Most lameness issues with a horse indicate problems with the horses foot.
A horse is far more likely to recover from lameness if it is spotted, diagnosed, and treated early. Therefore, the minute that you realise that something may be wrong with your horse, it is important to contact a veterinary expert.
Often, early equine lameness is spotted when the horse is being worked, when you notice the horse may not be traveling correctly. A swift diagnosis can make all the difference when it comes to the horse making a full recovery, with the recovery time reduced if a condition is spotted quickly.
Published in 2014, Great Britain's National Equine Health Survey (NEHS) indicated some alarming statistics surrounding lameness in horses;
- Lameness affects one in five horses.
- Most lameness was due to an issue with the joint in the horses foot.
- The most common cause of lameness is damage to the deep digital flexor tendon.
- Only 25% of lameness was non-foot related.
While some think that waiting to see if equine lameness solves itself is best, this could not be further from the truth. By waiting a few weeks before determining the cause of equine lameness, it can make it more difficult to not only identify the problem but also more difficult to treat.
You must act quickly; so at any stage you notice your horse is showing signs of lameness you must consult with a professional.
Get A Hands On Diagnosis
While there is a number of different technologies on the market that can aid diagnosis, perhaps the most important step is a physical examination, which should happen quickly after the onset of lameness. This is because it means the vet can see your horse and the way it moves up close and personal and may be able to notice subtle movements that will not be detected in a scan. It can also help a vet narrow down where on the body may require further scans or treatment.
If you have called a vet to look at your horse, try and avoid painkillers such as anti-inflammatories, as these can numb the pain and can reduce lameness, making it harder to detect the cause of the problem.
During the examination, your vet will ask you to move your horse around so that they can observe it walking, jumping, or moving around obstacles, and then complete a full body examination to look for swelling or painful spots. Furthermore, they may get them to walk on different ground textures due to the fact that different surfaces highlight different problems better. Getting a note of the medical history of the horse from its owner is also vital in case there is an underlying health condition or previous injury that could be contributing to its lameness.
If the vet suspects the pain may be coming from your horse’s hoof, they may use hoof testers to identify any bruising or abscesses. If they suspect joint pain, they will try flexion tests where they will measure the range of the joint movement to identify any weaknesses.
To determine the severity of the lameness, the vet may use the common lameness scale used by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. On the scale, zero stands for no lameness, while five is seen to be the most severe and may be the most complicated to treat.
The Next Steps
If the vet has managed to establish from their initial examination the cause of the lameness, whether it be a hoof issue (such as ringbone or sesamoid injuries) arthritis, a DDFT injury or something else, they can then begin to treat it or investigate the issue further. Such investigations may include a local anaesthetic known as a nerve block being injected into the leg to see if this helps the horse’s movement. If the movement improves, the area where you have injected will be the issue as the horse is fine if it cannot feel it. You may, therefore, be asked to ride your horse during the process to help with the diagnosis.
After this, if further tests are required, your vet may look at other methods of diagnosis such as thermal imaging, MRI’s, radiographs and ultrasounds. These can lead to quite a large bill from your vet so be prepared for this, although the majority of equine insurance companies will cover 100% of an MRI scan it is worth checking with yours before the scan takes place.
Further Technological Diagnostic Measures
The physical examination on your horse in person may lead to the vet needing to delve a little deeper into finding out the root of the problem. For example, if the vet recognises signs of navicular disease, they may want to look at some x-rays to help with their diagnosis. If they believe a hairline fracture is the cause of lameness, a radiograph may be ordered. These types of scans can allow vets to see the problem area from a number of different angles, allowing them to get a clearer picture. They can also be sent to experts or other vets for second opinions if there is still uncertainty.
When it comes to issues with bones that are causing lameness, radiographs are one of the best tools for diagnosis. If, however, it is down to ligament or tendon pain, ultrasound is a far more effective option as it is clearer to detect.
If further tests still do not reveal the cause of the lameness in your horse, there are more modern technologies that can be utilised to try and identify the issue.
Widely adopted within the equine community is thermal imaging; a 'new' technique using thermal cameras which can be a highly accurate diagnosis tool and particularly useful if an injury has occurred inside the animal such as a muscle strain, tendon, ligament or a splint injury. 'Hotspots' and 'coldspots' shown in thermal imaging can also be useful at detecting early signs of an injury meaning the technology is now becoming widely used as preventative measure and not only as a reactive measure. Thermal imaging is relatively low-cost and can be extremely beneficial in providing the best recovery plan for a lameness issue.
Advanced imaging such as CT or MRI scans, as well as nuclear scintigraphy, may be used, however, they do come at a high cost, so again check if your insurance will cover this.
In many professional yards these technologies will be used on their sports horses as a preventative diagnosis tool.
Bone scans such as scintigraphy identify where bones may be weaker and are trying to heal, allowing the specific area where there is an issue to be identified. Treatment can then be easily directed to this area and may include modern alternatives such as IRAP or shock wave therapy. Experts suggest that if this is the case, horses with lameness will recover well, and their performance levels should return to around 90% of pre-injury level – a better outlook than other treatments.
While you may suspect lameness in your horse, a qualified vet is needed to ensure an accurate diagnosis. The vet will need to work with the horse owner to identify what injury or condition they have and how it may have started. A series of tests may be required to pinpoint the exact issue. After this, a vet can work with you to create a treatment plan and give advice on how to prevent this from happening again.
Applying holistic support to the horse with products such as EQU Streamz Advanced Magnetic horse bands and a natural healthy and balanced diet will be key to their recovery.
Remember, the most important factor when dealing with equine lameness is time, so act fast for a better outcome for your horse.