LAMENESS EXAMS: Evaluating the Lame Horse

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

Any horse can be affected by stress, strain, or injury, even if they have no obvious conformation problems. You should immediately contact your veterinarian if you notice lameness. By having your problem diagnosed and treated immediately, you can save time, money, and frustration. This is how small problems can be prevented from growing into big ones.

In most purchases, lameness evaluations are routine. Your veterinarian will evaluate the animal you are interested in purchasing so you can make an informed decision.


Lameness is a condition that alters the horse’s gait. Lameness can also manifest as a change of attitude or performance. These abnormalities may be caused by pain in the neck or withers, shoulders and back, as well as pain in the hips, hips, legs, feet, hips, waist, back, shoulder, back, side, or flanks. It is important to identify the root cause of the problem before you can get the right treatment.

Evaluating the Lame Horse


Depending on the purpose of the examination, veterinarians use specific methods to perform the examination. A thorough examination should include the following:

  • The horse’s medical history. The veterinarian will ask the owner questions about the horse’s past and current problems. The veterinarian also asks questions about the horse’s exercise and work needs, as well as any other relevant information.
  • A visual assessment of the horse while at rest. The veterinarian will examine the horse’s conformation, balance, and weight-bearing. He also will look for signs of injury or stress.
  • An extensive hands-on examination. The veterinarian examines the horse and checks for any signs of pain, heat or swelling.
  • Application hoof testers to feet. The veterinarian can use this instrument to test for any undue pain or sensitivity in the feet. As 70 to 80 percent of horses’ weight is supported by their front limbs, many practitioners will focus on the front feet.
  • Horse in motion. The veterinarian observes the horse while he is walking or trotting. Usually, the vet will use a concrete surface to evaluate the horse’s gait. The veterinarian observes the horse from all angles, including the side, front and back. He or she will note any abnormalities in the horse’s gait, such as winging, paddling, failure to land on all fours feet, and unnatural weight shifting from one limb of the body to the other. The horse can also walk and trot in circles on a longe line in a round pen or under saddle. The veterinarian will look for signs such as a shorter stride, uneven foot placement, head bobbing and stiffness.
  • Joint Flexibility Test. The veterinarian will hold the horse’s legs in a flexed posture and then release the leg. The veterinarian monitors the horse’s movement and looks for signs such as pain, weight shifting, or irregular movements. This may be a way to reveal hidden problems.


Sometimes diagnostic procedures are necessary in order to determine the exact cause and location of lameness. A specific diagnosis is the best way to treat lameness. Your veterinarian may recommend additional tests if there are concerns after an initial examination. These include radiographs, radiography, nuclear scanning, ultrasound and examination of blood, synovial fluid, and tissue samples.

  • Joint blocks and diagnostic nerve. These techniques provide the best way to locate the source of lameness. The veterinarian will temporarily stop the sensation in a specific area of the limb until the lameness goes away. This isolates the source of the pain that is causing the lameness. The condition can also be treated with blocks.
  • Radiographs can be used to identify damage or changes in bony tissue. Because not all changes should be considered serious, a knowledgeable and experienced veterinarian should interpret them. Radiographs can only provide information about soft tissue structures, such as ligaments, tendons, and structures within the joints. These are often the sources of lameness.
  • Scintigraphy. Injuries to horses are treated intravenously with radioisotopes. These areas can be scanned using a gamma-camera to provide an image of the problem site. Horses will need to remain in quarantine for radioactivity.
  • Ultrasound (sonography). This technique uses ultrasonic waves for internal imaging.
  • Arthroscopy. This surgical procedure allows for visual inspection of the inside of a tendon or joint sheath. This procedure requires general anesthesia, but it may be the only way of determining the extent of the damage. Only arthroscopy can diagnose some conditions. Sometimes, surgery is performed simultaneously if necessary.
  • Blood, joint fluid, and tissue samples. These can be tested for inflammation or infection. These tests usually require laboratory testing.


It can be difficult to evaluate lameness because each horse is different. Experiential riders might be able to detect subtle changes in the horse’s gait before they become obvious to others. Lameness can manifest as a slight shortening in the stride or a severe condition that causes the horse to lose weight.

The AAEP has developed a lameness grading system to help with communication and record-keeping, taking into account extreme levels of lameness. The scale is 0 to 5, with zero representing no lameness perceptible and five the most severe. These are the AAEP guidelines for grading.

0: Lameness is not perceptible in any circumstance.

1: Lameness can be difficult to spot and it is not always obvious, regardless of the circumstances (e.g. under saddle, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc. ).

2 Lameness can be difficult to spot at a walk, or while trotting in a straightline. However, it is always apparent under certain conditions (e.g. weight-carrying, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc. ).

3 – Lameness can be observed at a trot in all circumstances.

4: Lameness can be seen at a walk.

5: Lameness causes minimal weight bearing at rest and/or motion, or complete inability to move.


Because different types of lameness can be seen on different surfaces, the veterinarian should inspect both hard and soft surfaces. Lameness can also be visible only when the horse is in a saddle.

The horse’s trot and walk can be particularly informative. It is easier to spot subtle deviations in a horse’s walk when it is slower. The trot is probably the most effective way to evaluate lameness. It is simple, with a two-beat stride pattern and the weight of the horse evenly distributed between diagonal pairs. Sometimes, the horse may be able to sustain a greater speed and impact (e.g. To demonstrate lameness, a canter or gallop is necessary.


Every purchase evaluation should include an assessment for lameness. Although it is impossible for a horse to perform as expected, the veterinarian can give information about lameness and potential lameness through evaluations of conformation, movement, medical history and any existing medical conditions. Buyer and veterinarian will decide the extent of the examination. The buyer and the veterinarian will decide on which exam procedure to use. Radiographs, sonograms, and other diagnostic tests, for example, provide detailed information about the horse’s health, but also increase the cost of the exam. Your veterinarian cannot advise you on whether or not to purchase a horse. They can only help you identify potential or current problems.

Your veterinarian will first ask you the most important question: What are your plans for this horse? The veterinarian will evaluate conformation, movement, and medical factors against the expected performance. Horses that are fine for daily pleasure riding may not be able to withstand more demanding activities.


The veterinarian will conduct a purchase lameness examination.

1) Is the horse currently lame, or do existing conditions warrant a closer inspection?

2) How likely is it that the horse will be able to continue its intended use? The vet will consider the horse’s age, health, expected level and past use, as well as its conformation. After the veterinarian has provided information, the owner can decide whether or not to purchase the horse.


Remember that even a positive report after a lameness exam doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. A horse’s ability to perform in the short- and long-term depends on many factors. The lameness equation includes many variables such as:

  • Conformation
  • Care for your hoof
  • Protective leg gear
  • Fitting and conditioning the horse
  • Training methods and degree
  • Type and level
  • Age
  • The rider must have the ability to balance, skil and experience.
  • The horse’s performance depends on the type and condition of the ground
  • Injury or disease
  • Predisposition to genetic factors
  • Other

Your veterinarian will only be able to assess a horse if it is in good condition, trained for its intended purpose, and properly trained. It will be more difficult to assess a horse for lameness if it has been ridden for a long time. You can ask for the horse to be returned to training, and then be re-examined in 30-60 days. This request could be reasonable depending on the horse’s worth. Ask your veterinarian.


Lameness can be a complex condition with multiple causes. You should be a careful observer. You should immediately notify your veterinarian if you suspect that your horse is having a problem. You will reap the benefits of a better performance and longer life span for your horse if you quickly identify any minor lamenesses and act swiftly to correct them.

For more information, contact your veterinarian.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!