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Blind to Lameness?

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Today I read an article talking about how the majority of horse owners are unable to tell that their horse is lame. You can read it on Horse Talk here. The article discusses a review which has recently been published by Dr Sue Dyson where she looks at lameness studies in sports horses and comes to the conclusion that owners and trainers are unable to notice low grade lameness.

Here are some findings of some of these studies:

  • 506 sports horses, 47% had pain related gait abnormalities
  • 23 horses presumed sound by owners, 14 showed forelimb lameness
  • 57 dressage/show jumping horses presumed sound by owners, 43 showed signs of lameness

Now I don’t know about you, but I found these results quite distressing! In theory, half of us who think our horses are sound are probably wrong!

However, I don’t think we should be calling for all horse owners to have a vet’s expert eye any time soon.

Horses are horses and they will always find a way to injure themselves. Sometimes a lameness isn’t an issue. Many of us are probably a bit lame but it doesn’t affect our day to day lives. I believe the same is true for the average horse.  I am generally under the impression that if a knowledgeable horse owner hasn’t noticed a change or discomfort in their horse, the horse is probably coping absolutely fine. And if it continues to go unnoticed by the owner hopefully it will get picked up by a routine vet/farrier/saddler/physio visit next time. But in the mean time, I think in most cases this low grade lameness shouldn’t be an issue.

I think it’s more important to educate horse owners into how to prevent lameness and when to consider pain/lameness.

Preventing Lameness

Knowing what is normal for your horse can be just as good as being able to see subtle lameness. If you know what your horse is like fit and healthy, if he does go lame you will hopefully notice something is different, even if you don’t think lameness is the cause. But you noticing a change will hopefully lead to you taking actions to prevent it getting any worse and getting the right people out to help. It might also help a vet/farrier/back lady decide the cause and/or what to do about it.

Getting a horse vetted before buying means you know there is nothing wrong with it. So when you take it home, you will get to know the horse as he is. Therefore if something changes, hopefully you will notice it. Whereas, if you buy a lame horse without knowing the horse is lame. That will be the norm you grow to know.

It’s also important for horse owners to understand the importance of correct fitting tack and regular visits from the farrier/trimmer and back lady (whether that be chiropractor, physiotherapist or equine body worker.) These things will help keep a horse sound.

Horse owners also need a good understanding of what they can do to cause and prevent lameness. Galloping on hard ground, jumping on stony ground and riding through deep sand are widely accepted as bad ideas. But how many of us know someone who does it anyway? Also sometimes, horses being horses, don’t care that these things are bad. How many of us would know the best thing to do if our horse had decided to do some acrobatics on concrete?

When to Suspect Lameness

I feel like in the UK we have really improved on how we respond to a change in behaviour in our horses. If they start acting out of character of behaving in specific ways, the advice you will get it “check teeth, back, saddle and for ulcers.” I think it’s great that we think this way. It shows that we understand that naughty, dangerous behaviours often stem from pain and that ruling out pain should always be the first port of call.

However, I feel that pain/stiffness is still overlooked in other areas of training. When you are teaching your horse something new, not only do they have to work out what you are asking them to do, but the chances are you will also be asking them to use their muscles differently. Lots of horses find these new things hard as they don’t have the strong muscle for it yet. However, for some horses, there will also be pain/stiff, which makes it harder for them.

In a lot of these cases a visit from the back lady and possibly a change to your approach is all you will need to fix the cause of the pain. But not considering pain and pushing the horse to perform the movement can cause more damage which can take more to fix. This is because they will have to find a way to do what you are asking without twinging the area causing the problem. So they will often compensate by putting extra strain elsewhere, which can lead to problems down the road.


A horse doesn’t have to be lame to be uncomfortable but this can still affect their performance and well being. So I would argue that it is more important for horse owners to recognise signs of discomfort and changes to their horse rather than being able to recognise subtle lameness. As this information can be more valuable to a vet than a horse owners observation that the horse is lame.

Last Updated on 07/08/2018

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