Before we go into the signs of gait abnormality, or subtle lameness, it’s important to know and understand the process behind lameness, pain and compensation.
Lameness can happen both over time or suddenly.
The sudden one will be due to a sudden incident. So for exemple, the horse might be cantering in a field, one of the front leg goes through a hole and a tendon tears, or a sesamoid bone fractures and tadam, you have a lame horse. You can also think of a horse that falls after a missed stride to a jump. In both cases, their is a high impact situation that creates a trauma to the tissue, the sudden pain and an obvious lameness. Some horses will have a fall and look like they’re fine, but believe me, if there’s been a high impact, there’s going to be inflammation, pain, scar tissue and so on, even if your horse looks okay. Which brings me to the second type of lameness, the one that happens (or looks like!) over time.
The over time one: this one starts with a small event that stimulates the nociceptors and therefore sends a neurological message of pain to the spinal cord. The pain will be subtle and so either the owner is unaware that something is wrong, or the horse will be slightly lame and rest will make it seem better. But the horse will actually be avoiding using the area from where the message of pain is coming from and so will be shifting the way he uses his body and carries his weight. This means that instead of having a horse that uses symmetrically all of his joints and muscles, we now have a horse that overuses certain muscles and overloads certain joints and tendons, all to avoid stimulating a painful area. Horses have enough joints and muscles to be able to move the weight around for a long time, until avoiding pain is no longer an option. This is usually when the horse changes attitude, weither the owner is aware of this change or not. The horse might be less forward, maybe he starts to touch the jumps, maybe he starts to struggle in upward or downward transitions.
From this point, we can have a horse that will gradually get worse, starting with a 1/10 lameness, then a 2/10 etc. Or we can have a horse that will go from working to suddenly declaring an ovbious lameness.
If your horse’s attitude changes, take it as a sign that something is going on. If your horse was jumping fine but starts to touch the poles, something is going on. If you horse could canter but starts to fall back into trot for no apparent reason, or rushes forward, something is going on. Horses cannot use words and language to communicate with us, but they do communicate in their own way, and it’s the owner’s role to pay attention to those signs!
Keep an eye out for part 3 where I will be talking about the many signs that suggest your horse might suffer from gait abnormality aka subtle lameness!