Subtle signs your horse is lame


  • Sometimes lameness in horses is glaringly obvious, sometimes it’s barely noticeable. We can, however, start to notice the finer details about our horses. When we know their normals, we are alerted to their abnormals.


  • You can start to notice things in the stall, when you are walking them, when you are tacking them up, and when you are riding. Remember, too, that lameness can arise from his neck and spine, shoulders and hips, too.


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Pay attention to the whole body of your horse and you can spot lameness!

In the stall:


  • What are your horse’s resting vital signs? An increase in heart rate and/or respiration indicate pain. They also indicate exercise, so be sure it’s a true resting measure. To learn how to check TPR, read this.


  • How do your horse’s legs feel? Any heat, swelling, or flinching when you run your hands down them?


  • Are the hooves hot? This is a sign that either your horse has been standing in the sun or there might be danger in the hooves.


  • What’s going on with the digital pulse? A pulse that is obvious or strong is a clear sign of hoof danger. Most horses have a digital pulse that is barely perceptible. The video below shows you how you can check the pulse.




This video shows you how the digital artery “works” to check your horse’s hoof health.






This video shows you how to measure the digital pulse.




farrier using hoof testers on a hind leg

ANY signs of a hoof problem should be evaluated by your veterinarian. It could be something minor, it could be something major.


  • Does he want to keep his hooves on the ground instead of picking them up for you?


  • Is your horse turning in the stall as he normally would? Lameness often creates awkward turning.


  • Does he want to stay on the cushy mats and shavings instead of going out?

As you are walking your horse:


  • Does your horse hesitate on harder surfaces?


  • I’ll just assume you know exactly how far his hind hoof prints overstep the front hoof prints. Are any steps shorter?


  • What do you hear? Is his regular walking rhythm thrown off?


  • Is he making an expression of pain as he walks? Ear pinning, stubbornness, wiggly lips or the flehmen response can indicate pain.


horse with ears pinned back


In the grooming area or cross ties:


  • Is he resting one leg more than the other?


  • Where is he flinching as you groom your horse? Granted, this might mean he’s just ticklish or sensitive. It also might mean he’s sore.


  • How’s his overall demeanor?


  • Does he appreciate a little massage, or not? He could be sensitive, or sore, or there’s an injury or muscle issue.


  • Does he resist being tacked up? Swishing tail or mashing teeth? How’s girth tightening going for you?


Under saddle:


  • What feels normal or weird?


  • Is there any head bobbing at the trot? This is a very clear sign, but most horses are going to be more subtle than this.


  • Does he go off your leg easily? Any resistance?


  • Is one direction harder than the other to turn?


  • Are both canter leads equally easy (or hard) to pick up and sustain?


  • Do the gaits feel the same in both directions?


jogging a horse for a vet exam

Your vet may want to see your horse jog.


Lameness is often tricky to spot, until it’s not.


  • Little subtle changes and signals from your horse give you the big picture. Always work with your veterinarian if you have any lameness concerns. Treat hoof heat and bounding digital pulses as emergencies. They might indicate something totally easy to treat, or it might be laminitis.

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