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. 

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Arthritis

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.

Conclusion

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!

FAQs

Is lameness in horses curable?

Lameness in horses refers to any type of gait abnormality that can affect the way a horse moves. Lameness is defined as an abnormal motion or gait and often associated with pain under certain conditions. Lameness may be caused by injury, inflammation, problems with bone or tendons/ligaments, neurological issues and more.
Lameness may be a temporary condition associated with a particular movement or it may be a chronic problem. Lameness does not generally cover other forms of reduced performance such as poor disposition, decreased heart rate and respiratory rate, reduced feed intake etc. It can originate from any body part including the musculo-skeletal system as well as the skin. It's most commonly seen in the front legs but can also occur in the hind legs.
Lameness has many different causes with varying levels of seriousness, from a relatively minor problem to serious enough to cause death in severe cases. Lameness in horses is curable although permanent illness may result.
Lameness in one leg may be temporary due to injury or from a single bout of colic for example. Lameness in more than one leg may be permanent. A horse is never truly "cured" of this condition but with proper veterinary care and possibly medications, the pain can be managed to allow the animal to perform work without significant discomfort or pain. Lameness that is caused due to musculo-skeletal issues can often be physically corrected by rest, medication or training. But when is neurological in origin cannot be treated because the cause of the problem resides within the system itself rather than any external factors.
Lameness is most often related to problems with joints and soft tissue structures such as tendons, therefore issues are most commonly seen during all types of strenuous activity including strenuous work activities, exercise and race participation.

How long does it take for a horse to recover from lameness?

Recovery time depends on the severity of lameness and other factors. Most commonly recovery from lameness is a slow process that can take many weeks especially if dealing with musculo-skeletal problems. Recovery time may also depend on the nature of treatment given to the horse. For example recovery times after surgery will be different than recovery times after rest and medication only.
While recovery time depends on case to case basis, recovery from lameness in horses is estimated to take anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. It may be even longer for horses that have experienced lameness for a long time or horses that recovered without treatment.
Overall recovery depends on the level of lameness, if it is temporary or chronic and how soon the horse began treatment. With proper recovery time horses can return to work and perform without pain or discomfort.

Should a lame horse be stabled?

Stabling should only be done if lameness can't be controlled by medication, if prevents riding or working, if prohibits turnout or if lameness is chronic. If lameness is temporary, long periods of rest are not necessary and the horse should be turned out daily to exercise within a safe area so it doesn't put excessive stress on the healing leg.
Stabling should always be considered when lameness issues are chronic or cannot be treated. In that case the condition should always be closely monitored and assessed for severity before deciding on the treatment.
It is generally recommended that a lame horse should be kept comfortable and allowed to relax in a stress free environment so they can focus on recovery rather than movement and activity.

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