Equine Lameness

As the owner of an actively competitive sporthorse, there are few things worse than finding out your horse is lame. An injury can range from a mild stone bruise to the tearing of a ligament. Despite our best efforts (see: Are We Pampering Our Horses Too Much?), it is inevitable that at some point in your horse’s career, he or she will come down lame. Traumatic injuries are usually easier to diagnose immediately after the event occurred, whether it be a fall on course or a slip in the field. Where there is a laceration, there is usually blood which makes the site of injury easier to find.


It becomes much more difficult when a rider gets on the horse only to find a slight head bob while in motion, pinned ears or other noticeable yet undefinitive signs of lameness. Due to advances in veterinary technology, horse owners now have an array of medical armory to combat lameness.


The most useful arsenal to any vet is the owner’s own thoughts on their horse’s condition. As the person most likely to spend the most amount of time with their equine, you should be able to note any physical or behavioral abnormalities that did not exist prior to your horse’s lameness. Is there a new bump somewhere? Has your horse been eating/drinking and otherwise acting like his good old self, or has he been grouchy or ill-behaved under saddle? Have you noticed any thickening around his tendons or any unusual swelling or heat anywhere on his body?

It is observations such as those that will give your vet a good starting point. It is imperative as a horse owner that you familiarize yourself with your horse while he is healthy so that you can pinpoint abnormalities when he is lame.

Here are some diagnostic methods that your vet may use to determine the cause of lameness.


Flexion Test: A common test which can be done by a veterinarian or even the horse owner. It includes flexing each lower joint for 30 seconds – 1 minute, then trotting the horse off immediately afterwards. Flexion of the joint results in pressure on the joint capsule as well as the soft tissue. Several factors can affect the validity of this test, which is why nerve blocks will sometimes be utilized by your veterinarian afterwards to narrow the trouble spot down to a specific area.


Blood Test: To rule out diseases which can present themselves in lameness, such as lyme, Equine Infectious Anemia, Cushing’s disease and in some cases EPSM. Have a discussion with your vet to see if he/she feels this step is worthwhile.


Fluoroscopy: An imaging technique that captures radiographic images of your horse in real time. Using a fluoroscope, your vet can identify bone issues such as osteoarthritis that may have been missed by even using digital radiography. Many large animal clinics as well as veterinary hospitals will have access to this technology.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): a process that involves a strong magnetic field to align the nuclear magnetization of hydrogen atoms in water in the body. It provides a much greater contrast between various types of tissue than any other current method. MRI machines are generally located at veterinary hospitals and universities.


Digital Endoscopy: this technique uses a tiny, flexible fibre-optic camera that can be used to examine the respiratory system, including the nasal cavity and lower airway.


Gastroscopy: a gastroscope works with the same technology as the endoscope, with the specific difference that it is long to allow the technician to see into the stomach. This is currently the most effective way to detect Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome, otherwise known as ulcers.


Digital Ultrasonography: the latest and greatest in ultrasounds is the advancement of digital equipment. This allows for technicians to see 3D images of soft tissue such as tendons and ligaments, including cartilage and joint capsules. With this technology, suspensory tears and damage to the sacro-iliac are much easier to detect and treat.

This is just an overview of some of the technologies that modern medicine has to offer our equine counterparts. It is always best to consult with your team (vet, farrier and any other bodywork professionals) to decide the best course of action to diagnose and treat equine lameness.