How to Care for a Lame Horse

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Lameness is a blanket term that encompasses the wide variety of painful conditions that can affect a horse's shoulders, hips, legs or feet, causing him to limp. Though some minor injuries heal with minimal treatment, certain types of lameness require diligent attention from the horse's owner and may take months to repair. While capable horse owners may be confident in isolating the source of a horse's injury, go ahead and consult a trusted veterinary professional to ensure that the right course of treatment is prescribed.

The Veterinary Review

  • To find the exact location of lameness, the veterinarian can perform a flexion test by holding the horse's leg in a flexed position for a full minute, then have the handler trot him away while observing his movement. If the hoof is affected, the veterinarian will employ his hoof testers to search for heat or sensitivity. A veterinarian may use ultrasound imaging or radiography to find the source of the horse's lameness. As owner, you can provide helpful information including the horse's health history, previous lameness issues, age and work habits.

Treating the Injury

  • The treatment of lameness will depend upon what type the horse is experiencing. Muscle strains, sprains and bowed tendons benefit from cold therapy, which helps reduce inflammation and swelling if employed during the first 48 to 72 hours following an injury. Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to help reduce pain and swelling. Should the horse have a bowed tendon or ligament injury, a poultice and wrap may support the injury and further reduce swelling. A horse may benefit from steroid injections to ease lameness that originates in the joints, particularly in the hocks. If a horse becomes lame very suddenly, the vet may suspect a hoof abscess, which is a pus-filled infection inside the hoof. The abscess will need to be drained and packed with a healing poultice or soak bandages made of cotton. The horse may also require a tetanus booster if an abscess erupts.

Reduce Equine Activities

  • Most horses suffering from lameness benefit from restricted movement. Stall rest will enable damaged tendons or strained muscles to repair themselves. A severely injured horse may be prescribed stall rest for several months, after which time he can be hand-walked by a capable handler. If the horse's healing progresses, he can begin to work under saddle, though his routine should be very light and determined by his veterinarian. Most horses bouncing back from severe injuries are restricted to walking under saddle until their tissues re-align and strengthen.

Preventing Lameness

  • Proper hoof care and shoeing can keep horse feet healthy. Navicular disease, a degenerative condition causing chronic lameness, is treated with corrective shoes designed to alleviate pressure on the horse's heel. Horses kept on grass pastures should be carefully monitored in the spring, when the risk of laminitis from inflammation is greatest due to the new grass's sugar, fructan and starch content . Thorough warmups under saddle before beginning work ensure that a horse is properly stretched before rigorous activity. Keeping horses properly hydrated, well-nourished and rested will go a long way toward preventing an unwanted lameness.

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