How to Tell if Your Horse is Lame

Signs That Your Horse Is Lame

A lame horse will either limp or take abnormal steps when they move. While some horses may appear sound at the walk, they can be more noticeably lame in other gaits. Whether buying your first horse or caring for your third horse, noticing if your horse is lame is vital to the horse’s health.

How do you tell if your horse is lame? There are subtle things you can look for to determine if your horse is lame:

  • Head-bobbing
  • Timing of steps
  • Refusing to put weight on the foot
  • Not extending leg completely
  • Regular missteps or tripping
  • Heat in the hoof or leg
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Evident digital pulse

If you think your horse may be lame, have someone else lead it past you so you can watch it move. Not every horse that is lame is a medical emergency. Some horses appear lame due to stiffness in the body or malformation. If your horse randomly appears lame, the best thing to do is call the vet. In this article, I will share all my tips and tricks for noticing a lame horse.

Signs of Horse Lameness #1: Head-Bobbing

Head-bobbing is the most evident sign that a horse is lame. If a horse has an uneven gait or favors one particular foot, this will result in more exaggerated head movement at the walk and trot. The horse’s head will bob up and down with each stride.

A trained eye can notice this while watching the horse on the ground and from in the saddle. If you want to notice head-bobbing in your horse, sometimes the best thing to do is watch and become familiar with how your horse moves naturally. If you know how your horse should be moving naturally, you’ll be able to notice when something isn’t right.

Signs of Horse Lameness #2: Timing of Steps

The timing of a horse’s steps can notify you of lameness. When naturally moving, a horse’s walking or trotting steps will be rhythmic, with each foot staying on the ground for about the same amount of time. A horse with pain in its hoof or leg will try to limit how much weight is being put on that leg. They will do this by taking quick steps off that foot, making their gait uneven.

It is easiest to see the timing of the steps when the horse is at a trot. At the trot, the horse’s back legs move opposite of each other, with one leg coming forward and down as the other leg comes back and up. The same thing is true with the front legs. Watch the leg in question compared to the leg beside it to see if there is any difference in the amount of time the foot is on the ground.

Signs of Horse Lameness #3: Refusing to Put Weight on the Foot

Have you ever hurt your foot or leg? Putting weight on it can worsen the pain, so you use crutches or a cane to distribute the weight elsewhere. Horses can’t use crutches or canes, so they will still walk on their hurt feet most of the time. All that said, there are certain things horses do to try and relieve a sore hoof or leg from the pain of weight. Here are common methods:

  • Cocking or hovering the foot when resting
  • Laying down more frequently
  • Rocking backward and forward to shift weight from one end of their body to the other

My horse once had an extremely painful hoof abscess. She spent much more time lying down than normal until the abscess finally burst. The same horse once got a nail stuck in her hoof. I discovered it by walking out to her pasture and noticing her standing there with her hoof hovering above the ground.

You’ll often see horses rocking back and forth when experiencing founder. When a horse founders, the tissues in its hoof become so inflamed and weak that the coffin bone in the hoof starts dropping deeper into the foot under the horse’s weight. If not treated quickly, many horses with founder must be put down.

Signs of Horse Lameness #4: Not Extending the Led Completely

Another sign that a horse is lame is that they won’t want to extend the affected leg. If you think about yourself having a foot injury, you won’t go out and take strong strutting steps. A lame horse will appear to shuffle or not take as long of a stride as normal. Many older horses move more at a shuffle due to arthritis in their joints and years of wear on their bodies.

Signs of Horse Lameness #5: Regular Missteps or Tripping

Lameness can appear more subtle in some cases. Many horses may move naturally in their gaits but regularly misstep or trip. If left unnoticed, the tripping can become more severe and dangerous as time goes on. One horse I knew started tripping to the point that he would face plant into the ground and run to catch himself. It became dangerous for anyone to ride him.

If your naturally surefooted horse starts tripping regularly, call the vet. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Maybe all they had was a bad run on uneven ground. But it could also be that something is seriously wrong. Many neurological diseases can manifest through stumbling and missteps in the horse’s gaits.

Signs of Horse Lameness #6: Heat in the Hoof or Leg

If you think your horse is lame, check for heat in the hoof or leg. If you put your hand on the hoof wall and feel heat, that’s a good indication that there may be inflammation within the hoof. The common culprits of hoof tissue inflammation include bacterial abscesses, laminitis, or founder.

