It’s what we dread—noticing that our horse seems “a little off.” And if he is, what are the steps for assessing a lame horse? Here’s how to organize your examination.
In his pen or pasture, does your horse stand normally, with his feet placed more or less under him? Cocking a hind leg is OK, but “pointing” a front leg is not. A wider than normal stance is also a warning sign and may indicate a neurological deficit.
At a Standstill
On a firm, level surface, inspect each of his legs from every angle, looking for cuts, bumps, rubs, bruises, swellings, and discharges. Run your bare hand over each leg, feeling for heat or sensitive areas. Flex each limb and feel the layers of tendons in back of the cannon bone for bumps or sore spots.
Check the digital pulse of each foot; a normal pulse is faint and slow (about 32 to
36 beats per minute).
Wrap your hand around the outside of each hoof, feeling for heat and comparing each foot to the others. Examine the sole, frog, and bars for lodged items, puncture wounds, bruises, and cracks. Tap the sole with the hoof pick. Note whether your horse resists lifting any of his feet, which may indicate pain in the opposing foot.
At a Walk, Trot
Have a helper walk your horse back and forth on flat, firm footing as you watch how he moves, especially during turns. Is he striding normally, or is he hesitating or otherwise reluctant to move out? Does he turn the same in both directions?
Have your helper trot your horse directly away from you, in a straight line, then pivot and trot straight back to and past you, so you can view your horse from the back, front, and side. Does your horse’s head bob at any point? (It will bob up when a sore foreleg lands and down when a sore hind leg lands.) Do either of his hips move unevenly, or do any of his toes drag? Is his stride shorter than normal?
On a Circle
Watch as your horse is longed at a trot in both directions; is his movement the same going both ways? Watch, as before, for head bobs or other hitches of movement.
Tighten the longe circle, because the smaller it is, the more stress is placed on feet and legs. Moving to pavement further ups the ante. If your horse can trot a small circle (say, 20 feet in diameter) on a blacktop or concrete surface without showing signs of lameness, he’s probably not lame.
To keep lameness at bay, maintain your horse at his ideal weight, exercise him consistently, and provide regular, competent hoof care. Always warm up properly before harder work, and ride only on good footing with a solid, even, not-too-hard surface. Don’t over-drill or carelessly torque joints. Avoid riding or turning out on slippery ground. Work with your vet to decide when and what type of leg protection to use, as boots or leg wraps can help prevent injuries, especially during longeing or in the round pen.