What are Lameness?
Lameness is not an uncommon condition in equines, and most horses will experience it at some point in their lives. Defined as an abnormal gait or stance caused by a disorder of the locomotor system, this condition can range from a light limp to refusing to put any weight on the limb at all, and it may or may not occur concurrently with pain. Although lameness is relatively common in equines, it can also be serious and should be evaluated by a veterinary professional.
Lameness in horses is an abnormal gait or stance due to a disorder of the locomotor system and can have many causes, and therefore, many treatment options may be available.
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Symptoms of Lameness in Horses
Most of the signs that indicate that a horse is lame are apparent even to the untrained eye; however, other indicators might not be so obvious. It can depend on the reason for the lameness as well as its severity.
- Behavior changes
- Generalized limping
- Inability to put weight on the limb
- Poor performance
- Reluctance to stand
With front limb lameness, the horse will often lift its head higher when stepping on the distressed limb, and drop it when putting the weight on the sound limb. The animal may not place the foot down the same way it normally does, and the stride on one forelimb may be much shorter than on the other.
When a hind limb or foot is involved the disorder will be most apparent when viewing the horse from behind. Like with the front leg, the foot placement may appear odd, and the stride may be shorter on one side than the other, but the dragging of the hoof is more common with the hind limb. When the horse walks, it will lift its hip on the lame side to avoid putting as much weight on it and will allow the other side to dip a little bit to compensate.
Causes of Lameness in Horses
The feet and legs of a horse are essential to its health and well-being, but it is also a common point of injury. It is not uncommon for horses to experience some form of lameness in their lifetime, sometimes many times in their life.Many conditions can lead to lameness, including:
- Back injuries
- Bacterial infection
- Degenerative joint disorders
- Foot wounds
- Fungal infection
- Hoof cracks
- Limb deformities
- Navicular disease
- Poor foot conformation
- Septic bursitis
- Wounds on the leg
Diagnosis of Lameness in Horses
When dealing with a lame horse, the diagnosis has two main goals. The first goal is to determine where the pain or weakness is originating from. This can be more complicated than it seems, particularly when the signs of lameness seem to be affecting more than one limb. Research on the subject indicates that observers are better able to correctly identify front limb lameness than lameness of the hind limb. The second goal is to determine to underlying cause so that a proper treatment plan can be selected.
Diagnosis will generally start with a complete physical, with particular attention being paid to the legs and feet. A full history of the animal, including its activity levels, diet, and living conditions, may help determine the cause of the injury or weakness as well. The examining veterinarian will also probably conduct a lameness exam to evaluate the animal moving at different gaits. A complete blood count and biochemical profile will help establish if any infections are present, and a lactic acid test may either confirm or rule out laminitis. X-ray, ultrasound, and even scintigraphy may be utilized to check for any fractures or other abnormalities that may not be apparent from the initial exam.
Treatment of Lameness in Horses
The treatment for a lame horse will depend heavily on the cause of the lameness. Rest and hand walking are standard recommendations for lame horses, suggested in order to reduce the load on the leg that is affected so that healing can take place. NSAID pain management medication is also frequently employed to reduce the inflammation and vasodilation. It is essential to only use NSAID drugs as directed as they can become toxic at higher doses. Lameness can often be helped by proper shoeing.
This can mean simply refitting shoes that do not fit properly, providing the horse with specialized hospital shoes that both cover the bottom of the foot and also to open, giving easy access to caregivers, or even creating shoes specifically for that horse, used most often for horses with limb deformities or abnormalities. Antibiotic or antifungal treatments will most likely be prescribed if any infection is uncovered during testing and in some cases, corticosteroids are helpful as well. Some forms of lameness are best treated with surgery, particularly with certain kinds of deformities, bone fragments, or cancers.
Recovery of Lameness in Horses
In most cases restricted exercise will be required for full healing, particularly if the treatment is focused on the bone, tendon, or joints. If your horse needs equine surgery, you will be given specific instructions from your veterinarian regarding post surgery care for your horse. In most cases, stall confinement will be necessary for a short time to facilitate healing and regrowth. This can be a difficult transition for many animals, and depending on the temperament of the horse, sedation may be needed to keep the animal tranquil during this healing period. Once they are allowed out of their stall for exercise, they may require close supervision or hand-walking until they are suitably restored.