Lameness in horses

It is often a worrying time for an owner to suspect that their horse might be lame. This is especially true if it hasn’t been encountered before. Despite this, even the most experienced horse owners don’t always know why their horse or pony is lame. Some of the common causes of lameness in horses include Navicular Syndrome, Splints, Springhalt, Wobblers’ Syndrome, Bone Spavin and Bog Spavin.

Navicular Syndrome

There is no known exact cause for Navicular Syndrome horses and ponies. Changes in the Navicular bone will lead to pain and thus lameness in a horse. Other theories include blood clots leading to ischemia in the navicular area, or a loss of lubricating fluid leading to pain and lameness.

Degenerative joint disease of the coffin joint has also been thought to occur at the same time as the degeneration of the Navicular bone. For example, a fracture of the coffin joint will almost always lead to Navicular Syndrome.

Due to the fact that the cause is not yet understood by veterinarians, the treatment methods can vary. More often than not, bute is given to administer pain and anti-inflammatory relief. Steroids may be given and in some cases, anticoagulants may be advised. Correction shoeing is generally needed including the use of egg bar shoes or rolled toe shoes.


Springhalt is a very odd disease which often leads to one or more of a horse’s hind limbs to over-lift when moving. In some cases, that are more advanced, one leg may become blocked in position so that the leg cannot be put back down. This can be very distressing for both and owner.  Cold weather and excitement can further exaggerate this problem in a suffering horse.  The hind limbs that are affected can experience muscle wastage.

The cause of Springhalt disease is not yet clear although it is known that the disease affects the motor nerve system. Horses can recover although the time in which this can occur ranges dramatically. Some may take a few months while others as long as a few years. Most cases recover within nine months. Surgery may be required to treat affected horses although it is not always successful.

Wobblers’ Syndrome

A horse or pony affected by this syndrome will appear to “wobble” and it has been suggested that this is the reason for its name. The reason for this is down to damage of the spinal cord, thus leading to poor coordination and weakness. The cervical canal compresses the spinal cord. This can occur via malformation, trauma or in young horses, rapid growth. Horses can be affected as young as three months of age.

Other symptoms of neurological problems include excessive movement of the tail when the horse is trotting and hopping when cantering. Owners may notice that the toes have been abnormal worn and the front heels may have sores from over-reaching.  When standing, at rest, the legs will not be place in their usual position and the horse may have a stick neck.

Young horses suffering from Wobblers’ syndrome are commonly allowed to grow out of the malformation. Additionally, the horse must be subject to a lesser amount of exercise, a stricter diet to reduce the risk of weight gain or an imbalance of important minerals. Some older horses with Wobblers’ require surgery which involves fusing together the affected area.

One suggested method of reducing the risk of Wobblers’ syndrome in young horses is to allow them to grow more slowly in order to allow for normal bone formation. Diets with too high energy and protein concentrations must be avoided. This is important to note since some horses cannot be treated and may need to be euthanized.


Splints are more often found in the forelimbs of a horse and are usually seen in performance horses. Older performance can acceptably sometimes have smaller splints. Often, a few weeks of rest will allow the horse to be able to work again following a splint. Some horses may need anti-inflammatory treatment or even hydrotherapy for the more acute cases.

Splints are generally caused by damage to the ligament between the cannon and splint bone. A true splint occurs when there is damage of the interosseous ligament. The horse becomes lame and experiences soft tissue inflammation and swelling between the splint and cannon bone. The swollen area will be hot to touch. The inflammation settles and new bone is created which is the size of the damage. This leads to a lump in this area which is hard but not painful. The tissue does not always completely heal which is why inflammation may flare up again, thus leading to reoccurring lameness.

Horses and ponies more at more risk of splints include those that are overweight, have unbalanced hooves, ingest a diet which does not have the correct balance of minerals and if the horse is worked on hard and uneven ground. Be aware that overweight riders can also lead to the horse suffering from a splint.

Splints can be prevented, although even by using prevention methods they can still occur. It is vital that when a horse is fed it ingests a correct mineral balance and is of a good weight. Hoof care is very important, thus regular shoeing and trimming is a requirement. The horse or pony must not be exercised on excessively on hard ground or worked too much, too soon. Boots may be worn to avoid interference injuries; this is also true for bandages.

Bone Spavin

Bone Spavin is also known as degenerative joint disease. The reason for this is that a Bone Spavin is a common cause of hind leg lameness in horses and ponies. It is essentially arthritic and degenerative changes which occur in the three lower joints of the hock. In turn, it creates a bony growth. Changes and the rate of change depend on the affected horse. Horses of all ages can be affected and it is often seen in Icelandic ponies.

The horse must initially be rested. Although the changes are irreversible it can be managed with pain relief. This can often allow the horse to be worked although at a largely reduced amount. Corticosteroids may be injected straight into the joint or joint lubrication. A veterinarian may suggest surgical intervention to remove the pain and inflammation by fusing the joints. Shoeing is a very important part of managing this condition and some farriers may use egg bar shoes. Despite this, it is not guaranteed that the horse will become permanently sound.

Bog Spavin

When a soft swelling is present in the front of a horse’s hock this is known as a bog spavin. Lameness does not always occur but it is visible. This is where inflammation within the joint leads to inflammation which is visible on the hock’s surface. The inflammation will fluctuate and is soft. There is no bony enlargement.

The joint fluid leading to the swelling is drained under a local anaesthetic in order to treat a Bog Spavin in the short term. In the long term, special bandages may be required in order to reduce any inflammation. Bog Spavins generally reoccur despite these treatment methods. In order to prevent a bog spavin, it is advised to reduce and prevent nutritional deficiencies in the horse’s diet and injuries to the hock.


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