The Stable Secretary Blog

What to Expect in an Equine Lameness Exam

Most of us have experienced that heart dropping moment when your horse suddenly isn’t moving right. Whether it’s a slight misstep every few strides or finding your horse three-legged in the field, lameness is defined as any alteration to a horse’s natural gait and signals that it’s time to call your veterinarian. While many horse owners believe that a lame horse has something wrong in a leg, pain in the neck, withers, shoulders, back, loin or hips can also cause lameness issues. 

What to Expect in a Lameness Exam

A lameness exam can help to quickly diagnose the source of the problem causing your horse’s discomfort, so that treatment can begin. Veterinarians performing a lameness exam will need to know the medical history of your horse and the exercise and workload they are currently performing. 


During the exam, the veterinarian will look your horse over to evaluate conformation and determine if there is any evidence of an injury. They will also conduct a hands-on evaluation to assess if there is any pain, heat or swelling of muscles, joints, bones and tendons. If it is determined that the lameness is due to an issue in the leg, a veterinarian will use hoof testers to rule out sensitivity in the soles. 


The veterinarian will also need to see the horse in motion to narrow down where the issue stems from. The lame horse will be walked and trotted on a flat, hard surface, and in some instances, the veterinarian may ask to see the horse lunged or ridden at all three gaits. This is so the veterinarian can look for a shortened stride, irregular foot placement, weight shifting, stiffness, head bobbing, or a negative attitude. Conducting a flex test may come next if further diagnosis is needed to narrow down the location of the issue. The veterinarian will hold the horse’s limb in a flexed position for a set amount of time before releasing it and watching the horse trot away. 


Diagnostic Tests

Further tests may be warranted to clarify the issue and establish treatment options. These can include:

  • Nerve and joint blocks
  • Radiographs
  • Ultrasound
  • Arthroscopy
  • Blood, synovial (joint) fluid and tissue samples


The Lameness Scale

Because lameness can present in a large variety of ways, veterinarians abide by a lameness grading system to ensure all health providers are in sync with diagnosis. The American Association of Equine Practitioners’ guidelines are as follows:



0: Lameness not perceptible under any circumstances.


1: Lameness is difficult to observe and is not consistently apparent, regardless of circumstances (e.g. under saddle, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc.).


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.).


3: Lameness is consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.


4: Lameness is obvious at a walk.


5: Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest or a complete inability to move.


Treatment Options

Once a veterinarian has diagnosed the lameness, they will share your treatment options with you based on the cause of the issue. Some common treatments include joint injections of steroids or other substances to reduce inflammation and pain (for arthritic joints), oral or injectable anti-inflammatories and pain relievers for chronic pain, surgery, regenerative therapies such as stem cell injection, and complementary therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic work.


StableSecretary and Rehabbing

Barn and horse owners who use StableSecretary will already have detailed records of a horse’s medical history to share with the veterinarian during the exam. Once a diagnosis has been made and a treatment plan is in place, StableSecretary’s health record-keeping will ensure you don’t miss anything during your horse’s treatment period. Set reminders for follow-up appointments and add your horse’s treatment plan into their records to support a full recovery.

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