On Guard Against Lameness

With 5 simple management measures you can protect your horse?s soundness and guard against lameness. By Christine Barakat for Equus magazine.
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With 5 simple management measures you can protect your horse?s soundness and guard against lameness. By Christine Barakat for Equus magazine.

This Saturday?s trail ride with friends is a well-earned reward after a rough week at work. You?re happily humming as you hook up the trailer and gather your tack. As you lead your horse from his stall, however, your mood suddenly changes: He?s head-bobbing lame. A quick look turns up nothing obvious, like a rock or a twisted shoe. You curse your bad luck as you dial the veterinarian?s phone number.

Checking for Lameness

Although many cases of lameness seem to strike out of the blue, they are typically more than a matter of bad luck. Indeed, most are rooted in an avoidable cause. So instead of simply hoping your horse stays sound, consider taking a more proactive approach---adopting management measures that reduce the risk he will sustain a sprain, strain or other lameness-inducing event.

Of course, there are no guarantees. A horse may turn up lame even when you?ve done everything right. But by taking steps to prevent lameness, you can keep your horse as sound as possible, given his genetics and other variables. Because the causes of lameness stretch across all facets---from how you ride to what you feed---this approach may require making significant, long-term changes to your management. But the effort can pay off in less worry, lower expenditures on veterinary bills, greater comfort for your horse, and more of those carefree weekend trail rides. Here are five ways to guard against lameness.

1. TAKE CARE OF YOUR HORSE?S JOINTS

Osteoarthritis, the breakdown of cartilage triggered by inflammation in a joint, is a leading cause of lameness in older horses. It's also somewhat inevitable. Any horse ridden enough miles over the years will develop at least a mild form that leaves him ?creaky? when he first walks out of a stall. But arthritis that sets in early or is acutely painful usually doesn't stem from routine riding. These cases are often the result of genetic predisposition or an injury or other traumatic event that may have been preventable.

To protect your horse's soundness, take any wound near a joint very seriously. If bacteria move into a joint space, the resulting infection can set off a devastating chain of inflammatory events leaves him lame, even for a step or two, call your veterinarian for advice. Also, keep a close eye on the joint in question. Any heat or swelling that develops is a sign of inflammation that may need to be controlled to protect the joint from arthritis down the road.

To further protect your horse's joints, you may want to consider feeding supplements. A wide variety of feed supplements formulated for equine joints are available. They typically include some combination of glucosamine0 or chondroitin0 sulfate, substances your horse's body naturally produces to maintain joints, as well as ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties such as methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)0 or yucca. Many of these products are designed to be used before signs of arthritis develop. Consult with your veterinarian to pick a formulation that may benefit your horse without interfering with his nutritional needs. that destroys cartilage0 in days to weeks. Be especially vigilant in looking for puncture wounds near joints---they are prime breeding grounds for bacteria, and infection can flourish undetected until the horse is painfully lame. If your horse has any type of cut or wound around a joint, clean it and inspect it thoroughly. Call your veterinarian if you're concerned about the wound?s depth or appearance or if your horse is lame from the injury.

Closed injuries to joints, such as the wrenching twist of a fetlock or a kick to the hock from another horse, also can lead to early arthritis. When such trauma occurs, bone fractures or chips can trigger inflammation inside the joint capsule. In addition, damage to structures such as ligaments0 and muscles can destabilize a joint, leading to abnormal wear that results in arthritic changes. If your horse experiences an acute injury to a joint that leaves him lame, even for a step or two, call your veterinarian for advice. Also, keep a close eye on the joint in question. Any heat or swelling that develops is a sign of inflammation that may need to be controlled to protect the joint from arthritis down the road.

To further protect your horse's joints, you may want to consider feeding supplements. A wide variety of feed supplements formulated for equine joints are available. They typically include some combination of glucosamine0 or chondroitin0 sulfate, substances your horse's body naturally produces to maintain joints, as well as ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties such as methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)0 or yucca. Many of these products are designed to be used before signs of arthritis develop. Consult with your veterinarian to pick a formulation that may benefit your horse without interfering with his nutritional needs.

2 . INSIST ON CUSTOMIZED HOOF CARE

A visit from a qualified farrier every six to eight weeks is the minimum needed to protect your horse's soundness. But what really counts is the care a horse receives during those visits.

There is no one-size-fits-all trim, shoe or prescription for soundness, and beware of anyone who says there is. Instead, a good farrier will assess your horse's individual needs at each visit and make recommendations based on what he sees, both in the stationary and moving hoof, on that day. He?ll also be able to articulate a long-range plan for your horse, based on how he is ridden and managed.

Be sure that any significant changes in how your horse is trimmed or shod are made gradually. Joints, tendons and ligaments need time to adapt to a new hoof shape or balance, even if the change is ultimately beneficial. In most cases, plan with your farrier to make the changes over the course of several appointments. You can always speed up the schedule later, but overzealous trimming can lead to both short- and long-term soundness problems.

Finally, communication between your farrier and veterinarian is critical in safeguarding your horse's soundness. You may even want to arrange for both professionals to be present at the barn at the same time to share their insights and map out a coordinated strategy for a specific issue or problem. The more your farrier and veterinarian share information, the better off your horse will be.

3. KEEP YOUR HORSE FIT

If you?ve ever attempted your regular gym workout after a long hiatus, you know the soreness and even injury that can result from overworking unfit muscles and tendons. Horses retain their conditioning longer than we do---particularly cardiovascular fitness---but they are still at risk of sprains and strains if pushed too hard.

