By Carol Shwetz, DVM

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 4 or 5 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.

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