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  • Lameness (severe)

    What to do if your horse is severely lame

    • Examine the entire leg for wounds, areas of heat, pain or swelling.
    • Look in the foot for stones or penetrating objects.
    • Can he walk or is he truly non weight bearing?

    Common causes of NON-WEIGHT BEARING lameness

    1. Foot abscesses
    2. Foot penetrations
    3. Lymphangitis/cellulitis
    4. Joint infections
    5. Fractures
    6. Tying up

    1) Foot abscesses


    This is by far the most common cause of lameness.


    • Toe pointing
    • Reluctant but able to bear weight
    • Calm, relaxed, eating.
    • Heat in foot, increased digital pulse.
    • Lower limb swelling may occur due to lack of normal weight bearing.
    • Sudden onset over 12-24 hours.

    These usually require the shoe to be removed and the horn to be pared back to release the pus. The foot must then be poulticed to draw out any further infection.

    2) Foot penetrations

    • Do not remove penetrating object.
    • Pad around object to prevent further damage while waiting for the vet.
    • Penetration towards the central foot are potentially life threatening, penetrations around the periphery of the sole or heel are less serious.

    3) Lymphangitis/cellulitis


    • Very swollen leg.
    • Reluctant to move but improves on walking. Happy to weight bear/put foot to floor.
    • 2-7 days following wound or trauma to the leg (can be very small).
    • No injury may be found.
    • Horse may be dull with a high rectal temperature.


    Usually involves cold hosing, gentle exercise, antinflammatories and antibiotics. It is often difficult for both owners and the vet to detect if there is a much more serious underlying injury as the swelling prevents a more detailed examination.

    4) Joint infections

    • A wound near to a joint is usually present but this can be as small as a thorn puncture, well hidden beneath winter coat.
    • Lameness increases over 12 hours. At 6-24 hours the horse will be unable to put any weight on the limb, the horse will also be distressed, sweating and have an elevated heart rate and respiratory rate.
    • This is an emergency.

    Every joint and some tendons are surrounded by a bag of fluid which allows the joint/tendon to move smoothly. If punctured this fluid will become infected even with the smallest amount of bacteria introduced. It is often not immediately obvious and the wounds involved are often innocuous looking. The horse will however become increasingly painful and distressed. If this is not treated within 24 hours the joint will become irreversibly damaged. The treatment involves the joint being flushed under general anaesthesia. If treated within 24 hours the prognosis is usually very good.

    Please watch the following short video of a horse undergoing a general anaesthetic in order to flush an infected hind fetlock joint.

    Please refer to Joint Infections Recognition & Treatment if you require further information.

    5) Fractures

    Wing fracture of pedal bone

    • Some fractures can be fixed (chip fractures, hairline fractures, fractures of small bones, fractures of long bones in very small ponies).
    • If the bone comes through the skin or if it is a long bone in a horse the fracture is not repairable.
    • Keep the horse calm and still. Food and quiet equine company can be useful.
    • If the horse is panicking try to leave it in a safe place where nobody will be hurt by it.
    • Horses can walk short distances on three legs if required.

    6) Tying up


    • Sudden onset reluctance to move during exercise.
    • Range from slight stiffness to complete inability to move, sweating, pawing the ground, distressed.
    • Muscles over the back very hard.

    What to do

    • Do not move except on to a trailer/to a nearby loose box.
    • Offer water at head height.
    • Keep warm, rug up well.
    • Massage muscles gently.
    • The horse must be seen by the vet if the tying up episode is moderate to severe for pain relief and sometimes fluids. All cases need to be seen at 24-48 hours after tying up to blood sample for assessment of the severity of muscle damage.