Equine Lameness


byLinda Greaves BSc  (Vet. Sci) BVetMed MRCVS

Equine lameness is a broad and complicated subject to discuss, there are many types and causes of lameness. In this article we will discuss acute onset lameness

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On arriving at your yard you discover you horse is lame, There are a few things to do before panicking or calling a vet! Firstly can your horse walk? Will he bear weight on the affected limb? If not call your vet immediately and wait for further advice. If he is able to walk, move him slowly to a quiet area such as his stable. Examine the affected leg, does he have any noticeable swelling or heat anywhere on his leg, can you see any blood or cuts? If your horse will allow, examine his foot and pick out any stones or mud, is there damage to the sole of his foot or hoof, has he trodden on a nail? These questions are all important pieces of information that will help you and your vet decide if your horse needs to be seen urgently.

Foot abscesses are a very common cause of acute onset lameness and can be extremely painful for a horse. A foot abscess is an infection of the foot that can cause inflammation and pus formation leading to sometimes severe lameness. Infection can be introduced most commonly through the sole of the foot by a bruise or puncture wound or through a hoof crack or by tracking through the white line.  An abscess can take several days to develop and show clinical signs.

Hoof Testers

For any horse with a single leg acute onset lameness it is important to rule out an abscess. Either your farrier or vet will be able to use hoof testers to identify if an abscess is present as the horse will resent pressure applied over the area. The horse may also have heat in the hoof and a digital pulse.  Then your farrier/vet will firstly remove the shoe if present then be able to pare out the horn and find the abscess releasing the pressure that has built up, horses are usually a lot more comfortable once this has been done. However only your vet will be able to diagnose and treat your horse if it is not an abscess that is causing your horse’s lameness .Establishing drainage is key to successful treatment of a foot abscess and your vet or farrier will try to remove sufficient horn to ensure that the abscess drains and does not reform.


Once drainage has been established it is generally advisable to poultice the foot for several days using a hot wet poultice such as Animalintex to help draw out the abscess. This should ideally be changed twice daily. Once there is no further pus detected when changing the wet poultice, a dry poultice can be used. Once a diagnosis of a foot abscess has been made and treated appropriately, if the horse’s lameness has not improved markedly within 2-3 days then it is advisable to speak to the vet or farrier again as the foot may need further paring.


Horse limb fractures are usually as a result of either a kick from another horse or falling over. It is often thought that a fracture means that a horse must be euthanised however this is not always the case as it depends greatly on what bone has been fractured and the type of fracture that has occurred. Some fractures may require surgery to be pinned such as pastern fractures, some fractures may need support bandages and the horse cross tying for a period of time such as radial fractures and there are some fractures such as splint bone fractures that may not require any treatment other than box rest. Then there are the catastrophic fractures often seen in racing and competition horses where a bone is fractured and protrudes through the skin, these are often beyond surgical repair and require euthanasia. If your vet suspects a fracture they may take radiographs on the yard or place a support bandage and splints and send your horse to a referral facility for further investigation and possible surgery.

MRI Scan

It is not unusual for horses to tread on nails or sharp objects especially when you consider that we nail shoes to their feet! A penetrating foot wound can be a serious injury depending on where in the foot the foreign body goes. If your horse has trodden on a nail the best thing to do is leave it in position! Do not remove it, This means that your vet can take an x-ray with the nail in position to see exactly where in the foot it has travelled giving your vet valuable information of the structures that may be damaged. Your vet may then remove the nail and bandage the foot before sending your horse to a referral hospital for further assessment including an MRI scan or even surgery. Those lucky horses that miss important structures may be able to remain at home with medication and daily poulticing.

Kick wounds

Kicks wounds can be straight forward or very serious depending on where on a limb they are, they can result in fractures but often the biggest cause for concern is a horse being kicked over a joint or tendon sheath and infection setting in. Septic joints and tendon sheaths will undoubtedly require surgery to flush out the infection. This is often a major concern for vets when treating wounds over joints and although your horse may be uncomfortable your vet will not want to give pain relief in case of masking a septic joint. It may take up to 48 hours after the initial injury for a horse joint to become septic and their level of lameness will increase over this time until they become not weight bearing so it is important to assess your horse level of lameness daily after such an injury.

Poor shoeing

Another common cause of lameness can be due to incorrect or poor shoeing this may not be seen straight away but can take a day or two to develop. A farrier must take care to place each nail into the non-sensitive tissue of the hoof to hold the shoe on, if a nail is placed too closely to or into the sensitive tissues within the hoof this can cause pain and infection. Your vet can diagnose this by using hoof testers and your horse may also have increased digital pulses in the affected limb. The shoe will need to be removed and may require poulticing depending of the severity of the condition. Anti-inflammatories are often given to manage the inflammation and associated pain and the horse will require a period of box rest.

Lameness can be a frustrating and expensive condition to treat, it is always advisable to seek profession help if your horse suddenly becomes lame or has a worsening lameness as the sooner a diagnosis is made the sooner a resolution can be found.

First Published December 2013 Equi-Ads

Author: Features Editor

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