Last Updated on January 28, 2023
Horses are very prone to problems with their legs, and there are many causes of lameness in horses’ front legs. Let’s take a look at why horses go lame and what you can do about it!
Lameness in horses is unfortunately all too common. Many delicate systems and structures in the limbs of the horse can become damaged, either through injury, wear and tear, or disease and infection. Horses can accidentally injure themselves, or they can become lame through hereditary problems or poor limb conformation.
Thankfully, veterinarians are professionals at playing detective, and in most cases, they can typically determine the likely cause of a horse’s lameness. Lameness in horses’ front legs is extremely common and the cause of the lameness can be classified such as traumatic injuries, musculoskeletal problems, infection, or neurological disorders. The causes of lameness in horses are vast and wide-ranging, which is why a veterinary assessment is normally necessary.
Today we will discuss how it can be determined if a horse is lame, the causes of lameness in horses front legs, and treatments for different kinds of lameness.
How to Identify Lameness in Horses Front Legs
If you have ever purchased a horse, you may have had a PPE (pre-purchase exam) carried out. This is a thorough assessment of the horse aimed at identifying if there are any lameness issues or other disorders present before you buy the horse. A full lameness examination is very much like a PPE, to locate the source of the problem.
Lameness in horses front legs is normally fairly easy to identify, as you will notice a change in your horse’s gait. You may be able to see that your horse has a shortened stride and that it nods its head when walking. Lameness in horses’ front legs is normally more apparent when the horse is trotting, or you may find a horse lame at trot only.
If you notice your horse is lame, call your veterinarian out and have your horse looked at. Any form of lameness should be a sign that veterinary attention is needed, as some causes of lameness can result in severe and life-threatening diseases.
For lameness, examination horses are thoroughly observed walking, trotting, and carrying out a variety of other movements. Your veterinarian will watch the horse trot up and down on a hard, level surface, and may also request to see the horse working on a circle. It is often easier to identify the front leg lameness horse on a circle due to the additional weight placed on the inside foreleg.
When the affected leg is identified, flexion tests are carried out to determine the area of the leg which is causing pain. Your vet will then examine the leg closely for any obvious and external signs of injury such as swelling, bony growths, or skin lesions.
If an obvious cause for the lameness cannot be identified at this stage, the next step would be to carry out further diagnostic tests. If the flexion tests did not give a positive result, nerve blocks may be used to establish the site of the injury. Once this is located, diagnostic imaging techniques such as X-rays and ultrasound scans can be used to locate the source of the problem.
Why is My Horse Limping On Front Leg?
Today we are going to look at some common reasons for lameness in horses’ front legs. This is not an exclusive list of why horses go lame, and your horse’s lameness could be due to something else altogether. Never attempt to diagnose the cause of lameness in your horse without the aid of a veterinarian.
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.
Ligaments and muscles are frequently involved in 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 on uneven footing while on course.
Minor skin abrasions can be very painful for a horse, and just a small cut can be enough to make the horse go very lame. As a horse owner, pay close attention to your horse’s legs and make sure any cuts and grazes are cleaned up promptly to reduce the risk of infection.
Have you ever heard the saying “no foot, no horse”? This is a traditional horseman’s phrase which definitely emphasizes how detrimental a hoof injury can be to a horse.
There are a huge number of hoof injuries in horses, and many of them are due to the way we look after our horses. For example, if your horse is turned out in a dry dirt pen, he will most likely have dry, cracked feet. But, if your horse gets turned out in a muddy pasture, his feet are going to be soft and susceptible to foot abscesses.
One of the most common hoof injuries to cause lameness in horses’ front legs is thrush. Thrush is a bacteria that grows in the hooves when unclean and damp substances remain on a horse’s foot for long amounts of time. This could be mud, wet grass, or soiled bedding, and the problem will not be resolved until the horse is moved to a cleaner
Horses can also become foot sore or incur stone bruises by walking on surfaces that are uneven or too hard. This is a particular problem when unshod horses are ridden over rough ground. Poor shoeing techniques or inadequate hoof trimming can also be a common cause of lameness in horses front legs.
Just like humans, 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.
Horses that carry out high-intensity work are particularly prone to degenerative wear and tear of the joints in the forelegs, which can lead to arthritis later in life. If the arthritis is especially bad in one leg, or one joint, a horse will appear to be lame in that leg. However, chances are the arthritis is in more than just that one area, and the horse may be lame in both front legs.
Treatment Of Lameness in Horses Front Legs
The best treatment for lameness in horses’ front legs will depend on the cause of the lameness and the type and severity of the injury. Traumatic injuries such as tendon strains 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.
Arthritis is a bit of a different case. Arthritis can’t be “cured” so to speak – horses can be treated to help them stay comfortable, but arthritis won’t go away. Some common treatments to help with the pain are joint supplements, oral painkillers, and injections to medicate the affected joint.
How Does a Lame Horse Walk?
Most horse lameness examinations take place by observing the horse trotting, as the lameness is normally more prominent at this two-time, symmetrical gait. However, even the mildest lameness may be subtly apparent at the walk, as long as you know the signs to look out for.
