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Demystifying equine lameness

Horse Health: Overtraining young horses can set the stage for lameness issues later in life

Vet students at the University of Calgary assess a horse for lameness.
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Lameness has become somewhat of a catch-all term for a broad spectrum of abnormalities in a horse’s movement caused by pain or reduced motion. Though often thought of as a problem of the feet or legs, the roots of many lamenesses are now being discovered to originate elsewhere.

These discoveries are important since horse owners and veterinarians are no longer left simply managing pain, but rather they are becoming increasingly empowered to manage the lifestyle and welfare leading to the ever-growing phenomena of lameness in the present-day horse population.

Lamenesses in horses rarely “just happen.” Whilst addressing the horse’s present condition or local lesion is very important it is equally important to question the root cause of the lameness.

“How and why did the horse arrive at this place of lameness?” Of course, some lamenesses such as hoof abscesses, stone bruises, or trauma to the limbs are more simple than others, such as developmental bone diseases, arthritis, bowed tendons, and laminitis which often have much deeper roots of cause.

Nutrition, living conditions, horsemanship, riding practices, tack, dental care, hoof care, and exercise programs (too little, too much or poorly executed) are factors which influence and contribute to the horse’s state of soundness and these are equally important factors to consider when evaluating lameness.

For example a youngster that is “overconditioned” to meet show and/or sale agendas and then asked to meet performance and training standards beyond its physical maturity is a prime candidate for lameness a few years later as it reaches four or five years of age.

One could certainly report the horse’s lameness to be the result of developmental bone disease or arthritis, however, these labels only describe the symptomatic pathology and do little to acknowledge the causative insults. Although the connection between an overly rich diet, an overzealous training program and lameness spans the time period of many years, these connections are nonetheless repeatable and predictable in the population of young performance horses.

On the surface, pain management appears to provide a reasonable means to improve the horse’s welfare, yet the horse’s welfare would have been better served by both a moderate and proper diet and a reasonable and patient training program.

Another example is the horse that is struggling with gastric and/or intestinal ulcers. These horses may present a confusing picture of mixed lamenesses exhibiting short striding and/or gaiting asymmetrically in an attempt to find a way of going which best suits their ailing gut. Ultimately dietary corrections and environmental enrichment are necessary to address the unsoundness.

From my perspective, even the riding horse that begins to buck is showing a form of lameness as the horse is no longer willing to move forward. A thorough investigation may reveal the source of bucking to be an ill-fitting saddle or dental discomfort. Once the source is found and corrected the horse no longer bucks.

Many lamenesses are in the process of happening when owners report issues such as resistance, or behaviour/attitude problems. These are often the beginnings of what eventually turns into pathology.

Lamenesses in the limbs can often be the result of a sustained duration of compensations and adaptations from loss of mobility in structures elsewhere in the body, such as the dental arcade, neck, shoulder girdle, back, or pelvis. For example, a sore back can lead to abnormal limb kinematics and thus the horse appears lame.

Hence the end issue of lameness often does not exist in isolation, rather, is rooted somewhere else in the body.

Pain and/or lameness is merely a messenger or an end point, seeking resolve and understanding. Changes at the root level capable of returning and ensuring soundness in horses can be remarkably simple practices such as proper nutrition, turnout time, improved tack or horsemanship, patience, rest, or proper dental/hoof care.

Pain management for lameness is only one small part in the recovery of the horse to soundness. Painkillers bear the unfortunate outcome of asking the horse to ignore the pain and continue using its body in spite of the horse’s own internal message to rest select joints, bones, tendons, or muscles.

So, although the reliance on painkillers may appear superficially beneficial and bring short-term results, their indiscriminate use may ultimately decrease the horse’s performance career.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.



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