Common Lameness Issues in Equines

Horse Having A Lameness Assessment

February 4, 2022

Lameness is used to describe an equines abnormal gait due to an underlying problem. The equines leg is made up of cartilage, delicate tendons and ligaments, alongside multiple bone structures and joints. Due to how delicate some of these structures are in their leg, it is common for a problem to occur and cause pain, which if left untreated could result in lameness.  

Today, we are going to discuss common lameness issues found in our equines, how they are diagnosed and treated, as well as how the problems will present themselves and symptoms to be on the lookout for.  

In This Blog:


This is a very common condition which can be extremely painful and crippling to your equine. The laminae (the tissue which supports the pedal bone and holds the hoof wall in place) becomes inflamed and damaged, affecting the support of the pedal bone.  

If left untreated and allowed to develop, the pedal bone can sink and rotate, causing extreme pain.  

Causes of Laminitis  

Commonly seen to affect equines after a frost due to the high sugar content brought to the grass. Equines with certain conditions like Cushing’s and EMS are also at a high risk of developing laminitis due to not being able to regulate insulin and break down sugar correctly. 

Along with diseases, obese equines are commonly prone to this disease due to the excess sugars being taken in and the gut not being able to correctly break it down, releasing toxins and bacteria.  

If your equine has injured a leg and is not completely weight bearing additional stress to their other limbs will occur which can increase the chances of laminitis.  

Stress can induce laminitis along with excessive work on hard ground due to concussion.  

Signs of laminitis can be: 

  • Lameness (particularly walking heel to toe) 
  • Standing like a rocking horse (rocking back on their heels if laminitis is in the fore limbs) 
  • Laying down frequently  
  • Strong digital pulses (you will find these just above the fetlock)  
  • Heat in their hoof  
  • Positive on hoof testers 

    If you suspect that your equine has laminitis, it is vital you contact your vet as soon as possible so they can find what triggered it and treat this appropriately. Whilst you are waiting for your vet, place them on a thick, full bed reaching from wall to door.  

    Allow them access to water but cut sugars out of their diet and feed them poor quality hay. What we mean by poor quality hay is not a recent cut or really good quality hay as this is more likely to have a higher amount of sugar in. If it is possible soak their hay too as this will remove most of the sugar content.  

    Your vet will do a lameness assessment and most likely want to take X-Rays of your equines feet to see the extent of the damage. They may also take blood samples to check for hormone imbalances or infections anywhere.  

    Whilst they have laminitis. Box rest 24/7. This is a very painful condition for them.  


    Our equine friends love to test us in many ways such as requiring veterinary assistance, and the attached vet bills, when we least need them. It is also not unusual for them to go lame when we least need it. 

    Fractures in their limbs can be more common than we think, and some can go unnoticed until appropriate X-Rays are taken. With 20 bones in their forelimbs and 19 bones in their hindlimbs, it can be quite easy for it to happen.  

    A fracture is most likely to happen in the lower part of the leg and is usually a result from a kick or a fall. Equines can quite easily fracture their pedal bone if they land awkwardly or if their foot falls as the ground becomes uneven.  

    Equines which are known for kicking out can fracture their pedal bone if they kick a wall. Providing this fracture does not coincide with the coffin joint, the recovery can be positive with remedial shoeing, box rest, and medication.  

    A fractured cannon bone holds a less positive recovery due to how cannon bones are known to fracture. Often, they fracture down the bone with the result affecting the fetlock joint. Whilst some fractures of this bone have been known to recover through surgery, the outcome is often undesired.  

    With the ever-growing market of technology and the advancement of equine medical science, recovery outcomes for fractures are becoming more positive. But it is important to take into consideration costs, your equines behaviour and temperament, whether they will be amenable for treatment and outcome at the end.  


    Many people believe that arthritis is only seen in older equines or those in demanding work, when in fact it can be found in any age or breed of equine.  

    Like us, arthritis is inflammation of a joint, with fluid forming around the affected area causing both swelling and heat.  


    This is one of the most common causes of lameness in mature horses. It can affect any type of articular joint (two cartilage covered bones) in the body which can become uncomfortable and painful for them.  