At particular risk is the ?weekend warrior? horse, who sits idle for six days a week and is then asked to go on two- or three-hour trail rides. Owners are often baffled at how a horse who doesn't do that much can have soundness issues, but it's precisely because he doesn't ?do that much? that he does.

One of the best ways to guard against lameness is to keep your horse at a constant level of fitness, with a body condition score around 5 or 6, with tone to his muscles. Achieving this typically requires regular, active riding---at least three days a week if he is kept in a large field with an active herd and more often if he is confined to a stall or smaller pen. These rides need to be at least an hour long and fairly vigorous, with lots of long trots and the occasional lope or gallop. This riding schedule can be difficult to maintain with other work and life commitments, so you may want to reach out to fellow riders to help keep your horse active when you can't. Ask around and you'll likely find a talented rider who is ?between horses? and would be more than happy to help keep your horse fit.

If your horse's conditioning slips, be careful about how you bring him back into work. If he's been relatively inactive for more than eight weeks, his muscles and tendons aren?t as strong or as flexible as they were the last time you rode. Picking up where you left off is an invitation to lameness. Instead, start slowly and progress based on how long he's been out of work: If he's been idle only two months, you can start off with trotting and add loping or cantering in the following week. If he's been laid up for six months to a year, start at the walk and expect to spend about a month building up to cantering. If your horse has been inactive for more than a year or has never been fit, you'll need to spend at least eight weeks slowly conditioning him to ensure his tendons, bones and ligaments are ready for work. Shortcuts in this time frame will only set you back if strain leads to lameness.

4. BE AWARE OF FOOTING

The ideal footing for preserving your horse's soundness is smooth and firm yet forgiving and very consistent. The further footing deviates from this ideal---the hard, the slick, the deep and the rocky---the greater the threat it presents to your horse's soundness.

Investing in a professionally installed base and footing for your arena can help ensure good going and reduce the risk of lameness. It will likely, however, require regular maintenance to maintain its benefits. This means dragging, harrowing and watering as directed by the manufacturer.

When riding over natural footing, let common sense be your guide. Deep mud can wrench tendons, baked clay soil that ?rings? when you canter can lead to concussive injuries and slick, loose shale can cause a horse's hindquarters to slip underneath him, tearing muscle along the way. If a patch of ground gives you pause, ride around it if you can. If you must go over it, let your horse pick the pace and path through. His sense of self-preservation will protect him.

That said, it's easy to become too obsessed with footing. We probably all know a rider who can find fault with the ground in any arena and is reluctant to ride on anything less than springy, pliable perfection. This level of concern can, ironically, lead to lameness as the horse's limbs never adapt to harder or softer conditions he'll inevitably encounter. Be concerned with footing, but trust your horse's ability to cope with and adapt to a variety of surfaces.

One of the best ways to guard against lameness is to keep your horse at a constant level of fitness, with a body condition score around 5 or 6, with tone to his muscles.

If a patch of ground gives you pause, ride around it if you can. If you must go over it, let your horse pick the pace and path through. His sense of self-preservation will protect him.

That said, it's easy to become too obsessed with footing. We probably all know a rider who can find fault with the ground in any arena and is reluctant to ride on anything less than springy, pliable perfection. This level of concern can, ironically, lead to lameness as the horse's limbs never adapt to harder or softer conditions he'll inevitably encounter. Be concerned with footing, but trust your horse's ability to cope with and adapt to a variety of surfaces.

5. LOOK AT HIS LEGS

This advice may seem obvious, but simply looking at your horse's legs on a daily basis is an important safeguard against unsoundness. The more familiar you are with the normal contours, bumps and fillings on your horse's limbs, the more likely you'll be able to identify the abnormal in its earliest stages.

Work inspecting your horse's legs into your daily grooming routine. Run your fingers down his legs, feeling the tendons and ligaments gently for knots, swellings or areas of tenderness.

Also feel joints for heat, a possible indication of inflammation, comparing to the same joint on another leg if necessary and keeping in mind that sunshine warms skin so legs in the shade may feel cooler.

A leg check after riding is also a good idea. Many injuries incurred during a ride won?t show up as swellings immediately afterward, but the horse may be sensitive, an important clue that can let you start cold-hosing or other treatments before inflammation gathers momentum. The benefits of post-ride wrapping or liniments are you watch with wide focus so you can see the entire movement in relation to his body. You may also want to video your horse moving, not only to analyze by itself, but to compare to other clips if you suspect your horse's movement has changed.

Diagnosing and detecting lameness is a science and an art, and you won?t replace your veterinarian in this area, but the more you watch your horse move, the sooner you'll notice when something is amiss and call in professional help.

Lameness in horses is, at the very least, a worrisome annoyance for an owner. At its worst, it can threaten a horse's career and even life. In either case, it's wise to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent lameness from happening at all. With a few adjustments in your management and mindset, you can ensure that your horse will stay as sound as he can be.

It's In the Genes

The odds of your horse developing lameness were, to a large extent, set at birth. Research has shown susceptibility to a wide variety of unsoundnesses, from developmental0 orthopedic disease to splints0 to weak tendons, is inherited. Of course, you can't change your horse's DNA0, but knowing as much as you can about his family?s soundness history lets you be extra cautious in guarding against the specific condition he may be prone to. Being aware of the role genetics play in lameness can also help you make responsible choices when it comes to breeding your horse. If you?ve struggled with lameness issues in your mare for years, breeding her may simply produce the same problem for another generation. If you do decide to breed her, look for a stallion with a reputation for soundness. That gives the resulting foal a better chance of receiving genes that will help keep him sound.

From EQUUS magazine