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Stress, strain or injury can take a toll on any horse, even one with no obvious conformation defects. Traditionally, lameness has been defined as any alteration of the horse's gait. In addition, the condition can manifest in such ways as a change in attitude or performance. These abnormalities can be caused by pain in the neck, withers, shoulders, back, loin, hips, legs or feet. Identifying the source of the problem is essential to proper treatment.
Because each horse has unique performance characteristics, evaluating lameness can be challenging. Experienced riders may detect minor alterations in gait before they are apparent to an observer. Lameness may appear as a subtle shortening of the stride or the condition may be so severe that the horse will not bear weight on the affected limb.
If your horse is showing signs of lameness, you should contact your veterinarian promptly. Veterinarians have specific systems for performing lameness examinations. Essential features of a thorough examination include the medical history of the horse, a visual appraisal of the horse at rest, a thorough hands-on exam, application of hoof testers to the feet, evaluation of the horse in motion and joint flexion tests.
Additionally, your veterinarian should observe the horse on both soft and hard surfaces, since different types of lameness may become apparent with different footing. Lameness also may only be apparent when the horse is under saddle or on a longe line when the horse can be evaluated without the influence of the rider.
If your veterinarian has cause for concern based on initial examination, he or she may recommend further tests, including diagnostic nerve or joint blocks, radiographs, nuclear scanning, ultrasound, arthroscopy or examination of blood, synovial fluid and tissue samples.
Lameness is a complicated condition, with many possible causes. Be a conscientious observer. By identifying even a minor lameness and acting swiftly to correct it, you will minimize the risk of injury to the horse and yourself, and you will be rewarded by better performance and a longer useful life from your horse.
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