Preventing Lameness in Horses

Lameness is undoubtedly one of the biggest fears of any equine owner. Contrary to what many people believe, lameness is not a condition in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying problem.

Lameness is described as being an abnormal stance or gait meaning that the horse is either unable or unwilling to stand or move as normal. There are varying types of lameness, and these tend to be dependent on the way in which the horse is used. For example, horses used in jumping tend to present with soft tissue injuries that are causing the lameness, while racehorses are more likely to suffer from problems with tendons and bone chips in joints.

Equine lameness tends to have three main causes.

Pain- related lameness

By far the most common cause of lameness, when a horse is in pain their ability to stand and move will be significantly compromised. There can be a variety of underlying reasons for her to be in pain, ranging from orthopedic problems such as damage to the bones, joints or muscles in the legs, to illnesses like cellulitis or septic arthritis.

Mechanical lameness

Although this type of lameness does not typically cause pain, it can prevent the normal motion of a limb, thus preventing your horse from moving in certain ways. Mechanical lameness is caused by a physical abnormality such as scar tissue.

Neurological lameness

This type of lameness is almost always caused by trauma, infection or congenital disease. Common infectious diseases that can cause neurological lameness include Lyme disease, tetanus, rabies and West Nile virus.

What you can to do prevent lameness in horses

While it is impossible to protect your animal from every possible cause of lameness, fortunately there are some steps that you, as a responsible and conscientious equine owner, can take to significantly reduce the likelihood of them affecting your horse.

Ensure she is properly vaccinated

There are many infectious diseases that can cause your horse to become unwell and exhibit unpleasant and debilitating symptoms, including lameness. These include:

  • Equine herpesvirus
  • Rabies
  • Lyme Disease
  • Potomac Horse Fever
  • Equine influenza
  • Strangles (streptococcus equi)
  • Tetanus
  • West Nile Virus

The good news is that there are variety of preventative treatments available that can protect your horse from being affected by the above diseases. Not only could a robust preventative care program protect your equine from lameness, in some cases it could also save her life.

Proper, timely shoeing

The feet and legs of your horse are vitally important, particularly in terms of preventing lameness. Therefore, you should do everything you can to make sure that her feet are adequately protected from the harsh ground. Make sure you find a farrier that you trust and follow their advice with regards to when shoes need to be replaced. On average, you can expect to change out shoes every 6-8 weeks.

Stall footing

Wherever your horse stands when she is not working needs to be level and dry, and thick and soft enough to encourage her to lay down and rest her legs. If her bedding gets wet, you must change it out in a timely fashion. Continuously damp or wet bedding can cause respiratory problems for both the horse and anyone working in the environment. We recommend straw wood shavings and wood pellets.

Check her feet before and after every ride

This enables you to keep a close eye on the condition of her feet and if there are any problems that might make it uncomfortable for her stand, you can address them quickly. Pick out her hooves daily and call your veterinarian if you notice any unusual changes, odors or discharge.

Ensure she gets enough quality turnout

While plenty of turnout is important, you should be very carefully on wet, l muddy days where the ground might be slippery and could cause her to experience an injury like a pulled muscle or ligament. Group turnout increases the likelihood of lameness as there is more chance of nudging and mischief that could result in an accident.

Warm up / Cool down properly

Just like humans, horses should warm up and cool down properly before they do any exercise otherwise they are at increased risk of damaging their muscles and joints. Start and end with a slow, gentle walk for at least 15 minutes.

Check her saddle fit

Improperly-fitting tack can have serious consequences for the posture and health of your horse. Back strain, pressure sores and other problems can occur that can result in lameness. If your horses’ saddle doesn’t fit right, try foam, rubber or fleece pads underneath to adjust the way that it sits. Alternatively, you may need to look at purchasing a different saddle design.

If you are concerned about lameness, speak to our equine veterinarian for further advice.