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Watching for Lameness

    Horses are stoic creatures. As prey animals, they instinctively know that showing pain makes them prime pickin's for being a predator's next meal. It's easy to miss subtle lameness but it's important to catch problems before they become bigger. "An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure" is true! Just ask horses with chronic lameness that will never go away due to lack of treatment in the early acute stages of injury. This is why it's important to spend a little time with your horse each day, just observing his behavior. 
    Obviously when it's chilly outside you won't spend as much time as in prime riding weather or when the days are longer, but you should check for certain things while you feed.
  • Blood-this is the most obvious clue. Ice can cut frogs or horses crowding into shelters can scrape themselves. Some wounds bleed badly  even if they are relatively mild, but warrant an investigation. Spurting blood is a severed artery and is an emergency requiring IMMEDIATE VET ATTENTION! Oozing blood is venous and is less of an emergency but may still require a pressure wrap. If it's just a few drops, clean the area and add a little salve to keep dirt out.
  • Matted hair- matted shaggy winter coats can indicate sweat (unusual in cold weather) or insidious joint wounds, depending on location. Winter grooming helps keep you in tune with wounds that may be hidden under that fur. If you find a wound over a joint that is oozing clear or yellow liquid, call the vet. It may be a puncture wound that can jeapordize your horse's future soundness forever. Sweating  (if it's really chilly and the horse has not been exercising) could indicate colic pain. Sweating will occur around the flanks and large muscle groups.
  • Limping: this can be very obvious head bobbing, hopping or holding a leg up. It's not always this plain, though. Watch your horse for subtle head nodding, or even head "dropping" as the front feet hit hte ground. Then watch the top of the hips. If one hip seems to hike up as the leg bears weight, the leg could be hurt anywhere from the lumbar spine, hip, stifle (true knee of the horse) or hock, or even a fetlock and hoof injury.
  • Moody behavior: if your normally sweet horse begins to pin his ears at you or avoids being caught or stands away from the herd, lays down more than usual, he may be in pain. This isn't a "red alarm" it's a symptom that should be noted and if combines with other problems can help identify pain, but by itself could be an "off" day, so take it with a grain of salt. This is where knowing your horses' normal behavior comes in handy.  Clenching or grinding teeth, acting head shy can indicate back and shoulder pain.
  • Stance: How your horse stands can tell a lot. Look at him from the side. Do his front legs seem to be square under the shoulders? Imagine dropping a straight line from the shoulder. If his feet seem more "forward" and the knees and heels of his feet seem ahead of the straight shoulder line, then he may be suffering from some laminitis. If he seems to be leaning forward, with the toes behind the vertical line, he could have foot pain or hind leg or back pain. Resting one front foot indicates lameness. Horses alternately rest hind legs when they are sound, but never the fronts.  
  • Stance 2: Hind end troubles can show up in a hind leg that is ALWAYS resting, or a lot of shifting from leg to leg like he's dancing. Look for swelling and heat in the joints. Also, how he holds the hind limbs. A horse that normall stands square, but suddenly points one knee more away from the body could have a sore stifle.
  • Locking or funny moving limbs: Signs of lameness that doesn't seem like limping but is obviously not right- a leg that seems to stick straight before popping and moving (Locked stifle) or a leg that hikes up really high and slaps forward can indicate muscle or neurological problems. Legs that seem to "forget" to move forward and stumbling are also signs of pain in the body.

     Remember, not all lameness is hoof related. Most actually starts with back or jaw pain and compensatory movement can cause problems in the hooves. Saddle fit, arthritis and poor posture, carriage and a sloppy rider can do a lot harm. Poor trims and shoeing can cause lameness directly and indirectly. Some problems are cumulative stress, others are instant. Keep an eye on your horse for wounds and discomfort, do what you can to keep your horse fit. Long winter layoffs make for sore horses in the spring. Keep your horse fit in the winter with short rides, lots of turnout and even longing or hand walking  (regardless if they are on turnout or stall bound) to keep his bones and connective tissues conditioned to avoid spring setbacks.

   Finally, remember that horses need hoof care year round. You should NEVER let them go beyond 8 weeks between professional visits. Sometimes you may get by with it, but you risk damage to the hoof that will take longer to repair. Just because a hoof "looks good" doesn't mean it doesn't need balancing. Yes, the hoof grows slower in cold weather months from lack of exercise in general. By the time you see flares, cracks or chunks breaking off, damage has already been done. Horses need trims every 4-8 weeks to avoid hoof related lameness and pathology that can lead to lameness down the road. You may not see anything wrong, but a professional is trained to catch problems.  For example, toe flare can lead to white line disease that will eat it's way up the hoof and can be a major problem that can be very hard to eradicate. Or  flares that can turn into cracks or breakage that "look okay" one day, but snap off the next, leaving your horse walking on his sole and lame. It's amazing how many horses aren't trimmed in winter months, but you don't expect your car to be a safe ride if the tires are bald and imbalanced. Your horse LIVES on his feet, so when they don't feel good-HE doesn't feel good. Imagine wearing ill fitting shoes all the time, even to bed. Overgrown hooves can feel just as bad.


The picture above is of a horse with chronic pain from multiple sources. Sadly, he is an example of a simple problem that gradually affected more of his body due to poor vet care after the initial injury. This horse had a hock injury that was mis-diagnosed. After mis-treating the leg, the other hock went bad from compensatory movement. Both rear fetlocks are arthritic and one stifle  has arthritis. His "knees" on the front legs have started showing arthritis and he has some navicular symptoms. However, treatment with Bute led to gastric ulcers. In stance, you see how he awkwardly holds his hind leg. An exam by a more qualified vet identified several pathologies including nerve degeneration and muscle atrophy in the hind quarters and the other problems mentioned. He was treated for ulcers and no longer gets bute. He instead gets an herbal supplement to combat inflammation and is getting therapeutic massage and stretching. While his nerves can't be fixed, nor the arthritis of the joints and some of the pain is gone now that the joints have fused; his comfort level has increased. This is a good case of too little too late, though. He will never be sound. He illustrates compensation and lameness stance in a horse.