Tips for Pinpointing Lameness - Which Leg is Lame and Why?

Horse trotting out during lameness check.
Horse trotting out during lameness check. Zuzule

Most lameness problems involve the foot. When a horse's foot is sore, it may be obvious, but sometimes it takes careful evaluation of the gait and examination of the feet to figure out which foot is sore and where.

The walk may not reveal much unless the horse is quite sore, whereas the trot is an ideal gait for spotting lameness. The horse is traveling faster, putting more force on the foot or leg (making it more painful).

He also makes more obvious deviation as he seeks to compensate, since the trot is the most regular and symmetrical gait. Diagonal legs strike the ground together.

Man leading a trotting horse in lameness examination.

Observing the horse at a trot

The best way to determine which leg is sore is to observe the horses' movement at the trot, paying close attention to head or hip movement.
© 2016 by Jackie Sellers

It's more difficult to detect a lame leg at a canter/gallop because it's easier for a horse to minimize lameness, especially if he uses the lead that reduces strain on the sore leg.

The horse compensates for pain by getting off that leg as quickly as possible, moving his other legs and his body to take more of the weight. It's these compensatory movements that signal lameness.

Head carriage is the most obvious clue, since he uses head and neck for balance, just as a person swings arms and legs while walking or running.

At the walk and canter, the horse's head bobs at each stride.

At a trot, however, his head remains steady since he always has a leg at each side and each end of his body coming to ground at the same time. He doesn't need his head for balance.

Front leg lameness

If there's head-bobbing at the trot, he's lame, trying to shift his weight off a sore foot or leg by making extra balancing movement with head and neck.

To check for lameness, have someone lead the horse at a trot, directly away from you, and back again - with enough slack in the lead rope so the horse's head is free and you can see any head-bobbing. Also watch from the side as the horse is led past at a trot.

The key point is to note the timing of an exaggerated head elevation at the trot. When the painful front leg hits the ground, the horse will elevate his head to lessen the impact on that leg. While not easy for beginners, watching the head movements and the foot fall is key to helping decide which limb is affected.

Use a straight background like a fence or shed roof to provide a level reference point. This can help you see a non-symmetrical head bob or a drop of the withers or hip when the horse lands on the good leg.

The horse can also be longed or led in a circle both directions. Some lameness show up when making a turn, putting more stress or pressure on the inside or outside of feet or legs.

A hard surface will accentuate some types of lameness, due to increased concussion. A soft surface, in which the foot sinks in and the sole bears weight, will increase lameness if the sole or tissues above it are involved.

Another clue is how the horse stands at rest - if he tries to take weight off a front foot by standing with it more forward, or rests a hind foot.

Back leg lameness

Compensation movements for a hind leg lameness are harder to detect than for a front leg. The horse may only bob his head for severe hind leg pain - and this may be misinterpreted as lameness in a front leg.

A more reliable way to pinpoint hind leg lameness is to stand behind him as he is led directly away from you, to compare the up-and-down movement of his hips.

If pain occurs early in the stride as the lame foot takes weight, the rest of the stride will be shortened; the hip will pop up as the horse gets off that leg quickly. Again, the rising movement of the hip associated with the foot fall of the painful leg is the diagnostic

To evaluate hip movement, imagine a big T on the back end of the horse while standing behind him, with the tail dividing the hind quarters in half and the top of the T connecting the points of the hips. As the horse moves, the rise and fall of the hips will be obvious as you envision this horizontal line.

It's also fairly easy to detect hind leg lameness while observing the horse as he is trotted past. He protects the lame leg by getting off it faster and putting increased force and downward movement on the good leg. He also takes a shorter stride on the lame leg. This is very obvious on a video if it's played in slow motion

Leg lameness dilemma - not always easy to tell

Even veterinarians have problems identifying the sore limb on occasions. Sometimes subtle rear lameness may cause a head bob indicative of a fore limb lameness. Sometimes, multiple limbs may be lame, or another condition may be causing lameness that presents in a different manner. Veterinarians are skilled at observing the whole horse, and taking in the clues required for a more definitive diagnosis and plan of treatment.

Pinpointing the area of soreness

Once you determine which leg is sore, the next step is to locate the problem. The first place to look, if a horse is reluctant to put full weight on a leg, is the foot. The problem may be as simple as a rock wedged in it.

Or there may be indication of trauma or infection, such as a puncture or an advanced case of thrush. If there is nothing obvious, you may need a hoof tester to see if there's a sore area which might indicate a bruise or abscess under the sole.

If the bottom of the foot seems fine, check for heat in the hoof wall. Compare warmth or coolness of the other feet. This is easiest in early morning when all hooves would be cool. On a hot afternoon they will all be warmer.

Check for pain around the coronary band by squeezing the coronet and heels with your hands, and compare digital pulses of both feet.

Also compare the joints for thickness and swelling, heat or sensitivity. Your hands can often give clues that are hard to see, and the horses reaction to touch or pressure tells you if an area is sore.

If you are still at a loss, check the leg from top to bottom for heat and swelling, and the opposite leg also, for comparison. This is where the skill, training and knowledge of a veterinarian is important. Especially in performance or show horses, only the veterinarian can determine the joint, ligament or tendon that may be damaged, and provide a treatment plan.

By checking horses' feet and legs daily - during grooming, before and after a ride, and the day after a hard workout - lameness will be apparent at an early stage.

Once you locate the area of soreness, the next step is to determine what caused it (whether injury or infection) and what to do about it.

Get help from your veterinarian for diagnosis, and almost always should consult him/her for advice on the most effective treatment, unless it's something simple like a rock caught in the shoe.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.