What causes lameness in horses, Dr. Brenda Unrein explains
Most horses go lame because of what they do, according to a veterinarian speaking about equine lameness issues. When evaluating a horse for lameness, letting the veterinarian know what the history of the horse’s job is can provide a clearer indication of where to look, and what is a typical lameness for that horse.
Dr. Brenda Unrein of Laramie, WY, Peak Veterinary Associates demonstrated how to perform a lameness exam on a horse by starting at the front-end and working back while looking for a response that indicates soreness or pain.
Before a lameness exam is performed, Unrein encourages horse owners to make sure their horses are in good health and have had a current dental exam. Dental problems need to be eliminated before a lameness exam, because they can mimic lameness issues. Unrein recommends horses have dental exams every six months between the ages of two and six, when the most change occurs in the horse’s mouth.
“If their mouth hurts, they will be bad. They can get issues in their jaw that can be misdiagnosed as lameness,” she said.
Horses can have front-end lameness from soreness in their neck, Unrein said. “It can look like they are lame in the front-end, but it is actually coming from a neck issue,” she explained. “Some front-end issues can occur, because if you cut the horse in half, two-thirds of their weight is in the front half. Their head and neck are very heavy, which makes front-end lameness more likely,” she said. “Front-end lameness issues are much easier for horse owners to detect. If you notice your horse throwing its head up, that indicates that it is trying to get the weight off the leg that hurts,” she explained.
“Owners have a much harder time when the lameness is in the back,” she continued. The horse may make shorter strides, or they won’t complete a total back to forward stride like normal. “Some people can feel it when they ride, but can’t tell which leg it is in. It will actually hit you in the back, which causes the back-end to feel like they are hiking their leg up,” she explained. “Other people can hear it in their stride, because they want the pressure off their sore leg as quickly as possible.”
During the exam, Unrein checks the neck and shoulder for stiffness, and if the horse can freely move its head. She also evaluates the muscles and tendons in the legs, and the knees. Knee and stifle injuries are more unforgiving, and can be pretty hard areas to fix. A normal horse should also have full flexion of its legs without pain.
“Conformation is important. I can usually look at the conformation of the horse, and predict what the long term health of the horse will be,” she explained. “If a horse is toed in, before its life is over, it will have pastern problems. It will get arthritis in those joints that will eventually be its demise. It is better to have them slightly toed out or straight,” she said.
“When evaluating the conformation of a horse, I look at how they stand and how they walk,” she explained. “A horse should land toe heel toe heel, and not on the inside or outside, but flat. If you were looking at an x-ray of the foot, you want to make sure all the bones align,” she said. Check their feet and all around the hoof to make sure the farrier did a good job. Proper shoeing can also help eliminate pain in hoof and legs by alleviating pressure.
“Horses can have primary back problems, which is why there are equine chiropractors to help with those issues,” she said. Unrein likes to see how well the horse can flex, and for pain in its back, by running a pencil down its spine. “If the horse flinches, and when you press harder it flinches again, it can signal the horse is in pain,” she explained.
She also likes to check for saddle sores and proper saddle fit. She should be able to snugly fit her hand all the way around the saddle when it is on the horse if the saddle fits properly. “Saddle fit is important,” she continued. “Make sure it stays in the place you put it. Just because the saddle fits once doesn’t mean it will always. A horse can change shape after being in a pasture, or the muscle structure may change as you ride them or as they age. I tell people if the horse is acting up, check the saddle. A saddle that doesn’t fit properly, will make them hurt in their withers,” she said.