Lameness in horses is defined as an alteration of the horse’s gait. It can be really clear and obvious, with a horse that refuses to put weight on a limb and looks crippled, but it can also be a lot more subtle, with signs like a change in attitude towards work, or a stiffness.
The first one, the really obvious one, is easy to spot, and often will require the attention from a vet. The second one, the more subtle one, is my everyday work and cal also be called subtle lameness, performance lameness or gait abnormality.
To make things easier, vets have scales to describe a lameness. As far as I know, there are at least 2, one over 5 and the other over 10.
The 1 to 5 scale: it’s the one used by the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the one I was taught in France, and goes like this:
0: Lameness not perceptible under any circumstances.
1: Lameness is difficult to observe and is not consistently apparent, regardless of circumstances (i.e. under saddle, circling, hard surface…)
2: Lameness is difficult to observe at a walk or when trotting in a straight line, but consistently apparent under certain circumstances.
3: Lameness is consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances.
4: Lameness is obvious at walk
5: Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest, or a complete inability to move.
The 1 to 10 scale is used in the UK and goes:
1: The vet thinks that there is probably an asymmetry but he has to look very carefully to come to this conclusion.
2: The vet can tell there is a lameness but it takes work to decide which leg is the lame leg.
3: The vet can see a fairly mild lameness.
4: The horse is obviously lame but is not hobbling.
5: The horse is very noticeably lame.
6: The horse is pretty badly lame.
7: The horse is hobbling.
8: The horse is very lame but still taking a small amount of weight as he moves.
9: The horse can touch the floor but he’s not putting any real weight on the leg.
10: The horse can’t put his foot on the floor.
As a general rule, a horse displaying a lameness 3/5 or above, and 4/10 or above, should see a vet as those symptoms can be due to ligament or tendon tear, fracture, high grade inflammation, laminitis etc. Under those grades you can most likely call your manual practitioner
A 0/5, 1/5, 2/5 and a 1/10, 2/10 is what can be called subtle lameness, gait abnormality or performance lameness, and this is what I’m going to go in more details with the next few posts. Gait abnormality concerns 47% of horses and yet owners and riders, no matter what level, are often unaware of what’s going on with their horse’s body. Most of the time, people rely on their trainers to tell them what to do, and gait abnormalities are too often rulled out as behavior or training issue, with advice to insist, to put more legs on, try spurs, try a stronger bit and so on. I’m hoping that the next few articles will give you a clearer idea of what a gait abnormality, or subtle lameness, looks like and feels like so that you can take the appropriate steps to help your horse. Bare in mind that horses hide their pain from predators, it’s part of their evolutionary traits, so we have to pay attention and learn to recognize the sublte signs of pain and discomfort in order to take good care of our horses!