As riding season kicks into full gear, lameness becomes a popular topic between veterinarians and horse owners. Whether it’s a long-standing issue or an acute episode, lameness is a complex and often frustrating issue for all people (and horses) involved. Although lameness is often thought of as the toe-touching, head bobbing, asymmetrical movement of an acutely injured horse, the American Association of Equine Practitioners defines lameness as “any alteration of the horse's gait”. Whether your horse is dramatically asymmetrical or just feels a little “off,” they may benefit from a lameness examination conducted by your veterinarian.
Before calling your veterinarian out for a full lameness exam, it may be beneficial to gather as much information as possible before the appointment. Here are some ways to train your eyes, ears, and body to pick up on some clues to where your equine companion may be experiencing discomfort.
The head bob
Unfortunately, most horse owners have witnessed this lameness trademark at some point. Although it is unpleasant to see, a head bob can be a useful tool in lameness diagnosis. If lameness is present in the front end, horses will often raise their head from neutral as they are bearing weight on the painful leg. Hind end lameness may also present with a head bob. Rather than raising their head from neutral, horses with hind limb discomfort will often lower their head from neutral when they are bearing weight on the painful leg. I find it helpful to think about the head bob as the horse trying to unload weight from the painful limb. By training your eye to detect which leg appears to be sore based on the head bob, you may be able to more accurately describe your horse’s lameness to your veterinarian.
The hip hike/drag
This sign of lameness can sometimes be seen on a lunge line or trotting in hand, but it is even more obvious as a rider if you know what to feel for. On the ground, you may notice your horse’s hips are moving unevenly in any of the three gaits. This generally presents as if the horse is “hiking” one hind leg up as it takes a step forward, or dragging the leg more significantly as it takes a step forward. When in the saddle, focus on keeping your hips as level as possible from left to right. As your horse moves, feel for unevenness at the walk and trot by comparing the timing of the left-to-right tilt of your own hips. Ideally, the ratio should be 1:1. In a horse that is experiencing hind end discomfort, this ratio may be dramatically different or very subtle.
Another helpful tool is to feel for this asymmetry at the canter. Get a feel for your horse’s cadence in the hind end tracking one direction, then compare that to the other direction. It is sometimes difficult to feel this difference, however you may be able to notice that your horse’s downward transitions are better in one direction than the other. This is another useful clue. This may be paired with a head bob, but it is often less pronounced than with front end lameness and it is sometimes unclear whether this is a primary sign or compensatory. Not all horses respond to hind end lameness the same, so seek your veterinarian’s help to decide which leg or joint may be causing them discomfort.
Uneven footfall sounds
Sometimes our eyes can deceive us - white legs create an optical illusion, the head bob is too indistinct to make a judgement call, the list goes on. This is where a flat, hard surface and your ears can do some good. If you’re seeing or feeling that your horse is “off” but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or whether you’re just making it up in your head, use your sense of hearing! Without looking at your horse, walk (or have a friend walk) them on a flat, hard surface preferably in a somewhat quiet place (i.e. an empty barn aisle) and listen. A walk should be an even four beats - 1, 2, 3, 4. You may also attempt a trot carefully. A trot should be an even two beats. If you’re hearing something more like a long 1 and a short 2, or any variation of the even 4 beat walk and 2 beat trot, you’re probably not making up the lameness in your head and you should call your veterinarian.
Circles, circles, circles
More subtle lameness can be felt by some riders who have developed an especially good “feel” for their horse. Pay attention to your horse’s habits when being ridden on a circle. In tighter circles, do they tend to drop their shoulder to the inside? Do they resist bending to the inside of the circle? Do they carry their body in an even arc, or is their hind end constantly shifting into or out of the circle despite your best efforts? These are all potential signs of subtle lameness. Be critical of your horse and think about your hips and seat bones as described above.
Your horse has a “(really) bad direction”
Just like people being left or right handed, horses tend to be “handed” as well. Depending on your horse’s age, training level, and physical ability this directionality may be normal. For example, a young colt that’s just been broke will likely be resistant to taking one canter lead over the other. This is generally not a concern as long as this improves with proper exercise and muscle development. However, if you have a seasoned riding horse that is suddenly resistant to picking up his left lead, he may be telling you that something isn’t quite right.
Now The Follow-Up
As you're riding and taking note of these small changes, consider keeping a riding journal or dictating to your trainer or friend as you ride. Any and all of the information mentioned above is useful for your veterinarian, particularly if they know that you're diligent about keeping notes on performance. Be critical, and look for trends.
As most lameness cases can be made worse by heavy exercise, avoid trying to work through these issues on your own. If your horse becomes acutely lame during a ride, dismount immediately and consult with your veterinarian. If your horse appears to have a slowly materializing or chronic lameness issue, utilize a riding journal, a trainer or friend’s eyes, or even a video camera to collect as much information for your veterinarian as possible.
Most importantly, listen to your horse, watch your horse, and feel your horse. Proceed with caution and consult your veterinarian as soon as possible before proceeding with more exercise or treatment of any kind.