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Which of Your Horse's Legs is Lame?

In most cases, pinpointing lameness in your horse's legs isn't difficult if you follow these steps.
What you're looking for:
  • Head-bob: Your horse's head bobs UP when a sore forelimb hits the ground. His head bobs DOWN when a sore hindlimb hits the ground. (Tip: A head-bob is easiest to see when your horse is trotted toward you. As a general rule, the more pronounced the bob, the more severe the pain.)
  • Hip-hike or hip-drop: The hip on one side raises HIGHER and or/sinks LOWER than the other side. (Tip: This is easiest to see when your horse is trotted away from you. Make it more visible by sticking a piece of white adhesive tape on each hip to give your eye a reference point.)
  • Toe-drag: The toe of the affected hind limb drags the ground on the forward swing.
  • Shortened stride: The stride on one leg is shorter than the stride on the other legs.
Now, locate the lame leg:
Follow these steps. Call your veterinarian if you observe any sign of injury or lameness in Steps 1, 2 or 3. If you still can't ferret out the lameness, call your vet for help.

Step 1. Examine your horse's legs and feet for external evidence of injury.
  • Stand him squarely on solid, level ground, then visually examine each leg and coronary band for bumps, swellings, wounds, discharges or other such problems.
  • Feel each hoof for excess heat, then check the strength of your horse's digital pulse (using the thumb and middle fingers of your right hind, feel behind and on either side of his lower fetlock--above the sesamoid area--with your palm on the front and fingers rapped toward the back until you feel a faint pulse.)
  • Pick up, clean and examine each foot for nails, cracks, bruises or other abnormalities. Note any resistance, which could indicate pain in another foot, hence his reluctance to increase the load there.
Step 2. Watch your horse trot a straight line. Lameness that's barely perceptible at the walk can become more evident at the trot.
  • Find a flat, smooth surface with solid footing.
  • Recruit a helper. Give her a crop or whip, if necessary, to help get your horse trotting in-hand.
  • Have your helper trot the horse on a straight line away from you, for about 50 feet, loosely holding the lead so as not to inhibit a head-bob. Then have the pair trot toward you, then past you, so you can view the horse from the front and side.
Repeat the exercise two to three times. If you still can't identify the lame leg(s), one of three things could be happening:
1. Your horse may be too lame, fresh or uncomfortable to cooperate.
2. The lameness is bilateral or too subtle to show up on a straight line.
3. There is no lameness.

Step 3. Longe your horse. Have your helper longe the horse in both directions, gradually tightening the circle. Or have your helper trot him in circles in-hand. As a general rule, the tighter the circle, the more pronounced the lameness. Still can't see the problem's origin? Call your vet.

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