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Do-It-Yourself Lameness Exam

A horse that's refusing to put weight on a leg is easy to spot, but the clues to a budding lameness problem are far more subtle. Recognizing these and knowing how to locate problem areas on the legs can lead to an earlier diagnosis and save you a lot of lost riding time.

To learn about horse lameness causes, front leg lameness in horses and hind leg lameness in horses, download a FREE guide—Diagnosing and Treating Equine Lameness: Has your horse got a limp? Determine what's wrong and help him heal.

Although you may not realize it, the horse will tell you there's a problem brewing long before it's glaringly obvious.

Some nonspecific clues include:

  • A "sour," depressed or preoccupied attitude when in the stall.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Difference in attitude toward work. Some horses get lazy and resistant, but others may become more hot and hard to handle.
  • Less activity and play when turned out.
  • Uneven shoe wear. Note: This may also be caused by the hoof not being properly balanced, which needs to be corrected before it leads to problems.
  • Alterations in the horse's posture can be important body-language messages, too, such as:
  • Habitually resting one hind leg more than the other. It's normal for a horse to rest one hind leg when standing still, but they should spend an equal amount of time on each leg.
  • Consistently resting one hind leg after work.
  • Standing with a hind leg either rotated outward (suspect stifle) or placed in toward the middle of the body (suspect hock or hip).
  • Resting or pointing a front leg.
  • Standing with one or both front feet farther forward or back than normal. The horse should always stand with the front feet squarely underneath him.
  • Reluctance to pick up a leg for hoof cleaning or for the farrier. Suspect either pain in the opposite leg or pain being produced by flexion or lifting of that leg.

Many times a lameness problem is most, or even only, apparent by a change in how the horse feels or moves when you're riding. At this point, someone watching from the ground might not be able to notice anything in particular. Things to be observant about are:

  • Change in head carriage-either higher or lower than normal for that horse. This can be a sign of back pain or that both front legs hurt.
  • Rigid head carriage, without the full range of up and down movement at the walk and canter. This, too, can be seen with back or front leg/foot problems, or in a horse reluctant to engage the hind end well.
  • Loss of the relaxed swing at the walk. When extreme, this feels like you're perched on a fence post but there will be less drastic reductions in free movement before that point. This is a nonspecific but sensitive sign. It tells you that the horse is protecting an uncomfortable area.
  • Hesitation to move off freely from a stop, common when both front feet are tender.
  • Reluctance to go downhill. Common with either front-foot pain or hind-end problems.
  • Reluctance to go uphill. Common with hind-end problems.
  • Wanting to jump flat. Back or hind-end pain.
  • Always landing on the same front leg after a jump. Pain in the opposite front is the most common cause.
  • Reluctance to turn to one side. Look for pain up front on that side.
  • Reluctance to take a lead. Look for pain in the front on that side, or in the opposite hind.
  • Difficult to collect. Hind-end pain.
  • Less thrust when posting on one diagonal. Suspect hind-end pain in the opposite hind (e.g. if right diagonal feels weak, suspect left hind).
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