Prevent Lameness in Your Horse

Preventing lameness by keeping the riding environment safe for your horse
Preventing lameness by keeping the riding environment safe for your horse

For as large as horses are, they are incredibly delicate animals. Their inquisitive nature and large skeletal frame can often put them in situations resulting in injury and/or lameness.

Whether your horse-related goals are to maintain a healthy companion animal, ride recreationally, or campaign on a competitive circuit, keeping your horse sound is the key to achieving success.

Charlotte Dujardin Gold Medal Winner

Charlotte Dujardin Gold Medal Winner

One of nature's most beautiful animals are imposingly powerful and amazing fragile.
© Nordlicht8

Routine care

"Routine care is definitely a big part of preventing lameness," said Brandon DeShane, a farrier in Upstate New York.

Take time to inspect your horse as often as possible, ideally on a daily basis. Establishing a baseline for what is normal for your horse will make it easier to identify an issue. During daily visits, pick out your horse's feet to remove any debris and check for stones, bruising, or sore areas.

Charles Wilhelm tunes up a horse by lunging

Charles Wilhelm tunes up a horse by lunging

Keeping fit and trim through periodic exercise helps protect against lameness.
© Charles Wilhelm

For horses not in a regular workout routine, take time to hand walk or trot a horse on the lunge line once a week. Watch your horse move and take note of any stiffness or changes in his gait.

Regular visits from the farrier are equally important. The length of time between visits will vary depending on the horse's activity level and their natural hoof structure."A lot of people like to go barefoot these days,"; DeShane said. "It's okay for horses not getting worked, but a lot of times you will see horses in regular exercise with flared hooves or wear on the toes and they really need shoes and more frequent visits to maintain a healthy hoof."

For horses with shoes, DeShane prefers horses wear bell boots whether in the paddock or at work. "If a horse is shod, I usually like to keep bell boots on as prevention for pulling a shoe," he said.

Providing routine care includes maintaining clean pastures and paddocks. Clean pastures is more than managing manure. It also includes removing debris, checking for broken fences, and removing any equipment or dilapidated buildings. By nature, horses are inquisitive and any unnatural objects in the pasture will capture their attention. "I worked on a horse that got caught up in a hay rake that was in the pasture. It's best not to have 'stuff' in the paddocks with the horses," he added.

A horse's basic needs

A horse's needs will differ based on his conformation and fitness level. Some horses may require supplements to stay sound. Others may require corrective shoes or pads. "Work with a professional who will know your horse's basic needs and make adjustments as needed," DeShane added. An annual check-up by the veterinarian will also help determine each horse's needs for staying sound.

Depending on the horse's workout routine, wraps and protective leg wear can provide additional support to working horses. "Generally, I only wrap when doing higher level stuff and for general riding people do find them useful," DeShane said. "Performance boots do help in performance settings and boots on jumping horses absorb shock." Properly applied polo wraps can also offer added support to a horse's working muscles.

Like a human athlete, horses should have a 10 minute warm-up and cool-down period incorporated into any workout to allow their muscles and soft tissue to stretch and work properly. While regularly scheduled riding sessions maintain a horse's condition, overdoing it can be equally damaging. Provide time for rest and recuperation.

Knowing your riding environment will also help prevent lameness. Trail riders in particular should be aware of the intended riding environment. Uneven footing laden with pebbles or gravel can cause soreness in a horse's hooves. "Weekend warriors can likely get away with slip-on easy boots, otherwise routine shoeing is recommended," he said. "When you try to ride barefoot horses on trails, over rocks or riverbeds you're going to have trouble."

Know your horse's abilities

A horse's ability to perform and do so without showing signs of lameness is largely dependent on the horse's natural abilities and its general fitness level. "If I took my backyard trail horse to a rodeo, he'd pull up lame," DeShane said. Like any human, an unfit horse asked to perform demanding activities without proper conditioning will strain muscles and in some cases sustain more serious injuries.

Work with a veterinarian or trainer to establish a conditioning program to gradually increase a horse's stamina and ability to perform higher level activities. Riders with competitive goals will likely have their horses on a conditioning program to avoid injury from working an unfit horse. However, there will be times the rider asks the horse to extend itself and perform at a higher level.

"If you push your horse competitively, have someone there with a professional opinion on getting extra support," he suggested. A horse expected to perform at high levels may benefit from alternative therapies like chiropractic care or acupuncture. Regular icing or poulticing along with stable bandages after intense training session can also soothe tired or sore muscles. Work with your veterinarian to determine which option is a good fit for your horse.

Be observant

Sometimes, regardless of what a horse owner does to prevent lameness, their horse will come up lame. "Horses can go lame stepping on a stone or stepping on their shoe and pulling it off," DeShane said. Most importantly, when you see a red flag or suspect something is off, call a professional right away. A quick reaction will help prevent the injury from escalating to something catastrophic or potentially career-ending.

Dig deeperTM

Lameness is such an important issue with horses that we devote a health center to educate visitors about lameness.

Have a horse that is subject to lameness. You can learn about how the veterinarian diagnosis lameness in Diagnosing Equine Lameness- Nerve Block Basics.

About the Author

Katie Navarra

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Katie has been a freelance writer since 2001 and has more than 250 bylines to her credit.  In addition to writing for equine publications, she also writes for landscape, general agriculture and business publications.