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Overview of Lameness in Horses


Stephen B. Adams

, DVM, DACVS, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
Topic Resources

Lameness is defined as an abnormal stance or gait caused by either a structural or a functional disorder of the locomotor system. The horse is either unwilling or unable to stand or move normally. Lameness is the most common cause of loss of use in horses. It can be caused by trauma, congenital or acquired disorders, infection, metabolic disorders, neurologic deficits or circulatory system disease.

Lameness is not a disease itself, but a clinical sign. It is a manifestation of pain, mechanical restrictions causing alteration of stance or gait, or altered neuromuscular function. Pain is the most common cause of lameness in all horses.

Upward fixation of the patella, horse
Fibrotic myopathy, horse

It is important to correctly determine the cause of the lameness, because treatment varies greatly depending on the cause. Most lamenesses are caused by pain, but examples of mechanical lameness include upward fixation of the patella, fibrotic myopathy Fibrotic Myopathy Fibrotic myopathy describes a classic gait abnormality that develops when horses injure their semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles at the point of a tendinous insertion during exercise... read more , or stringhalt. Mechanical lamenesses do not respond to analgesics, whereas lameness caused by pain often responds to systemic or local analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs. Some mechanical causes of lameness produce very characteristic and classically described gaits. In fibrotic myopathy, the affected limb is pulled back and down quickly before the end of the protraction phase, giving the impression that the foot “slaps down” on the ground. The signs are most obvious at the walk. In stringhalt Stringhalt Stringhalt is a gait abnormality characterized by exaggerated upward flexion of the hindlimb that occurs at every stride at walk. The gait abnormality usually lessens at trot and is not evident... read more , a neuromuscular disorder, the affected limb is hyperflexed during the swing phase of the walk. However, most causes of lameness do not produce a characteristic gait abnormality, making diagnosis a challenge.

Lameness caused by pain can be classified as weight bearing (supporting leg) or nonweight bearing (swinging leg) lameness. Although lameness is most often observed as reduced weight-bearing, it may also have a "swing phase" component. A supporting leg lameness is seen when the horse reduces the amount of time or reduces the amount of force applied to the weight-bearing limb. The most consistent and easily recognized clinical signs of lameness are the head nod associated with forelimb lameness and the sacral rise, also called a pelvic rise or hip hike, associated with hindlimb lameness. Hindlimb lameness should be assessed from the side as well as from behind, because this provides an opportunity to assess arc of foot flight, duration of protraction and retraction phases, length of weight-bearing phase, and the presence or absence of a sacral rise. Forelimb lameness should be observed from the front and side. Hindlimb and forelimb lameness in many horses will be accentuated when the horse is worked in a circle with the affected limb on the inside.

Factors that predispose horses to lameness include physical immaturity, which may occur in premature or dysmature foals, and training older foals before maturity. Other factors include preexisting developmental orthopedic disease (eg, osteochondrosis Osteochondrosis in Horses Osteochondrosis is one of the most important and prevalent developmental orthopedic diseases of horses. Although its specific etiology is not known, it is considered to arise from a focal disturbance... read more Osteochondrosis in Horses , flexural limb Flexural Deformities in Horses Flexor tendon disorders are associated with postural and foot changes, lameness, and debility. They may be congenital and therefore identified in newborn foals or acquired at an older age. Uterine... read more Flexural Deformities in Horses and angular limb deformities); poor conformation; improper hoof balance or shoeing; inadequate fitness; repetitive stresses in performance horses; hard, slippery, or rocky surfaces upon which horses work; and the physical stresses inherent in athletic activities such as racing, eventing, and working cattle. Inciting factors in lameness include direct or indirect trauma, fatigue resulting in incoordination of muscles (which often occurs in racehorses at the end of races), inflammation, infection, and failure to recognize early warning signs of pain (eg, reduced training times, resistance to lead changes).

Lameness in one part of a limb often results in secondary soreness in another area of the same limb and may result in lameness of the contralateral forelimb or hindlimb due to compensation. The entire horse should be evaluated for secondary lameness even when the cause of the primary problem is obvious. Secondary lamenesses are very common in performance horses but may occur in all types of horses. A dramatic example of a secondary lameness occurs when biomechanical laminitis Laminitis in Horses The horse hoof. Median section through the horse digit. Equine laminitis is a crippling disease in which there is a failure of attachment of the epidermal laminae connected to the hoof wall... read more Laminitis in Horses develops in the normal contralateral limb of a horse with a severe injury and reduced weight-bearing on the other limb.

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