Diseases that cause lameness in horses

Written by moira clune
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There are several conditions that can cause lameness in a horse. If you've witnessed an injury, the cause is obvious, but sometimes the source of a horse's lameness is harder to determine. You should be familiar with your horse's vital signs and normal physical condition and behaviours so that you can easily identify abnormalities and accurately convey this information to a veterinarian if necessary. Because lameness can be something as minor as a stone in the hoof or something serious like founder, monitor your horse closely and call a vet if you have any questions.

Simple Foot Troubles

The horse's feet should be lifted and the soles checked. A stone wedged into the hoof can cause pain. Dark spots can indicate a sole bruise. Cracks can be painful. Deep or wide cracks may need to be repaired; consult a farrier if you have questions about the process. Newly trimmed feet can be a little sore sometimes, especially if the hoof was trimmed too short. If a horse is sporting new shoes, the trouble could be a poorly fit shoe.

Heat in Hoof/Abscess

Feel the hooves. Is one hoof hotter than the others? Feel the pulse in the artery that passes over the fetlock joint. Is it pounding? Both heat and a pounding pulse are indications of injury. If you notice excessive heat in the hoof, do not let the condition continue for more than 24 hours. A hoof abscess is very painful and can be the result of a hoof crack, nail penetration or other injury to the hoof. Bacteria enters, pus develops and the hoof becomes hot and painful. Contact a veterinarian or farrier--the abscess may need to be drained.

Navicular Syndrome

Navicular syndrome usually affects the front feet of horses, and it is characterised by intermittent lameness. It is usually caused by overwork. The navicular bone is located near a horse's heel. It begins to deteriorate and cause pain. While navicular syndrome is incurable, proper shoeing and trimming can reduce pain. Anti-inflammatories are often used to control pain. In severe cases, surgery to remove the nerves that lead to the bone can reduce or eliminate the pain.


Founder is an emergency and should be treated by a veterinarian at the earliest sign. If you notice the horse is somewhat stiff in the forelegs or if he is leaning back on his heels in the "rocking horse" position, take action quickly. Founder is common in late spring, when pasture grass is very lush, although the condition can develop at any time. One of the most telling signs of founder is an increase in the digital pulse. Learn your horse's normal digital pulse so that you can identify a dangerous increase.


Osteoarthritis of the pastern joint and/or coffin joints is known as ringbone. Cartilage, the cushion between joints, breaks down and the bones rub together. Often caused by abnormal joint stress due to poorly balanced hooves or improper shoeing, ringbone is treated with anti-inflammatories, pain medications and physiotherapy. Joint supplements such as chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine are often recommended.


Tendinitis is common in horses that compete in high level athletic events. There are many causes, including poor conditioning, improper shoeing or dangerous arena conditions. Tendinitis can happen quickly or build up slowly, but in either case, treatment is necessary. You will notice swelling, fluid accumulation and heat at the site of the swelling. Ice packs, NSAIDs (anti-inflammatories) and rest are the recommended treatment. After several months of rest and rehabilitation, most horses can return to the ring.

Back Pain or Injuries

Lameness can be caused by an injury or pain in another part of the horse's body. Back pain, common in older horses, can cause a limping gait. Arthritis of the spine can limit a horse's range of motion and this sets off a series of mechanical compensations that result in what appears to be lameness in the legs. Think of your last backache--was your normal walking style affected? Did you shorten your stride or shuffle a bit? It's the same with a horse. A backache can alter his stride in a way that resembles hoof or leg pain.

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