Front limb lameness at the walk will have the same classic head nod that is seen at a trot, but it will be far less pronounced. You may also notice that your horse takes a shorter stride with the affected leg at the walk.
Hind limb lameness is harder to detect at the walk, but if you stand behind the horse you may notice that one side of the hindquarters dips lower than the other. The horse may also take shorter steps with the injured leg at the walk.
One of the easiest ways to detect lameness in a walk is to close your eyes and listen to the rhythm of the horse as it moves. The walking pace of a horse has a rhythmic four-time beat, and this will be very uneven in a horse that is lame.
What Do You Do With a Horse That is Permanently Lame?
Unfortunately, many horses suffer injuries during their ridden careers that lead them to become permanently lame. The limbs of a horse are subjected to a lot of strain throughout their lives, which can lead to wear and tear and degenerative injuries. This can lead to a horse that is permanently lame and can no longer be ridden.
What to do with a horse that is permanently lame will depend on the severity of the lameness and your circumstances. The severity of lameness indicates the level of pain the horse is in, and this pain must be adequately controlled to ensure the horse has a good quality of life. If the pain cannot be kept at a manageable level, the kindest option may be to consider euthanizing the horse.
Many lame horses live out a long and happy retirement – these horses are described as ‘paddock sound’, as their lameness is only apparent when they are ridden. A lot of horse owners will choose to retire their horses and care for them as a pet for the remainder of their lives. This is a long-term commitment both in terms of time and money, and may not be feasible for everyone.
If you find that you can no longer care for your lame horse, then re-homing it may be an option. Some people are happy to take on a retired horse as a companion to their riding horse or as a pet. If you cannot find a new home for your horse then some horse sanctuaries and rescue centers will take on lame horses.
How to Sell a Lame Horse?
It is not common to sell a lame horse, as they have very little value to the new owner. A horse that has undiagnosed lameness may never be able to be ridden again and becomes a very expensive pet if the lameness does not resolve.
The only situation where it may be possible to sell a lame horse is when it has some value as a breeding animal. Many mares go on to become broodmares if lameness puts an end to their ridden career. However, breeding from a horse is not a decision that should be undertaken lightly, and indiscriminate breeding from horses just because they have no other use is not advisable.
How Much Does a Horse Lameness Exam Cost?
The cost of a horse lameness exam will depend on how extensive the examination needs to be. The most basic lameness exam will involve a physical evaluation of the horse, and the veterinarian will also observe the horse moving at walk and trot on a hard surface. Some conditions such as laminitis and hoof abscesses can be diagnosed quite easily using a basic evaluation of this type.
However, if nothing conclusive is found at this initial examination, more extensive tests may be required. Flexion tests and nerve blocks can be performed to identify where the pain that is causing the lameness is originating from. This area can then be evaluated using diagnostic imaging techniques like radiography and ultrasound scans.
The more tests are carried out, the higher the bill from the veterinary clinic will be. If you are concerned about costs your veterinarian will provide you with an estimate for each procedure, and help you weigh up the most cost-effective way to reach a lameness diagnosis for your horse.
Where Do Most Lameness Conditions in Horses Originate?
Remember the saying “no foot, no horse”? This old horseman’s term means that without good, sound hooves, the horse is no good for anything. The importance of the hooves of a horse is also compounded by the fact that they are the site that most horse lameness problems originate from!
When your horse is lame, your veterinarian will start by examining the hoof of the affected limb. This is because most lameness conditions in horses originate in the hoof. Although lameness problems can be caused by many areas of the horse’s anatomy, the hoof is the most likely place.
The reason for this is that the hoof is a very hardworking structure and is also more prone to damage. The four hooves of a horse must bear the weight of the entire body, and the impact when the hoof hits the ground can be considerable. The hooves are also subjected to wear and tear from the rough and stony ground.
When the lameness in a horse originates in the hoof, there are two key signs to look out for. Horses with lameness in the hoof often have increased digital pulses, due to inflammation within the hoof. They also tend to react when pressure is applied to the hoof using hoof testers.
Conclusion – Causes Of Lameness in Horses Front Legs
So, as we have learned, there are many different causes of lameness in horses’ front legs, from a simply bruised hoof to lifelong arthritic conditions. Luckily, thanks to advances in modern-day veterinary care, it is becoming easier to determine what is causing a horse’s lameness and how best to treat it. Being able to recognize when your horse is lame and knowing when to call for veterinary assistance is vital to maximizing your horse’s chance of making a full recovery from lameness.
We hope that this article has helped you better understand the causes of lameness in horses’ front legs! Please share this article and, as always, share your experiences with us by commenting below!
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. It is 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 often curable although in some cases permanent illness may result. 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 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. Lameness caused by musculo-skeletal issues can sometimes be physically corrected by rest, medication or training.
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.
Michael Dehaan is a passionate horse owner, horse rider, and lover of all things equine. He has been around horses since he was a child, and has grown to become an expert in the field. He has owned and ridden a variety of horses of different breeds, and has trained many to compete in shows and competitions. He is an experienced horseman, having worked with and competed many horses, including his own. He is an active member of the equestrian community, participating in events and teaching riding lessons.