Lameness is a general term that refers to a horse with an abnormal gait or stance. This is a common issue that requires assessment by a veterinarian to determine the cause and best course of action.

Common causes of lameness include strain or injury, acute or chronic laminitis, genetic traits, infection, metabolic issues, or neural disorders.

A timely lameness exam can identify the underlying cause and how to manage it to relieve pain and support longevity.

A lameness exam typically involves discussing the horse’s history, observing the horse at rest and in motion, performing flexion tests and using hoof testers to identify sources of pain. Further diagnostic tests may be needed if these assessments are not sufficient.

Lameness evaluations are also a crucial part of pre-purchase exams. Identifying possible lameness in a horse you are interested in purchasing allows you to determine if you would like to proceed with the purchase. If you purchase the horse, lameness exams can indicate what may become an issue in the future.

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Types of Lameness

According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, lameness is defined as an abnormality of a horse’s gait or stance. Lameness is not a disease itself but is a clinical sign that can be caused by pain, restrained movement or neuromuscular dysfunction.

Lameness is usually caused by pain in the muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, or joints. Less commonly, non-painful lameness can also occur from neurological dysfunction. [1]

Most lameness can be separated into the following categories:

  • Front end lameness
  • Hind end lameness
  • Pain in the back and sacroiliac
  • Compensatory lameness
  • Neurological lameness

Front End Lameness

Front leg lameness is the easiest to see with even the untrained eye. Front end lameness produces the classic “limp” one would expect to see with a painful limb.

When looking to see if a horse is lame in front, look for two features of the gait:

  • Head bobbing
  • Differences in range of motion

When stepping on a painful limb, most horses will use the placement of their head to try to alleviate pressure on that limb. Horses will raise their head when they step on a sore limb to reduce pressure on that limb and lower it when they step with the non-painful limb.

When trotting your horse on a circle or straight line, pay attention to when they lift and lower their head. If you are only able to trot your horse on a circle, make sure you are looking at their gait in both directions, as they could be lame on both limbs. [3]

If a horse has a sore muscle or painful joint, it will likely exhibit a shortened stride length and reduced range of motion, referring to how far a limb can move with little pain in a gait cycle and how much flexion they can tolerate without a pain response.