There is a huge range of reasons why a horse may become lame and they can be relatively simple and easy to treat to severely debilitating and permanently damaging to the horse. As with most types of health conditions the earlier the condition is noted, diagnosed and treated the greater the likelihood that the condition can be controlled and the damage minimized.
One of the most common causes of lameness in horses is injury to the joint, muscles or tendons in the leg itself. Horses, just like humans, can strain, hyperextend, twist or bruise their limbs, resulting in troubles moving. Usually lameness that is a result of an injury will occur only in one limb, but may be more severe if the horse fell or was in an accident. As with many types of sprains or muscle stress, there may be no external signs of damage to the area but there may be swelling and an increased temperature to the area. Of the joints of the legs will be most prone to this type of injury. Horses that are unfit or are taken off rest or pasture and exercised heavily without a gradual building up of work intensity are most prone to these types of lameness.
Degenerative conditions are also a source of lameness in horses, and this can be problematic at any age, depending on the specific condition. Osteoarthritis and joint diseases are more common in adult and senior horses but may also be problematic in younger horses if there are other health conditions or conformation problems in the horse.
Toxicity problems, infections and inflammations to a joint or limb, hoof cracks, infections and damage as well as nutritional deficiencies and metabolic problems can also lead to signs of lameness in a horse. Laminitis and founder are two of the most common types of nutritional and metabolic issues causing lameness and stiffness in horses of any age and gender. Poor hoof care, improper shoes or even rocks and debris stuck in the hoof or shoes can all result in serious lameness and movement restrictions.
Determining what is causing the lameness is critical in correction and treatment. A farrier or vet can often provide assistance in making a diagnosis, but owners should first provide some basic information. Be able to answer questions such as:
What leg or legs are affected?
How long has the horse been lame and is the lameness constant or does it appear to come and go?
How severe is the lameness?
What was happening when the horse went lame?
Is there any swelling or inflammation to the joints?
Are the hooves cracked, split or damaged?
Have there been any changes in exercise or diet?
Has the horse recently been trailered or moved or around strange horses?
Is there any physical damage to the leg or hoof?
Is there any discharge or foul odor from the foot or any injuries to the leg or body of the horse?
Is the horse eating and drinking normally or has the behavior changed?
Does the horse appear to have a fever or difficulty in breathing?
Understanding the history of the condition is essential for the vet or farrier to come up with a comprehensive treatment plan. In some cases rest, corrective shoeing, drug therapies and pain management will be needed to help the horse recover. Modifications to exercise may be required for the rest of the horse's life depending on the cause of the lameness.