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Diagnosis Reasons for Subtle Lameness

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By Heather Smith Thomas

Sometimes a horse is a little lame or slightly off after being ridden. The rider wonders whether it’s a structural lameness or something due to saddle fit, rider balance, or other factors. This can often be difficult to figure out.

Paul Goodness, senior member of a group farriery practice (Forging Ahead) in Round Hill Virginia, says the veterinarian and/or farrier may be asked to help diagnose the problem.

“We’ll look at hoof conformation—and whether the growth pattern is normal and even. Sometimes one side of the hoof may grow faster than the other if there’s a weight distribution problem,” he says.

“We also look at the shoes, to see whether there’s a normal wear pattern or if the horse is wearing more off one side, or wearing the heel too much, or the toe. It’s helpful to know what the horse’s normal action has been,” explains Goodness.

“The changes that stand out are usually caused by uneven weight displacement within the hoof itself. Ordinarily the weight is coming down the leg normally and spread fairly evenly and there’s a wear pattern in that conformation that we deem normal. If that load is asymmetrical or placed unevenly, that’s when we see changes in the hoof,” he says. The horse may be traveling differently, distributing weight differently, because of discomfort.

If you’ve ruled out some of the obvious factors, it becomes harder to determine the cause. “Is the rider is unbalanced or is the saddle pinching the horse?” asks Goodness.

“We try to determine if it’s a musculoskeletal problem—a lameness situation—or a neurological problem causing the horse to travel unnaturally. Or is it fatigue? Horses change their way of going when tired, and some may drag their hind feet. This could also signal a lameness issue, since the hock and stifle are responsible for picking up the hind feet, and the horse could be compensating for that. If we don’t see something obvious we refer the horse to a veterinarian, to find the sore spot,” he says.

“A savvy rider or farrier may notice some things before there’s an actual lameness problem. We may see some hoof issues and changes in hoof conformation before the horse becomes lame,” says Goodness.

“When the horse goes to the vet, the vet will try to identify the lameness issue—whether it’s due to a tight muscle, injury, etc.–or a neurological problem. Eventually we may look at saddle fit, or the teeth—to know if the horse is holding his head properly for balance. There are many little things that can throw off the horse’s balance and gait, and eventually we start seeing changes in the feet,” he says.

The rider also plays a role. “I’ve been doing this long enough to follow some of these horses through a performance career. The horse’s conformation might create a tendency toward sore heels. There was one instance in which no matter what I tried, I could not help the horse enough and he always had sore heels. He went to another stable, with a different rider, and suddenly those problems went away–the result of a more balanced rider. The stabling situations were similar; the only major change was the rider.” The horse and rider were moving as one, rather than the rider hindering the horse.

“I have stood ringside trying to figure out why a certain horse is moving differently or lame. I have stood with veterinarians who’d say, ‘look at the way that person is sitting on the horse. That’s why the horse is having a problem!’ I can’t detect these things as readily. The savvy eye for good riding position can be handy in helping figure this out,” says Goodness.

Some horses are more sensitive to any type of pain or discomfort and may show a bit of lameness or their gait is off, while other horses are stoic and not much bothers them.

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