Lameness is a problem that will affect most horses at some point in their lives. Up to 90% of of lameness originates in the foot, but there are a wide variety of causes. Some things are preventable and many are manageable if caught early enough.
While lameness is a somewhat broad term, it is characteristically defined by common signs and symptoms:
Here are 6 common causes of lameness in horses.
#1 – Degenerative Joint Disease
Otherwise known as arthritis, Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) is common in equine athletes. The body naturally repairs the cartilage in joints after normal wear and tear, but excessive wear can overwhelm this process, leading to stiffness and diminished range of motion. Arthritis may be acute or chronic.
#2 – Heel Pain
There are many different structures in the hoof that can cause heel pain, such as the suspensory ligament of the navicular bone, the impar ligament that connects the navicular bone to the back of the coffin bone, and other collateral ligaments. Navicular syndrome is a term for many problems affecting the navicular bone, which may have many different causes.
#3 – Infection
You might be thinking about a wound that becomes infected, which can certainly cause problems, but there are many different kinds of infections that can cause horses to lose their balance (ataxia) and affect their ability to walk normally. Some examples of infections that cause ataxia are tetanus, West Nile Virus (WNV), rhinopneumonitis (rhino), and Equine Protozoal Myelitis (EPM).
#4 – Founder (Laminitis)
Laminitis, otherwise known as founder, is a result of the bone in the foot losing its connection with the hoof wall and rotating or sinking within the hoof. It can be caused by a sudden increase in grain consumption, pregnancy, hormones, obesity, infections, and drinking cold water too quickly. In some cases it may be so severe that the horse needs to be euthanized.
#5 – Poor Nutrition
Too little or too much of certain nutrients can cause many problems that may lead to lameness. Zinc, biotin, copper, and protein are needed to strengthen hooves. Omega-3 fatty acids provide hoof resilience and prevent hoof cracks. Too many carbohydrates can lead to rhabdomyolysis, otherwise known as shivers and Monday Morning Disease. Too much selenium can lead to hoof cracks.
#6 – Injuries
An open fracture with bone poking out of the skin is an obvious injury, but others are less obvious and may be more difficult to diagnose. Apart from fractures, injuries include sprains, strains, and damage to ligaments or tendons.
Some causes of lameness are minor and will resolve with stall rest, but some causes may be so severe they could lead to euthanasia. When in doubt, call the vet.