According to James R. Rooney, D.V.M., (expert on lameness and movement in the horse), "LAMENESS is a clinical sign or set of signs by which the horse tells us that he feels pain or discomfort in a given leg". In the beginning these signs are usually very subtle. Learning to recognize the early signs of lameness will not only allow you to minimize or eliminate your horse's pain or discomfort but will save you money and lost riding time as well. Once you know what to look for, these signs are fairly easy to spot. In any suspected lameness, the first thing to do is to check the horse's feet to make sure there's nothing stuck in the hoof or lodged in the shoe. After ruling out foreign objects, there are two main ways to spot lameness. The first is through the horse's motion and the second is through the look and feel of the legs themselves. One of the easiest ways to determine lameness through motion is by watching the horse's head. A sore horse will drop his head when his injured leg is engaged. Since a sound horse's head is motionless at the trot, this is the easiest gait in which to observe this. Have someone jog the horse in hand on a hard, even surface and watch his head. If he's sore, his head will drop when his injured diagonal hits the ground. (If his head drops with his right front leg, the problem will be in that leg or the left rear. If the nod comes with the left, then the left front or the right rear is the problem.) If the horse is sore behind, then the nod will generally be less pronounced.
One of the best ways to look for back leg lameness is to examine the length of the horse's stride. The easiest way to accomplish this is to have an assistant walk the horse on soft ground. Watch where the horse plants his front foot. Keep your eyes on the front hoof print and watch where the back foot lands. A sound horse should step in or past his front hoof print with his hind foot. Check this on both sides. If the horse is short-stepping on one side, he has a problem with the back leg on that side. If he's short-stepping on both sides, this can indicate a problem with his back, rather than his legs, especially if his symptoms are worse with a rider. If your horse suddenly starts walking very short behind, especially after strenuous exercise, this may be a sign that he is "tying-up" which is a medical problem and a vet should be called.
Besides head bobbing and stride length, there are other lameness signs to look for in motion. The horse's stride should be fluid and even. If he moves in a jerky manner, this is usually a sign of trouble. If he picks up one foot higher than the opposite foot, or conversely, drags one foot, this also indicates a problem. Watch each joint in turn as he moves and compare it to the opposite joint. Don't forget to watch the stifle joint in the hind leg, as this can be a problem area. Carrying the head to one side is often a sign of a bad mouth or back, but it can also result from the horse trying to take his weight off an injured leg. Reluctance to go from a trot to a canter, reluctance to take a certain lead, or switching out of a lead can all be signs of lameness.
Motion is the easiest way to spot lameness, and with experience it's possible to determine the exact location of the problem, just through the horse's movements. But in general, the best way to pinpoint lameness is through the look and feel of the legs themselves. The two things to look and feel for are swelling and heat. Ideally, this should be done before the horse is exercised, since exercise increases heat and decreases swelling throughout the leg. To check your horse for problems, first run your hand down the front of the horse's leg, paying particular attention to his knee, ankle, and hoof. You're looking for heat, knots, and/or soft swellings in the leg and heat in the hoof. Next run your hand down the back and sides of the leg. Here, besides the joints, you're feeling the major tendons and ligaments of the legs. These should feel tight and even. Heat and swelling can be slight at first, so it helps to compare one leg to the other. For example, if you suspect an injury to a knee, place your hand first on one knee and then the other to check for difference.
Another way to check for lameness is to push the back of the horse's knee. If the knee gives, the horse does not have his full weight on this leg. A sound horse will keep his full weight on his front legs. It is normal for him to rest his back legs by standing with one of them cocked. If however, he always takes the weight off of one leg when at rest, he may have a problem with that leg. If he constantly shifts back and forth from one leg to the other, he could be sore in both back legs or have back problems.
Some horses have bumps or soft swellings that are considered "blemishes" and are not signs of lameness. The major difference between the two is heat. If the bump or swelling is without heat it usually indicates an old injury or strain that is no longer a problem. Just check it often to make sure there's no change. In fact, it's a good idea to check your horse's legs regularly at the same time you pick his feet. This lets you become accustomed to your horse's leg's individual quirks and will allow you to spot the slightest change, nipping any problems in the bud.
I've found it a huge help to be familiar with the anatomy of the horse's leg. While the anatomy of the whole body can be complicated, the leg itself is rather simple. There are lots of pages on the web with illustrations. Just google Horse Leg Anatomy. It is also a big help to familiarize yourself with the various forms of lameness, along with their causes and cures. I highly recommend the book The Lame Horse, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments, by James R. Rooney, D.V.M. It's full of excellent information and some of the best illustrations I've seen.
If you accustom yourself to the feel of your horse's legs regularly and watch your horse move (along with any others you see), you'll soon be able to pick up any signs of lameness. At first, you'll have to consciously look for the things described above, but soon it will become automatic. It's like learning a new route when you're driving. At first you have to think about where you turn, but soon your subconscious mind does this for you. It's well worth the time and little bit of effort required to teach yourself to spot lameness problems, insuring that your horse is as sound and as pain-free as possible.
As always, if any of this information is not clear, or if you have any other questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section.
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