Common Causes of Equine Lameness | Treatments and Prevention
What is Equine Lameness?
Just like any other modern domesticated animal, horses can suffer from a number of illnesses and health conditions across their lifetime. You need to check-up daily on their health and well-being and feed them properly to ensure they live a long and healthy lifestyle. But keep in mind, a common issue you might face throughout different stages of the horses life is equine lameness. Having a lame horse holds a lot of responsibilities and will require immediate attention.
Equine lameness usually refers to a condition in which a horse's gait or posture is irregular. Pain, a mechanical issue, or a neurological disorder can all contribute to lameness. Lameness is due to discomfort in the musculoskeletal system (muscles, ligaments, or bones), which causes irregular trotting.
It is something to worry about no matter how mild the lameness is and can happen at any time of the year; whether an injury found in the summer when horses are more active or injuries commonly found in the winter when horses spend more time stabled.
There are four main levels of gait within a horse. The first level is their walk. Their 'trot' is the working gait for a horse and the first level up from walk. This is followed by their 'canter' and then their full stride when running, their gallop. Horses can only canter and gallop for short periods of time.
Your horse requires care just like your own child. We’ll be discussing this topic thoroughly below including various treatments horse owners adopt, how best to spot lameness in your horse and preventative measures you may wish to take.
Common Causes of Lameness
It may be tough to detect lameness in your horse as it is quite common for them to face different levels of lameness at varying stages of their lives and development.
Take a close look at them regularly so you can identify any issues early as in most cases no one will know your horse or their gait better than you. Lameness can occur in all horses including sports horses or pet horses.
Lameness is not a disease but a trauma that causes disabilities, so pay particular interest in how the horse moves, it’s gait and overall demeanour.
Definition of Gait: The ‘gait of a horse’ can be defined as a particular way of moving, either natural or acquired, which is characterised by a distinctive rhythmic movement of the feet, hips and legs. There are four natural gaits which we would see in wild horses - walk, trot, pace and gallop.
The following common causes of equine lameness are broadly discussed below;
Pain Or Trauma
In all horses, pain is the most common cause of lameness. Weight-bearing (supporting leg) and non-weight-bearing (swinging limb) lameness are two types of pain-related lameness. Although lameness is commonly associated with a loss of weight-bearing capacity, it can be a combination of both.
Similarly, trauma or orthopaedic illness are the most common causes, although other factors like metabolic dysfunction, circulatory disease, and infection can also result in pain and lameness.
Pain can occur all over the horses body and is thought to directly relate to inflammation. In most cases inflammation can be internal and not visible to the human eye. In other cases inflammatory conditions such as Windgalls can result in an inflammatory response but not result in lameness.
Orthopaedic: Trauma that associates with damage to the bone, hoof, joints, or any soft tissues can result in orthopaedic lameness.
Your horse will always be at a risk of lameness due to poor hoof balance, working on uneven ground, repetitive motions, inadequate fitness for a specific activity and competing at a high athletic level.
Equally, many injuries and traumas caused to bones, hoofs and joints result through ongoing and repetitive motions and some will experience a trauma through a sudden injury or fall.
Diet-related and Metabolic: Diet-related causes include laminitis, azoturia, and nutritional imbalance which are usually due to a high intake of carbohydrates and not a balanced diet. Metabolic trauma can cause hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) and polysaccharide storage myopathy that have a direct impact on muscle function.
Infection: Infections are usually due to tissue damages and/or an inflammatory response. The problems that may arise in your horse are- septic arthritis, thrush, Whiteline disease, Quittor, and Canker. Some of these are bacterial and some of them are chronic. Remember a healthy horse has healthy hooves. Ensuring your horses hooves are well maintained, free from any cuts or wounds and regularly inspected can help avoid lameness created by infection.
In essence, lameness which leads to a reduction in mobility levels. This can relate to muscular injuries such and tendon and ligament strains or related to an equine joint condition such as equine arthritis.
Complete upward fixation of the patella with its distinctive posture abnormalities is the most common cause of mechanical lameness, although it can be due to fibrotic myopathy of the semitendinosus muscle or limitations due to annular ligaments, adhesions, or severe fibrosis.
Analgesics are unresponsive in treating full upward fixation of the patella. Although pain-related lameness is commonly treated with systemic or local analgesics and NSAID anti-inflammatory medications. Some causes of lameness result in extremely distinct and well-described changes to the horses gait.
- The afflicted leg is swiftly pushed back and down before the conclusion of the protraction phase in fibrotic myopathy. Creating the appearance that the foot "slaps down" on the ground. You can mostly notice this during the walking stage.
Infection, trauma, toxins, or congenital illness can all cause neurological lameness. If the reason for the lameness is not evident, a neurological examination of your horse may be necessary. Unilateral muscular atrophy, paresis, paralysis, or dysmetria often link with a neurologic cause.
