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A few years ago Sue Dyson did a study which found that 47% of sports horses had pain related gait abnormalities. She has recently done a second study looking at 60 sports and riding horses and found that 73% of the horses were mildly lame in one or more legs.
These horses were all considered sound by their owners. They were analysed using Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. This method basically includes a list of 24 behaviours often spotted in lame horses and the presence of 8 or more of these usually means there’s a pain related problem.
When I first read the statistics of this study I found it really worrying. As it sounded like people were riding lame horses all the time. But in reality, they were low grade lameness. With it sounding like the majority showing issues in canter. So while I am sure there is a pain issue, maybe it’s not quite as bad as it first seems.
It could be a case of a horse showing more signs of pain in canter, or on a certain rein. While there might be an underlying injury, it might also be a case of the horse being weaker on one rein than the other or not having the right muscle yet. So while doing all the usual checks of teeth, back, saddle etc are worth doing, it might just be a case of finding a way to work them through it.
I think the aim of sharing the results of this study shouldn’t be to shame horse owners and riders for riding lame horses. But it should highlight key signs that the horse might be having an issue. You can then give the horse a quick MOT to make sure there is nothing else going on causing the behaviour. Afterall, spotting it early and finding a way to resolve is much better than forging on until it becomes a big problem.
This study should just make us all think next time our horse evades a certain exercise or doesn’t feel quite right in a movement. While I feel most of the time it will be a case that the horse doesn’t understand the exercise or find it hard, if they don’t improve with practice there is possibly something else going on.