    The most common joints affected by this are hocks, fetlocks, knees, and stifles and they will usually display symptoms such as heat and swelling over the joint due to a fluid build-up, lameness, and stiffness along with the sound of cracking, popping, and grinding in the joint affected.  

    Another form of osteoarthritis is ring bone. This is where bones have prolificated over time on their coffin and pastern joints. This can be commonly seen when horses reach middle age and is more commonly seen in poor conformational equines or ones which are used in demanding sports often.   

    This can be diagnosed by nerve blocking the suspected area or X-Rays. However, if you would like to know the full extent of the changes, an MRI scan will be needed as an X-Ray only shows bone changes and not cartilage.  

    Unfortunately, arthritis is a degenerative condition and will only get worse over time. Fortunately, you can help manage it with pain medication like Bute or Danilon.  

    You can also inject steroids into the joint to decrease the inflammation. But if overused it can make the symptoms worse or even cause laminitis. It is recommended to decrease their workload, keep them moving and outside as much as possible. Also consider a joint supplement and weight loss if necessary.


    An abscess in the hoof can be a very common explanation for lameness. Sometimes your horse may present 5/5 on the Lameness Scale on one limb simply from an abscess. This diagnosis is particularly more likely if your equines temperament is more on the dramatic side.  

    Others will just have slight lameness and be sensitive in one place when hoof testers are applied.  

    Abscesses can appear if the ground has gone from being extremely dry to very wet as the hooves will have cracked with the lack of moisture. As the ground becomes wet, the hooves act like sponges and allows bacteria into the hoof wall.  

    Another reason can be a puncture wound which can be more detrimental and may need veterinary advice if the foreign object is still in the hoof. Never remove it yourself.  

    If you believe your horse has an abscess, call your farrier to dig out an exit hole to allow it to drain. If your equine is amenable, you can try tubbing it with warm water and Epsom salt to allow the abscess to drain out.   

    Once you have tubbed them, apply a hot poultice for a day or two, twice per day, and then apply a dry poultice for at least three days after to ensure the exit hole has closed enough to stop reoccurring abscesses. Make sure to change the dry poultice at least once per day.

    Tendon/Ligament Damage

    Long tendons are vulnerable to damage when exercising or playing in the field. If they get knocked or pulled, they can be just bruised, or in worst scenarios, they can be torn or ruptured.  

    If you are strenuously exercising an unfit horse, they are prone to tearing the fibres of their tendons and can range from minor to excessive damage. Tendon injuries will display heat over the injured area, lumps, lameness and swelling.  

    A vet will be able to palpate the tendon and if they suspect that the tendon is in-fact damaged, they may scan it with an ultrasound machine to see the damage.  

    It is recommended to wait 7-10 days after the initial injury or lameness has presented itself due to the swelling in the area being more prominent and providing you with a better reading.  

    If the tendon damage is repairable, you will need to box rest them until the tendons have become sturdier. Ice compression or cold hosing can help keep inflammation down, whilst bandaging the affected limb to help immobilise it.  Pain-relief will most likely be needed during this process.  

    It is important to remember if your equine has damaged a tendon or ligament, they will be weaker in the future.

    How Lame is My Equine?

    When you contact your vet about your equine’s lameness, it will help them understand if you can explain how lame they are on the scale.  

    Here are the five stages of a horse’s lameness: 

    • 1/5 lame: Very minor, inconsistent in both walk and trot. Ridden and on the ground.  
    • 2/5 lame: Still minor and is hard to observe in walk and trot in a straight line but can be slightly noticed on a circle or ridden.  
    • 3/5 lame: Becoming more noticeably lame on a straight line and on a circle. Slight head nod. 
    • 4/5 lame: Significantly lame in walk and trotting on a soft and hard surface. Straight line and on a circle. Head nod.  
    • 5/5 lame: Non-weight bearing on their affected leg. Reluctant to move.  

    Lameness can be a mystery with our equines sometimes, and you may need to explore multiple different avenues before you find the root cause.  

    Sometimes the root cause is so simple and obvious too. Whether they measure 1/5 lame or 5/5 lame, never let it get worse before you treat it. As you never know what damage is lying under the surface.  

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