What to Do If Your Horse is Lame: Step-By-Step Guide


Follow These Steps if Your Horse is Limping

Every horse owner dreads going to the farm to find their horse limping in from the pasture. Oftentimes, it may seem as if your horse turns up lame for no reason. If there are no outward signs of trauma, you may not know how to handle the situation and what steps you should take. In this article, I will share my step-by-step guide of what to do if your horse is lame.

What do you do if your horse is lame? If you find that your horse is having trouble walking, follow these steps:

  1. Determine how lame your horse is
  2. Check your horse for visual signs of injury
  3. Run your hands down the horse’s leg, looking for heat
  4. Check your horse’s hooves to make sure nothing is stuck in them
  5. Call your veterinarian
  6. Immobilize the horse as you wait for the veterinarian
  7. Cold-hose the leg as you wait for the veterinarian
  8. Set up an area where your horse can be monitored and recover
  9. Follow the veterinarian’s instructions

Unfortunately, when it comes to horses, the only way you can learn is through experience. I’ve had enough horses to know when something is seriously wrong and when they’re just having a bad day. It’s best to always err on the side of caution if you don’t know what to do and call the vet. Keep reading to learn exactly when to look for as you inspect your horse for lameness.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #1: Inspect Your Horse’s Gaits

There’s a difference between a horse being lame and a horse being off. When a horse is lame, they will be noticeably limping, with their head bobbing up and down as they walk. They won’t want to put weight on the foot. If a horse is off, it will be more subtle. They may look like they are moving stiffly or picking up one foot off the ground more quickly than the others.

If my horse seems a little off rather than lame, I will delay calling the vet. This is my preference, so you do what you feel comfortable doing! The horse may have taken a wrong step in the field or be sore from galloping around the night before. My horse, Tucker, gets stiff in cold weather. He will appear slightly off in his gaits until he has properly warmed up. If the horse is off, I will monitor them closely for a few days, but won’t change their routine. If they worsen or don’t improve, I will go from there.

If you don’t know what to look for, it can be difficult to tell if your horse is lame or unsound. To learn more, visit my article How to Tell if Your Horse is Lame.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #2: Check for Visual Signs of Injury

If my horse comes in from the pasture lame, I will first examine its legs and body to see if there are any visible signs of injury. I’ve had a few horses come in with puncture wounds; one came in with a giant splinter in its shoulder, and another came in with a definitive hoof mark on its foreleg. I’ve had a horse that was known to get random graphic injuries, usually from running through a fence.

If your horse is lame and has visual signs of trauma to their legs, it’s best to call the vet right then and there. Trauma can cause broken bones and fractures or could mean that your horse needs stitches or fragments pulled from their flesh.

Trauma can also lead to an abscess, which is swelling in the body that eventually causes the skin to rupture. While this may seem graphic and disgusting, it’s a part of the healing process. My horse got kicked in the face once and ended up having an abscess on his muzzle. Horses can endure a lot of trauma to their body and, in the long run, be fine. However, it is important to have guidance from a veterinarian on how to help the horse recover.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #3: Check for Heat on the Horse’s Leg

If I don’t see any signs of injury, I’ll check the horse’s leg for heat. I’ll put my hands on either side of the leg and slowly run my hands down from the top of the leg to the hoof. If you haven’t done this before, it can be difficult to discern if there is heat. Some areas of the horse’s leg will naturally appear warmer than others. If you question any heat you encounter, compare it to the opposite leg of the horse. See if the opposite leg feels the same temperature in the same place.

If you find significant heat in the leg, make a mental note. Heat indicates inflammation in the area and can be caused by a few things. If the heat is around a joint, it could mean the horse is dealing with arthritis. If the heat is found in the back of the leg, it could mean tendon or ligament damage. Swollen hot legs around the horse’s pasterns could mean your horse has bad circulation and needs to be hand-walked or trotted.

If your horse is lame and you can feel heat in their leg, it’s best to call the vet.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #4: Evaluate the Horse’s Hooves

If your horse comes up lame, check your horse’s hooves before you call the vet. You don’t want to spend $50 on a vet call to realize there was a rock stuck in your horse’s hoof that you could have gotten out yourself! (been there, done that.)

My horse, Pepper, came up lame. She had no visible injuries, and none of her legs were hot. We were stumped as to what could be wrong with her. Finally, I picked up her feet and thoroughly cleaned them to discover she had stepped on a thin nail. It was so thin that I initially missed it the first time I looked.

