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Equine Lameness: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

If your horse is experiencing issues affecting the way they walk or move around then they may be suffering from a serious condition known as lameness. Today, our Ocala equine vets discuss the causes, diagnosis, and treatment options for lameness in horses.

Lameness in Horses

If your horse is experiencing an abnormal gait or stance, typically accompanied by pain, they may be experiencing lameness. There are several reasons why a horse's gait or stance may change suddenly, such as with many physical or neurological conditions.

Most commonly, the condition or injury affects the musculoskeletal system of the horse. Lameness can affect horses of all sizes, breeds, and ages with varying severity.

Stages of Lameness

If your horse is diagnosed with lameness, your vet will likely assign them a grade based on the complexity of the condition. This grading system is useful for tracking occurrences and progression in horses with chronic lameness.

They will usually be graded from 0 to 5. Each stage is described as follows:

  • Grade 0: Lameness is not detected in the horse.
  • Grade 1: Lameness is difficult to observe but also inconsistently apparent.
  • Grade 2: Difficult to detect at a walk or trot in a straight line but is consistently apparent under more intense circumstances.
  • Grade 3: In all circumstances, lameness is apparent while trotting.
  • Grade 4: Obvious with a marked head nod, hip hike, and/or shortened stride.
  • Grade 5: Obvious with minimal weight bearing either during motion or at rest. The horse may be entirely unable to move.

Horse Lameness Types & Causes

The source of the lameness could be physical or neurological. The two types of lameness that can occur in horses are chronic or acute.

Acute lameness: This type of lameness usually occurs quite suddenly.

Chronic lameness: This lameness is an ongoing occurrence.

Some of the most commonly seen causes of lameness in horses include:

  • Wounds
  • Connective tissue bruising
  • Muscle pain
  • Arthritis
  • Tendon sheath or bursal inflammation
  • Tendon or ligament injury
  • Bone injury
  • Infections
  • Trauma
  • Nerve paralysis or damage

Horses with certain lifestyles, such as racehorses, may be more likely to develop specific types of lameness.

Horse Lameness Diagnosis

To diagnose lameness in horses, your vet will perform several methods of evaluation and diagnostics. It can take more extensive examinations and advanced diagnostics to diagnose more complex lameness in horses.

Lameness Exam

During a lameness exam, our vet will perform a physical exam of your horse using their hands to look for signs of pain, heat, or swelling of muscles, joints, bones, and tendons.

This might be as simple as palpating an abnormal area or eliciting a pain response after manipulating a specific area. Alternatively, it may involve regional analgesia of nerves and/or joints to eliminate the lameness and localize the source of unsoundness to a particular area.

Our vets will evaluate the movement of the horse at a walk and trot for several signs, including head bobbing, switching leads, stiffness, shortening of the stride, and poor performance.

Joint flexion tests will illuminate any subtle signs of pain and irregular movement. Further diagnostics may be required, including blocking joints and nerves with a local anesthetic, to pinpoint the origin of the lameness. Once isolated, imaging with X-rays and ultrasound can help determine the precise problem causing the lameness.

Diagnostic Imaging

Diagnostic imaging, more specifically X-rays and ultrasounds, is a crucial part of diagnosing lameness in horses. Digital radiography allows for potentially greater detail than conventional radiography by having each image processed by the computer.

Digital radiography services for equine patients both in our hospital and on the farm not only allow us to diagnose lameness but also fractures, laminitis, wounds, foreign objects, and penetration of joints. They can also be a useful part of pre-purchase evaluations.

Equine Lameness Treatment Options

Ultimately, the treatment for lameness in horses depends on the underlying cause of their condition.

Your vet may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to help your horse on a short-term basis. But be aware that these are not suitable for long periods as they can cause issues with equine digestive systems. If needed, your vet may offer joint injections to help provide your horse with some relief.

These, along with a full treatment plan including rehabilitative therapies, can help get your horse moving again comfortably. To ensure an improvement in equine performance, a recovery plan will be vital. This can include information about stall rest and your horse's other needs while they work on healing.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding animals or professional advice regarding equine regulations. For the diagnosis of your animal's condition and help to navigate rules governing the care and transportation of equine animals, please make an appointment with your vet.

Are you concerned that your horse may be showing signs related to lameness? If so, please contact our Ocala veterinarians right away.

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Florida Equine Veterinary Associates is passionate about the health of sport and performance horses. Get in touch today to book your equine athelete's first appointment.

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