Girl and horse with a wrapped leg injury

Lameness in Horses: An Introductory Guide for Equestrians

Limping, weight shifting, refusing to move forward–these are all tell-tale signs of lameness in horses. When you notice signs of lameness, training should stop until your horse can see a vet to determine the cause and find the most appropriate treatment. It’s natural to feel concerned if your horse unexpectedly becomes lame. Fortunately, in many cases, lameness is treatable and preventable with the right care. In this guide, we’ll explain how to identify, treat, and prevent a lame horse so your horse can stay active and you can keep riding.

What is a lame horse?

Lameness in horses refers to an abnormality or alteration in a horse’s gait or movement that indicates a problem, typically pain or discomfort, within the horse’s musculoskeletal system. Lameness is a common issue in the equine world and can range from mild to severe, affecting a horse’s ability to move comfortably and perform its intended tasks. It’s often characterized by changes in a horse’s posture, movement, or behavior.

When a horse is lame, its movement becomes irregular, and it may exhibit one or more of the following signs: 

  1. Uneven gait: The horse’s gait becomes uneven, with an alteration in the rhythm, length, or timing of its strides. This can result in a noticeable limp or a shortened or asymmetric stride.
  2. Head bobbing: In some cases, lameness can cause the horse to bob its head up and down while moving, indicating discomfort or pain with each step.
  3. Reduced weight bearing: A lame horse may shift its weight away from the affected limb or limbs, favoring one side and trying to minimize the pressure on the painful area.
  4. Stiffness: Lameness can lead to stiffness and reduced range of motion in the affected joints or limbs, making the horse’s movement appear restricted or restricted.
  5. Swelling and heat: Inflammation and swelling may occur in the affected area, accompanied by increased warmth. This can be observed through visual and tactile examination.
  6. Reluctance to move: A horse experiencing lameness may be hesitant or unwilling to move, particularly if the pain is severe.
  7. Changes in behavior: Lameness can lead to changes in a horse’s behavior, such as irritability, restlessness, or difficulty standing still. 

Causes for lameness in horses

Lameness in horses can be caused by a variety of factors, both related to the horse’s anatomy and its overall health. 

Hoof issues

Problems with the hooves are a frequent cause of lameness. Conditions such as abscesses, laminitis (inflammation of the sensitive laminae inside the hoof), and cracks can lead to pain and lameness.

Joint problems

Joint issues like arthritis, synovitis (inflammation of the joint lining), or osteoarthritis can cause pain and lameness, especially in older horses.

Soft tissue injuries

Injuries to tendons, ligaments, and muscles can result in lameness. Strains, tears, and inflammation in these tissues can lead to gait abnormalities.

Bone fractures

Fractures in bones, particularly in the limbs, can cause severe lameness. These fractures can result from trauma, overexertion, or pre-existing conditions like stress fractures.


Infections in the hoof (such as white line disease or septic arthritis) or elsewhere in the body can lead to lameness. Inflammation and pain associated with infections can affect a horse’s movement.

Nerve issues

Nerve damage or irritation, often caused by trauma or pressure on nerves, can result in lameness. Conditions like navicular syndrome can affect the navicular bone and related structures, causing lameness.

Poor farrier care

Improper trimming or shoeing can lead to imbalances in a horse’s hooves and result in lameness. Regular and proper farrier care is essential for maintaining hoof health.

Conformation issues

Horses with conformational abnormalities, such as uneven leg length or poor alignment of joints, may experience lameness due to the added stress on certain areas.

Overexertion or muscular fatigue

Intense exercise without proper conditioning can lead to muscle fatigue and lameness. This can occur, for example, when a horse is pushed too hard during training.

Systemic illnesses

Some systemic conditions, such as Lyme disease or metabolic disorders like equine metabolic syndrome, can lead to lameness as a secondary symptom. Routine vaccinations and regular deworming can help prevent the spread of these diseases.


Direct trauma to a limb or other parts of the body can cause fractures, lacerations, soft tissue injuries, or other damage that results in lameness. 

Can you ride a lame horse?

Riding a lame horse is not recommended. If you suspect your horse is lame, you should refrain from riding him as this can potentially worsen the horse’s condition, cause further pain, and lead to additional injuries. Riding a lame horse places additional stress on the already compromised limb or area, which can worsen the underlying issue and delay the healing process.

