otherwise readily apparent.

Diagnostic Tests
Diagnostic procedures can isolate the specific location and cause of lameness. Lameness is best treated with a specific diagnosis. If your veterinarian has cause for concern based on initial examination, he or she may recommend further tests, like those listed below.

  • Diagnostic nerve and joint blocks. These analgesic techniques are perhaps the most important tools used to identify the location of lameness. Working systematically, the veterinarian temporarily deadens sensation to specific segments of the limb, one joint at a time, until the lameness disappears. Blocks can also help determine whether the condition is treatable.
  • Radiographs. These are useful in identifying damage or changes to bony tissues. They should be interpreted only by an experienced and knowledgeable veterinarian, since not all changes are cause for concern. Radiographs provide limited information about soft tissue, such as tendons, ligaments or structures inside the joints, which are often the source of lameness.
  • Scintigraphy (nuclear scanning). Radioisotopes injected intravenously into the horse are concentrated in areas of injury. These areas are scanned with a gamma camera, providing an image of the troubled site. Horses will need to be quarantined for radioactivity after this procedure.
  • Ultrasound (sonography). This procedure uses ultrasonic waves to image internal structures.
  • Arthroscopy. This surgical procedure allows visual examination of the inside of a joint or tendon sheath. It requires general anesthesia, but may be the only way to define the damage. Some diagnoses can only be made with arthroscopy. If deemed necessary, surgical treatment is often performed at the same time.
  • Blood, synovial (joint) fluid and tissue samples are examined for infection, inflammation or metabolic abnormalities (muscle biopsy). These exams usually require lab testing.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging. A recent tool to evaluate soft tissue and bony problems primarily of the lower leg, an MRI provides excellent resolution and detail. Limited availability may be a short-term problem.

Cuts and wounds are inevitably going to happen to your horse. Are you prepared? Download AQHA’s FREE Horse Wound Care report so you will be able to properly treat your horse in the event of an injury.

Honored a Loved One on Wall of Honor Plaza

The Wall of Honor Plaza, showcasing bricks from the Wall of Honor Brick Program, offers many exciting opportunities to memorialize and honor people or horses with commemorative medallions or pavers.
The American Quarter Horse Foundation is offering three gift ideas:

  • Gift Medallions at $350 each
  • Hall of Fame Medallions at $1,000 each
  • Plaza Pavers at $5,000 each.

Please contact the American Quarter Horse Foundation or call (806) 378-5036 to learn more and to order your medallion or paver today.

Proceeds from your purchase will help us protect and serve our horses.  We hope you will consider a medallion or paver to celebrate a horse or honor a life.