- The afflicted limb is hyper flexed during the cranial or swing phase of stringhalt. It is a neuromuscular condition, where the progressive caudal jerking action before foot contact is absent.
- Muscle tremors, difficulties picking up the hind feet when asked to lift for farriery work, hyperflexion or hyperextension of the hind limbs, and abduction of the hind limbs are all symptoms of shivers, an uncommon neuromuscular disease.
- Compression of the spinal cord in the cervical (neck) area causes lameness, ataxia, and changes in posture, notably in the hind legs, as well as neck stiffness or pain in cervical vertebral stenotic myelopathy (Wobbler disease).
- Neoplastic (cancerous) changes in the brain or surrounding the spinal cord can also cause abnormalities in gait.
- Cerebellar abiotrophy is a rare genetic disease that causes ataxia, a base-wide stance, proprioceptive abnormalities, and a high-stepping gait in Arabian horses.
Symptoms of Equine Lameness
Any deviation in gait from the horse's usual gait is an indication of lameness. Even if you can't see or feel an evident lameness, you may notice a decline in your horse's performance or a change in their demeanour with more subtle lameness concerns.
When utilising visual clues, it is generally more difficult to identify hind limb lameness than it is to detect lameness in the front limb. As a result, it is important to get a lameness test as soon as possible.
Front Limb Lameness
While a horse has front limb lameness, it will frequently elevate its head higher when walking on the disturbed leg and lower it when treading on the sound limb. Your horse may not put its foot down, in the same manner, it typically does, and one forelimb's stride may be significantly shorter than the other.
The phrase refers to "down on sound". A horse may also try to reduce the stress on a lame front leg by tensing the shoulder muscles. It will tighten the leg right before it reaches the ground in this scenario, an indication that an attentive observer may detect.
Hind Limb Lameness
When looking at the horse from behind, the disorder will be most obvious. The foot placement may look strange, and the stride may be shorter on one side than the other. Yet dragging of the hoof is more prevalent with the rear limb, just as it is with the front leg.
When a horse is in pain during the early stance period of the trot, the pelvis will not descend as far. When the lame leg is weighted, attempting to avoid putting more weight on the painful limb. This is referred to as a "hip hike" when you view from behind.
When the horse is in pain when pushing off a limb, it will not push off with as much power, and the pelvis will lift less on the lame side. Compared to when the sound leg is on the ground at the same position in the stride. This refers to as the "hip roll" when you view from the back
How Equine Lameness Is Diagnosed?
When it comes to diagnosing a lame horse, there are two major objectives. The first step is to figure out where the pain or weakness comes from. This can be more difficult than it appears, especially if the symptoms of lameness appear to involve more than one limb.
According to research, viewers are more capable of properly identifying front limb lameness than hind limb lameness. The second objective is to figure out what's causing the problem so that an appropriate treatment plan can be devised.
The following medical diagnosis for your lame horse can be-
- Ultrasounds and X-rays.
- CT Scans.
- Bone scan.
- Thermal Imaging.
- Blood test.
How To Treat Equine Lameness?
The treatment for a lame horse will greatly depend on the cause of the lameness. Equine lameness is often a difficult condition to cure.
Treatment can be administered locally, systemically, via intralesional injections and the treatment method may alter as your horse heals and recovers.
The ultimate objective is to minimize the pain and inflammation associated with the injury whilst helping the damaged tissue to repair with normal structure and function.
Then, after recovery, it is important to restore your horse to the best level of performance possible.
- Rest and hand walking are common advice for lame horses, to reduce the stress on the affected limb and allow it to recuperate.
- NSAID painkiller medications such as Banamine Paste, Danilon, Phenylbutazone, and Phenylzone Paste are examples of NSAID pain relievers that vets regularly diagnose to decrease inflammation and vasodilation. It is important that owners do not exceed the dosage and a prescription is required to obtain the medication.
- Proper shoeing can frequently help lameness. This includes just re-fitting shoes that don't fit correctly, supplying the horse with specialist hospital shoes that cover the sole and also open, or custom-making shoes for that horse, which is most common for horses with limb malformations.
- Cryotherapy is a method of reducing pain and inflammation in acute soft tissue injuries by applying cold to the skin. At least 48-72 hours after the original injury, heat (thermotherapy) is generally administered. To decrease edema and swelling, compression in the form of pressure wraps is what doctors’ use in conjunction.
- Manipulative therapies which include Chiropractic, Osteopathy and Physiotherapy are treatments which many horse owners now resort too for many types of lameness. Learn more on the differences between physiotherapy versus chiropractic work.
- Surgery is sometimes the best treatment for several types of lameness, including abnormalities, bone fragments, and even cancers.
