It’s hard to miss signs of serious lameness: the horse is reluctant to move, obviously favors one limb when walking, and shows a classic head-bob at the trot. Many times, however, it’s not that easy for an owner to tell whether a horse is a bit “off” in his gaits, and even trickier to determine where the lameness originates.

Veterinarians who have examined many lame horses might use one or more of these techniques that you can pass along to your clients to make it easier to pinpoint lameness:

  • Watch the horse from the front, rear, and both sides as it moves, and listen for irregularity of footfalls as it is moving on a firm surface.
  • Watch the horse as it moves on a softer surface, such as grass. Some discomfort will be more obvious on a yielding surface, rather than one that is hard.
  • If possible, observe the horse as it is ridden, shown in hand, and moving in both directions on the longe line. Have the rider ask for lateral work to both sides.
  • Look for asymmetrical movement when the horse is transitioned from one gait to another and when it is circled. Lameness is often more pronounced in a limb that is on the inside of a circle.
  • A horse that holds its head behind the vertical may be indicating discomfort.
  • Saddle slip to either side can be caused by hindleg lameness.

Minor lameness seen at the start of exercise may disappear quickly as the horse warms up. Check this horse an hour or so after exercise, as a stiff or sore joint may be most obvious at this time.  

For serious lameness, or mild lameness that lasts more than a day or two, have the horse checked by a veterinarian. Prompt diagnosis and treatment will ease the horse’s discomfort and may make a difference in how quickly it will recover.