Recognize subtle lameness in horses

Updated: Feb 9

It is very common to blame a horse for any issues that arise when riding. Unfortunately, pain is often the last thing people think about as being the underlying cause of why the horse does not want to perform correctly. However, according to a survey performed by Equitopia Center, up to 47% of horses may show signs of subtle lameness.

In the survey completed by Equitopia Center, 506 seemingly healthy and well-performing sport horses were looked at for signs of subtle lameness - 47% of these horses showed the signs of subtle lameness and discomfort.

When a horse is severely lame, it is easy to point out. At this point, a vet is often called for a diagnosis and to find the correct treatment. Though a cause of severe lameness can be due to an injury, in some cases, it could have been prevented by recognizing the subtle signs.

Signs of subtle lameness you should not ignore

Subtle lameness in horses can present itself in different ways:

  • A hind leg that does not reach as far forward as the other with each stride

  • Overall shorter strides

  • One hoof that consistently cuts deeper into footing than the opposite foot

  • Resistance to picking up a particular lead

  • Refusing fences

  • A change in movement or demeanor when you post on a particular diagonal

  • More or less flexion in the joint in one limb

  • A "pecking" movement of the front legs

  • Stepping on the toe of the hoof and taking short steps

  • Asymmetrical hips or shoulders

  • Reluctance to move forward/out

You may even see lameness or unevenness in the horse's gate when taken on a circle, versus moving on a straight line.

Horses compensate certain movements, hiding problem areas

Prey animals and predators react differently to pain. Horses are prey animals, who do not want to show the predator that they are hurt. Thus, horses tend to compensate and hide their pain areas and spots as long as possible. Our job as trainers, riders, and equine enthusiasts is to recognize these subtle signs and to ease the discomfort before it turns into a severe problem.

For instance, a topline syndrome, kissing spine, hock arthritis, or sacroiliac issues can cause a horse to become stiff and tight in certain areas, as they are avoiding pain points. If a horse has pain on his right front leg, he will change his weight on the left front leg, thus compensating for the pain.

So, what can you do to prevent lameness?

While horses will always be horses and might hurt themselves playing in the paddock or otherwise, there are certain things we can do to prevent lameness. Checking your horse's movement patterns regularly, getting an equine massage therapist, stretching the horse, doing regular flexion tests, and having a saddle fitter check the saddle regularly are a few excellent ways of preventing any severe issues from arising.

Calling a vet

When a horse shows any signs of lameness, it is always recommended to call a vet. The vet will be able to assess where the lameness stems from, and to guide you with next steps. After all, there are a million reasons why a horse can be lame, including abscess, stone bruise, laminitis, tendon or joint issues, bone bruises, kissing spine, and so on.