Sometimes, if your horse is lame, you will want to call the farrier instead of the veterinarian. If your horse got a new pair of shoes put on a few days before and suddenly they turn up lame, it could mean a nail from the shoe went into the wrong part of their hoof. Your farrier can remove the shoe and the nail to relieve the horse.

You’ll also want to check your horse’s hooves for heat within the hoof. You can place your hand on the outside of the hoof wall and on the sole of the hoof to determine if any places are warmer than normal. Heat within the hoof can mean that the horse has an abscess, a pocket of bacteria in the hoof tissue that will eventually come to the surface and rupture. A veterinarian or a farrier can rupture an abscess for you to relieve the inflammation and pain.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #5: Call Your Veterinarian

If your horse is lame, you should call your veterinarian unless it’s an issue you feel confident handling on your own. Sometimes, delaying to see if your horse gets better can worsen matters. If your horse has a fracture or other serious injury or is experiencing founder or laminitis, not calling the vet right away could lead to more serious implications.

If you question what your horse is dealing with, you can always call and talk to your veterinarian on the phone. In some cases, they may be able to tell you exactly what is going on just by you describing it to them.

Calling the vet is just the start. Sometimes, you must wait a few minutes to a few hours before a veterinarian can get to you. Even after the vet has seen your horse, there may be a long recovery for your horse to get back to normal. Keep reading to learn more steps in caring for a lame horse.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #6: Immobilize Your Horse

While you wait for the vet, you will want to immobilize your horse. Until you know what’s wrong with them, movement could cause more damage. Put your horse in a stall or cross-ties while you wait.

Depending on the verdict, your horse may need limited movement while recovering. This usually looks like stall rest with a gradual increase in hand-walking. Stall rest can be stressful for horses since they are confined 24/7 to a small space. Putting another horse in a stall close to your horse for at least half the day can comfort them. Also, investing in enrichment toys or activities for the horse can keep their mind engaged.

I recommend hand-walking your horse in an enclosed arena. Once a horse has been pent up in a small space for a while, it will have a lot of energy when the time comes to move. If it acts up and gets away from you, it will at least be in an enclosed area. I also recommend wearing your riding helmet and a safety vest when hand-walking a horse that is just coming out of stall rest.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #7: Cold-Hose the Horse’s Leg

If your horse has a visible injury or a swollen leg that is causing them lameness, you can cold-hose the leg while you wait for the veterinarian to arrive. Rinsing cold water over the leg can help reduce inflammation and remove blood so the vet can better evaluate the injury.

Depending on the reason for the lameness, the vet may instruct you to cold-hose the leg multiple times a day for several days. Cold hosing is like putting an ice pack on the leg. Reducing swelling and inflammation can help relieve some of the pain your horse may be dealing with. Make sure you have access to a spigot and a hose.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #8: Create a Place For Your Horse to Recover

If your vet has determined that your horse needs recovery time, you must create a comfortable place for it with good footing. Putting them outside in thick mud can infect their wounds and make moving more difficult. A round pen or corral might be a good option if the horse can have an area larger than a stall.

I like to put down a few bags of soft shavings for my horse if they are dealing with lameness. If your horse is being kept in a round pen, make a pile for them. Horses dealing with leg or hoof pain will lay down a great deal more as they try to relieve the weight being placed on the hoof. A bed of soft shavings can make it more comfortable for them to lie down.

If you notice your horse lying down all day, you’ll want to get them up as soon as possible. Being stuck down too long can be dangerous for horses. To learn more, visit my article How Long Can Horses Lay Down? Complete Guide.

What to Do if Your Horse is Lame #9: Follow the Veterinarian’s Instructions

Last but certainly not least, follow your vet’s instructions! If the vet has told you to do something daily to help your horse recover, ensure you do it. Delaying care for your horse could delay their recovery. Certain instructions may include administering medicine twice daily, peeling off scabs so a would can drain, or even re-wrapping the horse’s legs every few days.

If you can’t get out to the barn as much as you need to administer medication, cold hose, or hand-walk, see if one of your equestrian friends or family members could do it for you.

If your veterinarian tells you to change the horse’s diet because the horse has laminitis and is at risk of foundering, you need to take their advice seriously. Some problems that cause lameness can be life-threatening if the horse isn’t monitored carefully.

Lameness is just one health condition horse owners need to be able to recognize. Colic is another illness every horse owner should be aware of and react quickly to if they notice their horse suffering from the symptoms. To learn more, 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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