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“At what point is it time to have a lame horse checked?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions that veterinarians hear. The best answer? At the first indication that the horse is not moving right. Too many times these conditions are “watched” for several days or months with the horse recovering only to come up sore again. The time spent waiting to see if the lameness will improve is a critical time zone that can be used to help relieve the horse of a painful and potentially career ending injury.
A horse is considered lame if it has an abnormal rhythm to its gait. This lameness can be due to a structural or functional disorder that is generally evident while the horse is in motion, but can also be recognized when the horse is standing still. On the subject of athletic performance horses, the leading cause of decreased performance is lameness caused by musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis (see Figure 1), tendonitis, or synovitis (see Figure 2). Many times these subtle musculoskeletal disorders are not clearly evident until irreversible damage has occurred. Subtle signs include slight edema (swelling) in a limb, a puffy joint, decrease in performance, or reluctance to maintain a certain gait.
Below is a scoring system that helps veterinarians rate the severity of lameness that the horse is exhibiting at the time of the exam.
Lameness Scoring System
The American Association of Equine Practitioners has developed a system for scoring lamenesses:
Level 0: Lameness not perceptible under any circumstances.
Level 1: Lameness is difficult to observe and isn’t consistently apparent, regardless of circumstances (e.g., under saddle, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc.).
Level 2: Lameness is difficult to observe at a walk or when trotting in a straight line but consistently apparent under certain circumstances (e.g., weight-carrying, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc.).
Level 3: Lameness is consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.
Level 4: Lameness is obvious at a walk.
Level 5: Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest, or a complete inability to move
Unfortunately the horse’s lameness has typically progressed to a Level 3 before a veterinarian is asked to examine it. It is much better to have the horse evaluated when the lameness is at a Level 1 or 2. This is when the problem is in an early stage of its progression and will allow for early treatment and a better outcome. Please don’t hesitate to call and consult with one of our veterinarians at the slightest sign that your horse is not moving normally. Stay vigilant in watching your horse daily to notice any change in behavior or movement to avoid chronic pain or the possibility of permanent damage. Your early response and quick veterinarian care will help return a lame horse to soundness which will provide increased time in the saddle and a more comfortable horse!