How to spot hindlimb lameness in horses
By Kirsty Haines
Monday 18 June 2012
Are you unsure how to spot hindlimb lameness in horses? Here, Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist Kirsty Haines suggests some of the things to look out for.
Spotting lameness in horses is a funny business. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious, but what about when it’s not? I often see horses with mild to moderate, intermittent hindlimb lameness in their history. Sometimes owners are aware something isn’t right but can’t specifically see an issue. And then there are others who, regardless of experience, aren’t aware of their horse’s lameness. This can be due to a number of factors. A rider’s own asymmetries and issues may affect how they feel the movement beneath them.
Firstly, there is nothing more irritating than a horse that is lame intermittently. You can guarantee that the day the vet visits to do a work up, they will be miraculously sound. For this reason I always state to owners and vets that on the day I saw the horse, this is how it presented. It’s always possible on another day at another time the horse will be sound, and (usually) it’s nothing to do with who is looking at it.
So many factors can affect lameness and we can use this to our advantage when looking at how the horse moves. As I am not a vet, I am not allowed to diagnose why the horse is lame - that is the vet’s role. But therapists have an important role in picking up movement dysfunction, whether that is a pain related lameness, asymmetry or restriction. That is central to my role and the reason I always look at the horse move before laying a finger on it.
Is my horse hindlimb lame?
There are many subtle signs of a hindlimb issue. Firstly, look at the horse standing square. Muscle bulk should be even on both hindlimbs. A larger hamstring muscle group on one leg may be indicative that the leg is overworking or that the muscle on the other leg is diminishing through underuse. The adage ‘use it or lose it’ is so true! Evidence suggests that within 48 hours of an injury or pain issue at a joint, muscle bulk begins to rapidly decrease.
Secondly, look at the toes. Any signs of scuffing or wear indicate a definite issue. Your farrier may also indicate uneven or excessive wear on the shoes.
Now it’s time to look at your horse move. Looking at the horse’s rump as he walks or trots away from and towards you, identify if one side rises and falls more than the other. Fetlock drop is another indicator. As the horse loads its sound leg, that fetlock will drop lower to the ground as it offloads weight from the other limb.
From the side, look not just whether the horse tracks up but whether he moves his legs evenly underneath and behind him. Tail carriage is another indicator. A tail held to one side may (but not always) indicate an issue. Sometime when a horse is lame in both hind legs (bilaterally lame), the only sign is a shorter hindlimb stride – sometimes called choppy. Lameness in both hind legs is by far the most difficult to detect as the horse is so good at compensating for an issue.
Don’t forget, hindlimb lameness is a very difficult thing to recognise. There are lots of other exercises a vet or Physio would ask the horse to do to pinpoint lameness, but the above are sufficient for an owner. Simply appreciating something isn’t enough and calling your vet is the best thing you can do for your horse. Once the underlying issue has been identified and treated, then you can work with your local Chartered Physio to ensure muscle development and movement gets back on track.
Kirsty Haines MSc MCSP ACPAT Cat A is a Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist practicing at Westfield Veterinary Physiotherapy, Tel: 0774 8788564, email: email@example.com.
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