Stress, strain or injury can take a toll on any horse.  When lameness occurs, a prompt lameness examination can save you time, money, and frustration by diagnosing and treating the problem immediately, possibly preventing further damage.  The goal of such early examinations is to keep small problems from becoming big ones.

Traditionally, lameness has been defined as any alteration of the horse’s gait.  In addition, lameness can be manifest in such ways as a change in attitude or performance.  These abnormalities can be caused by pain in the neck, withers, shoulders, back, loin, hips, legs, or feet.  Identifying the source of the problem is essential to proper treatment.

Examination Procedures

Specific systems are used for performing examinations, depending on the reasons for the evaluation.  Features of an examination may include the following:

  1. Medical history – past and present difficulties; exercise/work requirements
  2. Visual appraisal at rest – conformation, balance, weight bearing of each limb
  3. Hands-on exam – palpation of muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, bones looking for evidence of heat, pain, swelling
  4. Hoof testers – applying pressure to the soles of the feet to check for undue sensitivity or pain
  5. Evaluation in motion – Watching the horse walking and trotting. Observing from the front, back, and both side views, we can note any deviation in gait.  Watching the horse walking and trotting in circles, on a lunge line, in a round pen and under saddle, we can look for shortening of stride, irregular foot placement, head bobbing, stiffness, or weight shifting.
  6. Flexion tests – Holding the horse’s limb in a flexed position and then releasing the leg.  As the horse trots away, we watch for signs of pain, weight shifting or irregular movement.

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnostic procedures are often necessary to isolate the specific location and cause of lameness.

Lameness is best treated with a specific diagnosis

  1. Diagnostic nerve and joint blocks – Used to identify the location of lameness.  This systematic procedure isolates the area of pain causing the lameness.
  2. Digital Radiographs – Used to identify damage or changes to bony tissues.  Not all changes are cause for concern, but with experience and knowledge those that are significant can be pointed out.
  3. Ultrasound – Used to identify damage to soft tissue structures, such as ligaments and tendons.  Ultrasound can also assess whether the injury may be acute or chronic, as well as the extent of the injury.
  4. MRI – especially useful in cases of foot lameness where ultrasound and digital radiographs are negative or limited in scope due to the hoof.  Magnetic resonance gives two and three dimensional images of over 20 structures located within the hoof.  Navicular disease, deep digital flexor injuries, coffin joint problems, impar ligament desmitis, collateral ligament injury, and other problems can be delineated quite clearly with MRI.