- Mesotherapy is a procedure that involves injecting medicine into the skin in several rows on both sides of the spine. This treatment is common to treat neck and back pain, and it is considered to interrupt the chronic pain cycle.
- Physical Therapy includes cardio exercise on high-speed treadmills, passive flexion, and swimming and is actually a form of manipulative therapy.
- Complementary Devices such as Advanced Magnetism, Massage pads ceramic rugs have seen significant technological improvements over the years and are now widely adopted to support many types of lameness. Unlike prescribed medicines many of these health-related devices offer a holistic and natural approach to treating lameness which can be used over long periods of time.
- A soft tissue structure may need to be removed to give a horse the best chance of recovering soundness. The cutting of tendons (tenotomy) or ligaments (ligamentotomy) are examples of these operations (ligament desmotomy).
Prevention of Equine Lameness In Horses
Preventing horse lameness is definitely worth the effort as a horse owner, and it will pay off for you and your horse in the long run. Spotting lameness in horses early can be highly advantageous.
Lameness may be avoided by good husbandry and vaccination measures, with many owners now approaching their horses ongoing wellbeing as a key strategy in avoiding lameness.
Schedule Farrier and Veterinarian Appointments Regularly
Regular trims, in addition to everyday foot care, are necessary for optimum hoof health. If you keep your horse shod, you'll need new shoes every six to eight weeks on average.
Make sure your horse is up to date on all vaccinations, including tetanus toxoid and antitoxin shots. Moreover, those vaccines that prevent infectious illnesses and other conditions that might cause lameness, by working with your veterinarian.
A veterinarian treats most orthopedic diseases and conditions in horses, such as laminitis, navicular problems, sand cracks, flat feet, sole bruises, tendonitis, side and ring bone and other diseases and conditions. Your vet can diagnose the extent of the problem and prescribe medications or therapies, as well as the help of a farrier who can keep the horse's feet at best.
Keep an eye out for rainy, muddy days, since they make the ground slick. Horses, like people, can slide and become lame as a result of muscles or ligaments being pulled. Because the more horses in a herd, the more likely they are to get into mischief, group turnout raises the odds of lameness.
Proper Hoof Care Regularly
Keeping your horse's hooves in good shape is critical to preventing lameness. You should pick out your horses' hooves. Clean the frog and hoof inside using a hoof pick to remove manure and dirt.
During daily maintenance, inspect your horse's shoes and notice any odd changes, smells, or discharge from the hoof. When it comes to horse foot care, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. At the first indication of illness, severe cracks, or other issues, contact your veterinarian or farrier.
Proper Warm-up and Cooldown
Warming up and cooling down a horse correctly is also important for preventing lameness. Warming up the horse increases his blood flow to his muscles and eases him into activity. This is especially crucial if your horse stays inside a stall most of the time.
Cooling down horses after exercises is an important part of learning how to keep your horse healthy. Like a thorough warm-up, cooling down allows a horse to adapt from an exercise to stall rest or turnout.
Ongoing Care and Wellbeing
Reducing the odds of your horse developing lameness is vitally important. The attitude of “prevention is as important as cure” is a good approach to have.
With a plethora of supplements, herbal diets and health-related tack now available many owners establish an individual or bespoke health care plan for their horse. A carefully balanced diet in conjunction with products such as warm winter rugs and EQU StreamZ magnetic bands can provide ongoing support to your horses wellbeing 365 days a year.
Alongside tack and their horses diet many owners now provide regular physiotherapy, massages, hydrotherapy and other professional treatments to keep their horse in tip-top shape.
Maintain Hygienic and Safe Stalls, Arenas, and Barns
Your horse's footfalls should be cushioned as well, especially if he's trained in high-impact disciplines like hunters, jumpers, or reining. Sand, artificial footing, and soil are just a few of the options for arena footing.
Horses need stables that are made of concrete or other hard surfaces. Rubber stall mats put over concrete floors can give a softer cushion and minimise discomfort and lameness, even though some barns have concrete flooring.
Make sure the places where your horse lives and works are clear of holes that a horse may fall into, as well as wire, nails, broken fence boards, sharp metal, machinery, and other items that your horse could run into and hurt.
Always remember that a healthy horse is a sound horse. Just like any other animal, your horse requires proper attention and treatment if it faces any discomfort. Therefore, regularly keep an eye on your horse so that you can detect any issues - such as equine lameness.
Having a lame horse can be a long and expensive road resulting in a high amount of horses being abandoned, unwanted or uncared for. We hope this article raises some awareness about equine lameness and how common the issue is and encourages readers to contribute to equine charities that rescue and take care of disabled, neglected and often unwanted horses - many of which experience lameness in one way or another.
Article written by StreamZ Team member: Carly Cruickshank, Retired International Grand Prix Dressage Professional (Canada).
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