Causes of Lameness in Horses Front Legs

Lameness in horses is a classic case of “what did you do this time?” Horses, especially horses that are turned out most of the day, have a tendency to injure themselves when their owners aren’t around.  Because of this, it is difficult to assess exactly what they did to hurt themselves when they turn up lame.

Thankfully, vets are professionals at playing detective, and can typically determine what is the cause of a horse’s lameness.  Front leg lameness is extremely common in horses and can be classified into three broad categories: traumatic injuries, hoof injuries, and arthritis. There are causes of front-end lameness that fall outside of these parameters, but these are the most common.

In this article, I will be discussing how it can be determined if a horse is lame on its front legs, causes of front leg lameness, and treatments for these different kinds of lameness.

How to Tell Lameness in Horses on its Front Leg(s)

If you’ve ever purchased a show horse, you’ve most likely had a PPE (pre-purchase exam) done.  Determining lameness is done in a similar fashion to a PPE. If you notice your horse is lame (i.e.- visibly limping), call your vet out and have your horse looked at.

Once the vet is there, he/she will begin examining the horse.  The first thing done is a jog; by watching the horse trot up and down, a vet can determine which leg the horse has injured.  From there, the vet will examine that leg for any obvious and external signs of injury.

Depending on the circumstances, the next steps can include flexion tests, x-rays, nerve blocks, or whatever the vet deems best.  The vet’s decisions will depend on whatever he/she believes is causing the horse’s lameness.

Causes of Front-Leg Lameness in Horses

These causes can commonly be broken down into traumatic injuries, hoof injuries, and arthritis.  Each of these causes can be further broken down into specific circumstances, and each requires its own specialized form of treatment.

Traumatic Injuries

Traumatic injuries in the front legs include bone, muscle, joint, and ligament injuries.  Bone and joint breaks and sprains are similar to those in humans. They are most commonly accrued by competition horses in the bottom half of the front leg.  

Causes of Front-Leg Lameness in Horses

Ligaments and muscles are frequently involved in the break or sprain injuries as well.  If a bone or joint is skewed in the wrong direction, the ligaments and muscles surrounding it will often be stretched and strained in the wrong direction. These types of injuries can involve the flexor tendons and suspensory ligaments.

Again, these injuries are most commonly caused by accidents in competition or training.  It can be anything from a horse landing off a jump unbalanced to a horse stepping in uneven footing while on-course.

Lameness in Horses: Hoof Injuries

Hoof injuries most commonly have to do with the quality of ground a horse spends its time standing on.  For example, if your horse is turned out in a dry dirt pen, he will most likely have dry feet.  But, if your horse gets turned out in a muddy pasture, his feet are going to be wet.  

One of the most common hoof injuries to cause front end lameness is thrush.  Thrush is a bacteria that grows in a horse’s feet when unclean and damp substances remain in a horse’s foot for long amounts of time.  This could be mud, wet grass, or soiled bedding.

Horses can also become foot sore or incur stone bruises by walking on surfaces that are uneven or too hard. 



Just like people, horses get arthritis in their joints as they age.  Unlike traumatic injuries and most hoof injuries, arthritis isn’t something that a horse develops overnight.  Arthritis is more of a gradual process that a horse owner will notice taking effect over time.

If the arthritis is especially bad in one leg, or one joint, a horse will appear to be lame in that leg.  But, chances are the arthritis is in more than just that one area.

Treatments for Front-Leg Lameness in Horses

Treatments for front-leg lameness will depend on the type and severity of the injury.  Traumatic injuries typically take a long time to heal. This can entail the horse being on stall-rest and hand-walking for a few months, then slowly moving to solitary turnout, group turnout, and slowly back into riding.  Depending on the circumstances, horses can be out of work for a few years due to a traumatic injury. In the worst cases, some horses will be lame for the rest of their lives.

Hoof-injuries are typically easier to remedy.  There are many on-the-shelf pastes and treatments for thrush.  So long as a horse’s feet are kept dry and are being treated, the horse should heal within a few weeks.  The same can be said of bruising due to uneven or hard surfaces; horses should be allowed to rest and will frequently be sound in a few weeks.

Treatments for Front-Leg Lameness in Horses

Arthritis is a bit of a different case.  Arthritis can’t be “cured” so to speak. Horses can be treated in order to help them stay comfortable, but arthritis won’t go away.  Some common treatments to help with the pain are joint supplements, bute, and sometimes injections.


There are infinite reasons why a horse could come up lame in its front end.  But, some of these reasons are more common than others. Thanks to veterinary care, it is becoming easier to determine what is causing a horse’s lameness and how best to treat it.  I hope this article helped you better understand the causes for front-leg lameness! Please share this article and, as always, share your experiences with us!

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