If you have a lame horse, you should first address the underlying cause of lameness and follow the advice of a qualified veterinarian. A proper diagnosis and treatment plan should be established before considering any exercise or riding. Depending on the severity and cause of the lameness, the horse may require rest, medication, physical therapy, or other forms of treatment to recover fully.

How to prevent lameness

Preventing lameness in horses involves a combination of good management practices, proper care, and attention to the horse’s overall health and well-being. While some factors leading to lameness are unavoidable, following these preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of lameness:

Regular veterinary care

Schedule routine veterinary check-ups for your horse to catch potential issues early and address them before they become more serious.

Proper nutrition

Feed your horse a balanced and appropriate diet to maintain optimal body condition and overall health. Overweight horses can be prone to lameness and other health problems.

Regular exercise

Keep your horse in a regular exercise routine to promote muscle strength, joint health, and overall fitness. Gradually increase intensity and duration to avoid overexertion. Lunging is a great way to exercise your horse and increase your bond.

Appropriate hoof care

Regular farrier visits are essential for maintaining healthy hooves. Proper trimming and shoeing help prevent hoof imbalances and related lameness issues.

Adequate rest

Allow your horse sufficient rest and recovery time between strenuous activities to prevent overuse injuries. Be mindful of your horse’s fitness level and avoid overworking him, especially during intense training or competition seasons.

Proper warm-up and cool-down

Always warm up your horse before exercise and cool down afterward to prevent strains and muscle injuries.

Regular observation

Monitor your horse’s behavior, gait, and overall well-being on a daily basis to detect any subtle changes that might indicate a developing issue.

How to treat lameness

The treatment of lameness in horses depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Lameness is a symptom of an underlying issue, and the goal of treatment is to address the root cause of the problem, alleviate pain and discomfort, and promote healing. 

The first step is to accurately diagnose the cause of lameness. This often involves a thorough physical examination by a vet, including the evaluation of the horse’s gait and possibly diagnostic imaging such as X-rays, ultrasound, and MRI. In some cases, nerve blocks may be used to localize the source of pain.

In general, veterinarians prescribe the following treatments for lameness in horses, either in combination with other treatments or as a standalone treatment.


Rest is a common component of lameness treatment, especially in cases where there is acute injury or inflammation. Rest allows the affected area to heal and reduces further stress on the horse’s musculoskeletal system.


Depending on the underlying cause, certain nutritional supplements may be recommended to support joint health and overall well-being.


Pain-relieving medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be prescribed by a veterinarian to manage pain and inflammation. These medications can help improve the horse’s comfort while the underlying issue is being addressed.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy techniques, including controlled exercise, massage, and stretching, can help promote healing, improve circulation, and prevent muscle atrophy during periods of rest.

Farrier care

Proper hoof care and shoeing are essential in addressing lameness caused by hoof-related issues. Corrective shoeing can help balance the hooves and provide support to the affected limb.

Joint injections

In cases of joint inflammation or arthritis, veterinarians may recommend intra-articular injections of medications such as corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid to reduce inflammation and improve joint function.


In some instances, surgical intervention may be necessary to correct underlying issues such as fractures, ligament tears, or joint problems.

Rehabilitation Programs

For more severe cases or after surgical procedures, structured rehabilitation programs involving controlled exercise, underwater treadmill therapy, and other modalities can help the horse regain strength and mobility.

What to do if you think you have a lame horse

Early intervention is crucial when dealing with lameness in horses. If you think your horse may be lame, stop riding immediately and move your horse to a safe, quiet area where you can observe him. Contact your veterinarian and schedule a time for them to examine your horse. 

Until the veterinarian assesses your horse, it’s a good idea to restrict your horse’s movement to prevent his condition from worsening. This may involve confining your horse to a stall or a small paddock. Once the veterinarian evaluates your horse, they will provide a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan. Follow their recommendations closely to ensure the best outcome for your horse’s recovery.

Ensure that your horse has a comfortable and clean environment with appropriate bedding to help minimize stress and promote healing. Provide treats and other comforting items for your horse as he recovers.

After the lameness issue is resolved, consider implementing preventive measures to minimize the risk of recurrence. This may include regular veterinary check-ups, proper hoof care, appropriate exercise, and overall good management practices. 

By understanding the signs and causes of lameness in horses and staying proactive in prevention, we can enhance the lives of our equine friends. Don’t neglect to contact your veterinarian when you spot signs of lameness, and don’t forget to grab wraps or bell boots from The Farm House to give your horse extra protection, comfort, and support. 

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