Limping is not something that can be prevented. You can arrive at the stables one day and find your horse limping. During a session your horse may be stiffer than the day before, when he was fine. As a rider, it is not always easy to know what the problem is, but the fact is that your horse is limping. Even if the limping is not very serious, it is important to react quickly to avoid a further deterioration of the movement situation. Here are some tips on what to do if your horse is limping.

Why is my horse lame?

The term limping (or lameness) is a symptom and covers a wide range of potential conditions. It can vary from your horse being stiff to not putting its foot down. Depending on the type of lameness, management will vary but in all cases it is important to try and identify the cause.

To identify the source of a lameness, it is important to examine your horse as a whole, not just the limbs. Sometimes, by looking at the horse, you can find the cause of the problem. Look for a wound, swelling or an area that is hotter than normal. Most often lameness originates in the lower part of a limb: the foot or fetlock. Start with by examining the limbs but remember that a problem with the back can also be the source of the problem. Finally, don't forget to pick your horse's feet, this will allow you to check if they are hot or not but also to make sure that there are no stones or nails stuck in them. Remember that if it is a foot abscess, it may not be visible as it develops inside the foot.
It may also be important for further management of the lameness to identify the affected limb(s), which is not always obvious. If your horse no longer puts its foot on the ground, the "sick" limb will quickly be found. But if the limping is more "subtle", it may be a good idea to have a second person watch the horse walk and trot (if possible) in a straight line to determine the affected limb.
In theory, spotting a limp sounds simple, but in reality it's not always the case. Here are our tips:

  • If your horse has a lame foreleg: its head will " drop " when it puts the healthy limb down. The horse is said to 'fall'. This means that if your horse "falls to the left", it is limping with its right front leg.
  • If your horse has a lame hind leg: stand on the side of your horse and observe which hind leg is the least forward. This will usually be the one that is responsible for the lameness.

What should I do if my horse is lame?

Once you have a clearer idea of the cause of your horse's lameness, you will need to contact your vet. However, depending on the cause/type of lameness, the vet's intervention will have to be more or less rapid. After examining your horse you should determine whether it is an emergency.

The following are situations that are considered to be urgent:

  • Your horse's body temperature is abnormal (> 38.3°C at rest or < 36°C)
  • Your horse has an open wound that is bleeding significantly or a limb that is enlarged or swollen and generally warm.
  • Your horse has a significant joint (or tendon) deformity associated with heat
  • Your horse has a nail in the hoof, it should not be removed until the vet arrives
  • Your horse is having great difficulty moving and refuses to move.
  • Your horse can no longer stand on a limb

If your horse is in one of these situations (and even without a limp), you should contact your vet urgently.
Whether or not the lameness requires urgent veterinary intervention, there are some precautions you can take:

  • If your horse is willing to be moved, move it back to the stall or put it in a small paddock. This will prevent the lameness from getting worse while waiting for the vet to come.
  • You can shower your horse's limbs to cool them down. However, avoid using clays as they will not be of any major benefit and may interfere with the vet's diagnosis.
  • Do not take the initiative in giving your horse anti-inflammatory drugs without a veterinary examination. This can confuse the diagnosis, and if misused, can make the problem worse. For example, a horse with tendonitis that is given a painkiller may strain the limb more.

The different types of lameness and their treatment

Once your vet has been in, he will probably have pinpointed the cause of the lameness and, depending on this, will tailor the treatment but also the prevention.

Abscess-related lameness

This is a fairly common form of lameness, often related to the penetration of a foreign body (but not always) resulting in an abscess. Usually there is no detection of the object until the horse suddenly starts limping with varying degrees of severity depending on its pain tolerance.
As long as the abscess has not broken through, it is often useful to apply a poultice to allow the abscess to mature and eventually break through. There are many 'recipes' for getting an abscess to pass, so don't hesitate to ask your vet for advice. The intervention of your veterinarian will allow the abscess to break through. The release of the pus under pressure in the cavity formed by the abscess will relieve your horse. Your vet will then apply a dressing to help drain the pus and to protect the hole created by the abscess during recovery. Once healed, abscesses often have no long-term consequences. Some horses may develop recurrent foot abscesses when they have other associated conditions such as laminitis or cushing's syndrome.