If there’s no heat in the hoof, check the leg for heat. Pay special attention to the back of the horse’s legs and the knee. Tendons and ligaments run through a horse’s leg, and any issue with them could cause the horse to become lame.

It’s important to note that not every lame horse will have heat in their hoof or leg. Many lameness issues may not have visual or physical indicators other than the horse limping. Examples include problems with the navicular bone, arthritis, a bruised hoof, sore feet, kissing spine, stiffness, an old injury, or neurological disease.

Signs of Horse Lameness #7: Swelling in the Legs

Beyond heat in your horse’s legs, a swollen leg is a good indicator that your horse has a leg injury. Even if the horse’s leg is swollen but doesn’t appear lame, refraining from work or riding is the safest option. Ligament and tendon tears, a sprain or fracture, and puncture wounds are all examples of instances in which your horse’s leg may appear swollen. Luckily, I’ve only ever had to deal with relatively simple puncture wounds, which is when the leg has been punctured by something and a hole in the leg is left over. It’s best to call a vet if your horse randomly turns up with a swollen leg.

A non-emergency instance of swollen legs is a horse that gets stocked up legs. Some horses have poor circulation. If they don’t get much movement in their daily routine, their legs will “stock up” or swell with toxins their body should be circulating out. These horses may appear lame or move stiffly but usually work out of it with exercise. A mobile lifestyle with regular exercise can help these horses from experiencing swollen legs. My horse, Tucker, tends to stock up and get stiff in the winter, so daily exercise is important to his routine!

Signs of Horse Lameness #8: Evident Digital Pulse

If a horse is healthy and has no leg or hoof conditions, you won’t be able to visibly see or sometimes even feel a digital pulse in its legs. However, if your horse has inflammation in its hoof or leg, you will often be able to feel or even see the pulse if you know where to look. Very rarely can you feel a horse’s pulse by placing your hand over the hoof wall, but in severe hoof inflammation cases, it is possible.

You may see or feel a digital pulse in your horse’s fetlock. You may catch the pulse if you run your fingers along the back tendon as if you were asking your horse to pick up its hoof but then continue running your fingers into the pastern. If you can clearly feel the pulse and your horse hasn’t just had a serious workout, it can indicate inflammation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Should I Do If My Horse is Lame?

If your horse randomly comes up lame, you should first evaluate them. Start by looking them over and running your hands down their legs to feel for heat or swelling. Is there a visible injury that’s causing the lameness? Is there excessive swelling? If there is heat or swelling, hose off the leg with cold water for 10-20 minutes to help the swelling go down. Check their hooves to make sure they haven’t stepped on something sharp. Thoroughly clean the foot and check every crevice. Nails can get pushed up into the foot and can be hard to see from the sole.

Evaluate your horse’s gait. Is your horse barely able to walk, or do they just seem a little off? If your horse can barely walk, definitely call the vet. If my horses have a slight hobble to their step, I won’t call the vet right away. I usually give them a few days to see if they improve. Sometimes, Tucker gets stiff and just needs exercise. One time, my youngster Ruach must’ve fallen or pulled a muscle running around because he came up a little lame, but the next day he as fine. All that said, do what you feel comfortable with. If you would have peace-of-mind calling the vet, then do it!

Why is My Horse Lame?

Unfortunately, I can’t give you one answer to why your horse may be lame. There are many possible causes of lameness, from injury to disease, and old age to simply hard ground that your horse isn’t used to. Whatever you do, don’t put off the vet too long if you don’t see improvement in your horse’s gait. If the lameness is caused by a serious issue like neurological disease or injury, the last thing you want to do is wait until its too late. The best way to find out why your horse is lame is to call a veterinarian.

Can I Ride My Horse if They Are Limping?

I wouldn’t recommend riding your horse if it is limping. Your added weight can cause even more strain on an injury or a sore foot. If your horse suffers from stiffness and stocked-up legs rather than serious lameness, riding and exercise can help them loosen up.

Another health concern horse owners must know how to recognize is colic. To learn how the signs of colic, visit my article Seven Signs Your Horse Has Colic.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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