Like dogs and other animals, horses can't talk to us when they hurt. Dogs, though, will whine or whimper to indicate distress. Horses, being prey animals, don't normally make any sounds to show they hurt. Prey animals living in the wild don't want to let predators know when they're weak. What is an advantage for a wild animal is a disadvantage for a domestic one. Horse people have to learn to be very observant of their charges to be able to tell when they hurt. One of the more obvious ways a horse shows pain is by going lame.

Training a HorseA lame horse hurts somewhere. It's up to us to find out what's causing the pain and to see that the horse receives proper treatment for the problem. In most cases, lameness is temporary and the horse recovers with proper care. Unfortunately, if the lameness is chronic and treatment cannot keep the horse's discomfort to acceptable levels even when he's not being ridden, euthanasia is the only option.

How can I tell if my horse is lame?

Lameness is easiest to see when the horse is trotting. If the pain is in just one leg, you'll notice that the horse is not moving evenly. The severity can range from a barely noticeable hitch in the stride to a reluctance to put any weight on one foot.

A lame horse will often throw his head in rhythm with his stride. If the horse is sore in a front leg, he will throw his head up as the sore side touches the ground. If the lameness is in a back leg, he will lean onto the sound side. He may also drag the toe on the sore side.

If the horse hurts in both front feet or all four feet, you won't notice a limp. Instead, he will keep his head up and move with a short, stumbling stride.

A sound horse stands with front legs perpendicular to the ground. A horse who stands "camped out" instead of keeping his legs under his body is probably sore.

A relaxed horse will often rest a hind foot, but he'll keep equal weight on each front foot. A sore horse might try to take the weight off a front leg by pointing it forward with just the toe on the ground.

While an observant horse owner can recognize that a horse is lame, pinpointing the exact site and cause of the lameness is usually a job for a veterinarian.

What should I do if I notice that my horse is lame?

Remember that a horse that is lame, hurts. Don't ride a lame horse unless specifically directed to by a veterinarian.

The first thing to do is find out where your horse hurts and why. There might be an obvious wound, but more likely, it will take some detective work to find the problem. In most cases, it's best to consult your veterinarian. Calling in a veterinarian early not only saves the horse from living with pain any longer than necessary, but is usually cheaper in the long run.

Where should I start my search?

Always start at the bottom.

Feet.

First check for obvious causes. Pick out your horse's feet and make sure there are no stones wedged into the crevices. Look for dark spots that might indicate a bruised sole. Badly cracked feet can also cause lameness.

Have the feet just been trimmed? Were they trimmed too short? Keep your horse on soft ground until the hoof grows in. Was the horse recently shoed? A nail might be too close to the sensitive structures inside the hoof or the shoe might be pinching. In either case, call your farrier.

Feel the hooves. Is one hoof hotter than the others? Feel the pulse in the artery that passes over the fetlock joint. Is it pounding? Both heat and a pounding pulse are indications of injury.

Lower Leg

Check for heat and swelling. The horse may have injured a tendon or a ligament, similar to a sprained ankle in people. If so, your horse will need a long rest period in order to heal, just as you would with a sprained ankle.

Joints

The cause of the lameness may be in any of the horse's joints. Like people, horses can suffer from arthritis and bursitis. The stifle, which is the equivalent of our knee, can slip and lock. Horses subjected to overly stressful work, particularly when young, can have bone chips floating in the joints.

Back

Many riding horses have sore backs. Even if your horse is not lame, if he objects to saddling, flinches or sinks his back when you brush it, or bucks, suspect a sore back.

Are there any particular diseases I should watch for?

Two commonly seen conditions are chronic founder and navicular disease. You should also be alert to tying up syndrome.

Laminitis or Founder

Laminitis, commonly called founder, is an acutely painful inflammation of the foot. It occurs most often in the front feet although it can affect the hind feet as well. The most common cause is overeating. More information

Navicular Disease

If your horse is lame on and off with no apparent cause, your veterinarian may suspect navicular disease. The pain is caused by progressive degeneration of the navicular bone, a small bone inside the foot, and the tendon which passes over it.

At first, the horse might be lame when warming up at the beginning of a ride but will work out of it. Or he will be lame after hard work but will return to normal after rest.

As the condition worsens, the horse will try to avoid the pain by landing toe first when moving causing a shuffling gait and stumbling. He will wear his toes more than his heels. At rest, the horse will stand with one or both front feet stretched forward.

Navicular disease cannot be cured, but with veterinary treatment and corrective shoeing and trimming, the horse's discomfort can be kept to a minimum for many years. Eventually, the owner will have to consider euthanasia.

Tying Up or Azoturia

If your horse seems to seize up while you are riding him or shows signs of stiffness and is unwilling to move after work, he may be tying up.

This is a serious condition caused by a build up of lactic acid in the muscles. Do not try to make the horse move. Cover him with a blanket and call your veterinarian.

Prevent tying up by reducing the amount of oats your horse gets when he isn't working, gradually warming up at the beginning of each riding session and carefully cooling out afterwards.