Lameness due to tendon or ligament injuries

Your horse's limbs are made up of many important tendons and ligaments which can be located on the front and back of the limb. These elements are essential for the good movement of your horse in work and in the field. They have the particularity of being relatively exposed on the limbs as they are not well protected by other tissues.
Lameness associated with tendons and ligaments is not uncommon and its occurence depends on the location and type of structure affected. These injuries can have a major impact on your horse's mobility and, more importantly, on the future of their sporting career. There are different types of tendon injuries. Tendinitis is the term used for inflammation of the tendon and desmitis for inflammation of a ligament. This is inflammation and/or partial or total rupture of the tendons in connection with the horse's physical activity. Tendons or ligaments can also be affected in accidents following a wound. In this case the tendon may be severed due to the trauma but there may also be an infection that develops in the sheath in which the tendon slides due to the entry of a bacterium. This is called septic tenosynovitis.
As far as treatment options are concerned, vets can use different techniques depending on the type of damage:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs : oral and/or injectable;
  • Regenerative medicine by injection into the tendons
  • External local care, plasters, clay, showers, local anti-inflammatory gel. The aim is to limit the inflammation and facilitate the drainage of the oedema and haematoma around and in the lesion.
  • Possibly, and more rarely, surgery to clean up the tendon and remove the haematoma and necrotic tissue for faster recovery.

In the case of a tendon or ligament injury following a wound and bacterial infection:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial infection
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs by mouth or injection
  • Possibly surgery to wash out the tendon sheath and remove bacteria.
  • Dressings to protect the wound.

To find out more, see our article on tendinitis

Osteoarthritis-related lameness

 Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease. It is characterised by the reduction of the horse's joint mass, i.e. the degradation of the joint. Osteoarthritis can be the result of "normal" wear and tear of a joint due to age, but it can also be the result of early wear and tear of the joint due to overwork.
Here the lameness is caused by pain in the joint but also by structural changes due to cartilage breakdown and bone remodelling.
It is not possible to cure your horse of osteoarthritis but the veterinarian can propose treatments to slow down its evolution such as:

  • Local solutions to relieve the affected joint: injection with different products such as corticoids, hyaluronic acid, irap, prp, stem cells.
  • Systemic solutions to relieve the affected joint but also other affected joints such as anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve or bisphosphonates to act on bone remodelling.

In the case of osteoarthritis, an early diagnosis is important in order to adapt the horse's environment and especially its work. It is essential that the horse maintains a certain level of exercise.
To find out more, read our article on osteoarthritis 

Lameness due to laminitis

Laminitis is an inflammation of the lamina. In a normal horse, most of the weight is carried by the front legs. In horses with laminitis, the weight of the body is shifted backwards to relieve the forelegs, which are often the most affected. The lameness is often severe and the horse has great difficulty moving.
Prompt diagnosis and treatment of laminitis is essential to try and prevent complete rotation of the third phalanx and to reduce long-term damage. The main aim of treatment will be to relieve pain.
Your vet will often advise you to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to maximise pain relief and reduce inflammation.
Secondly, it will be necessary to modify the horse's living environment, i.e. to trim or shoe the horse accordingly. For horses prone to obesity, weight loss may be essential.
Finally, laminitis is increasingly linked to hormonal diseases (cushing's disease), the management of these pathologies through certain treatments will also limit their risk.
To find out more, see our article on laminitis 

Lameness related to navicular syndrome

This is usually a chronic lameness often associated with pain originating directly from the navicular bone and nearby structures. Horses usually start limping between the ages of 7 and 9 years but this can vary. They often have fairly short strides and the lameness is exacerbated on hard ground.
As with osteoarthritis there is no cure. Horses are managed by corrective trimming and/or appropriate orthopaedic shoeing.
Your veterinarian may also suggest medication depending on how advanced the disease is for your horse. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help relieve pain and the use of bisphosphonates can also help manage these horses.

Here we have provided an overview of the main causes of lameness and what you can do about them. Some lameness can be due to other problems such as back problems, fractures, cracks or neurological problems but we wanted to highlight the most common causes in this file.

Of course, your veterinarian remains the reference in case of movement problems of your horse, do not hesitate to ask him/her for advice.

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