The Savvy Station

Common Causes of Lameness in Horses

par Parelli Natural Horsemanship sur Jun 21, 2023

Common Causes of Lameness in Horses

Is your horse walking a little strange? Lameness is any abnormal change in gait and can happen at any time, even with the best prevention. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce pain and the chances of further injury to your horse. The more you know about lameness, the signs, and treatments, the better you will be able to care for your horse.

Signs of Horse Lameness

While some symptoms of lameness are very subtle, most horseback riders notice when their horse is "off." We've gathered some of the most common lameness symptoms to familiarize you with what to look for. If you are concerned about lameness, contact your veterinarian and farrier for a lameness evaluation.  Educating yourself in this area helps you develop into the well-rounded partner your horse needs you to be. 

Abnormal Gait

A change in gait is the most common sign of lameness. Your horse might be favoring one leg, not striding through or tripping. Many gait changes will be more pronounced at faster gaits, like the trot and canter. How the gait changes can indicate to your vet whether you are dealing with a hind limb or forelimb lameness or a different type of injury.

Not Moving

It could be lameness if your normally active horse refuses to move or put weight on a leg. Sometimes this will present on different surfaces due to pain. For example, your horse might appear fine in the soft pasture but not want to walk on pavement or gravel.

Head Bobbing

More severe lamenesses will often present with head bobbing at the walk or the trot. The horse's head will drop or raise noticeably as they try to shift weight off the injured leg. Generally, bobbing down is an indicator of hindlimb lameness, while bobbing up is an indicator of forelimb lameness.

Standing Awkwardly

You might notice your horse standing in an off way. They may be leaning to one side or shifting their weight forward or backward to keep weight off the injured leg.


Why do Horses Go Lame?

Lameness ranges from subtle to very blatant and changes as your horse heals or reinjures itself. This makes lameness tricky to pin down in many cases. Some lamenesses will only present in certain conditions, such as when the horse is under saddle or on a circle. However, if you look closely at your horse, its living situation, and its workload, you can narrow down some of the causes.

Here are some of the most common causes of equine lameness:

Back Injury

Horses have a fairly rigid spine. Flipping over or falling can easily injure your horse's back. A spinal injury can easily cause lameness in your horse's legs. Other spinal conditions, such as kissing spine (acute sacroiliac strain), can also cause severe pain and lameness.

Muscle Sprain

Horses can sprain or strain muscles just like people. Sudden twists or turns can cause tearing or stretching of muscles and ligaments, resulting in a sprain. Muscle strains are caused by overusing muscles or pushing an unfit horse too hard. These muscle issues generally occur in the hip or shoulder and can take a long time to heal.

Tendon Injury

Tendon injuries are relatively common in horses and can range from lacerations to severe inflammation. Lacerations result from trauma, either from hitting an object or being kicked by another horse. Inflammation can be caused by work or poorly fitted leg wraps.

If you need help with how to put on a polo or another type of wrap, ask a professional to teach you. Wrapping legs too tightly quickly leads to leg inflammation.


Senior horses are prone to arthritis, just like people. As your horse ages, the cartilage within the joint breaks down, making movement uncomfortable or painful. It is common for senior horses to be sorer during cold or humid weather. There are several methods for keeping arthritic horses sound and pain-free, but arthritis is not curable.


Laminitis or founder is when the laminae bonding the hoof wall to the pedal bone become inflamed and weakened. If left untreated, severe laminitis can result in the pedal bone sinking or rotating. This causes extreme pain in horses and must be treated. Sudden changes in diet, carrying excess weight, high fever, and eating lush grass can trigger laminitis.


Abscesses occur when dirt, debris, or rocks get stuck in the hoof. The bacteria invade the hoof through a puncture wound or diseased white line. A sole bruise can also cause a hoof abscess. Ensuring the horse's white line is in good health will go a long way in preventing hoof abscesses.

Treating Equine Lameness

Treatment for a lame horse will depend on the lameness examination, root cause, age of the horse, and lifestyle. Some lamenesses can be challenging to identify and cure. The main objective during lameness treatment is often to reduce pain and inflammation. Doing this will minimize further damage to the tissue and speed up healing and recovery.

  • Rest and hand walking – These restrictions are often recommended for lame horse. They can reduce stress on the injury and prevent the horse from injuring himself further in the pasture. However, this can also be challenging for many horses who are used to more turnout time.  Using the Parelli Program and applying psychology in these situations to create mental stimulation even just at the walk can greatly improve the outcome for many horses. 
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) - Banamine and Phenylbutazone (Bute) are commonly given to decrease inflammation. Ensure to follow your veterinarian's instructions for dosage, as both medications can have negative impacts when not used properly.
  • Corrective shoeing - Corrective shoeing is relatively common with laminitic horses. Special shoes give the horse's sole more support and protection but must be applied by a knowledgeable professional.
  • Essential Oils – Combined with other treatment, can aid healing and have calming properties for the horse as well.
  • Bodywork - Chiropractic, massage therapy, and acupuncture can aid in the recovery of a lame horse.
  • Far Infrared Therapy - In conjunction with other therapies, far infrared therapy reduces inflammation and increases blood flow and circulation to injured areas. This non-invasive form of treatment does not have harmful side effects.
  • Red Light Therapy – Can be used on acupressure points for the treatment and management of many types of imbalances, injuries, disease or stress.
  • Surgery - This is sometimes the best option for treating bone fragments or certain types of cancer.
  • Joint Injections - Arthritic horses can benefit from joint injections delivered directly into affected joints and can include corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, anti-inflammatories, or plasma.

If you believe your horse might be lame, contact your veterinarian immediately and schedule a lameness evaluation. Minor lamenesses can quickly become more severe if left untreated. 

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