Is My Horse Lame?

He may be telling you he is


In a recent episode of the delightful re-boot of the much-loved series “All Creatures Great and Small” the central character, veterinarian James Herriot, was presented with a challenging case, a magnificent bull that was failing at his primary job on the farm, keeping a number of cows pregnant. There was nothing obviously wrong with the enormous beast so Herriot suggested he was simply fatigued from his job and just needed a pick-me-up. A shot of vitamins should do it.

This didn’t seem to help, so another concoction was tried and the bull was sent back out to see the girls.

Alas, this didn’t seem to do the trick either. One of the other vets in the practice suggested maybe the bull was lame. That seemed an odd idea to me at first given how I think of lameness in animals, but it turned out the bull had a serious back problem that only bothered him when the bull attempted to mount a cow. For him, it was just too painful to have sex, so he didn’t bother. Poor guy, his next stop was probably the dinner table.

This story made me think about one of the most difficult issues to detect and treat in horses. When you talk to any horse owner about lameness, you almost always will get a pretty narrow definition having to do with the way a horse moves at various gaits, and it usually involves what’s going on with the hooves or lower leg. If a horse limps or has the old “hitch in his giddy-up,” then he’s lame. Otherwise, good to go.

But that bull from the story above showed no limp or discomfort when moving, yet he was still considered lame.

It has always been my belief that because a horse is poorly designed for riding. It stands to reason it will often experience pain and discomfort based on the physical accommodations it has to make to carry a rider and perform under saddle. This is especially true with horses that have not been properly conditioned for riding. Maybe it would help the horse if we thought of lameness in much broader terms, more about musculoskeletal pain anywhere in a horse’s body that could affect performance or attitude, rather than just a horse that limps a bit.

Possibly the best tool I’ve seen for evaluating pain in horses is a diagnostic scale developed at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England. Known as the “Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram,” or RHpE, this approach describes 24 different horse behaviors that have all been proven to be indicators of musculoskeletal pain in horses. If a horse exhibits eight or more of these indicators you can be pretty sure the horse is in pain somewhere in his body, and probably enough so that performance is impacted. Many of these indicators are often accepted as “normal” horse behavior, which is why so much lameness can be missed.

Sue Dyson, DVM and PhD, one of the vets behind the development of the RHpE, described her drive to develop the system like this:

“I had become so dispirited by seeing so many horses who clearly had pain-related problems that had been ignored for far too long. The horse, the rider, the training techniques were being blamed over and over again. Coercive training techniques were being used. Longer whips, spurs, tighter nosebands, stronger bits were being employed. Moreover, many vets didn’t understand what they were looking at either, in many cases telling an owner where there was no obvious sign of lameness that their horse had behavioral problems.”

This system has been tested in some interesting studies involving vets, farriers, master saddle fitters, equine chiropractors, and advanced riders where the horses have been observed doing basic work under saddle and then graded against each of the 24 indicators. The studies have all shown a strong correlation between the observed behaviors of the horses relative to the indicators and a lameness diagnosis.

One study produced a result that would stun most horse owners. Researchers found 73 percent of the horses in the study that had been assumed to be sound by the owners, and in some cases by their local vets, actually had some degree of lameness and pain. To me, as a trainer who often has to deal with some really difficult “training” issues, that is a frightening number.

In a study involving school or lesson horses, that number hit 82 percent for horses that were actually in pain.

Sadly, Dyson admits, the expanded definition of lameness to cover musculoskeletal pain anywhere in the body is beyond the diagnostic expertise of many vets in general practices, as it has become a true specialty within equine medicine.

I don’t have the space here to list the 24 indicators on the RHpE or the details of the studies, but I urge any horse owner to find the most recent study in the publication “Animals” from June 2020.

After all these years of training, I now believe it’s borderline abusive to neglect conditioning a horse for riding before actually riding, especially young horses or horses that have been inactive for a period of time. These are athletes that need to be conditioned to do their jobs, even the good old guy who just goes out on the trail. If he’s been sitting around for a few months because you’ve been busy, you owe it to him to get back to some level of conditioning before you hit the trails. It will make it less painful for him.

As with most things that effect the health of horses, a lot of this comes back to the human learning to be a better rider or developing techniques to help the horse physically and mentally but that don’t involve riding. It means to constantly evaluating the fit of your tack, your approach to nutrition, the quality of your hoof care and your horse’s overall quality of life - from his perspective. It means being willing to change you plans on any given day because the signs point to some discomfort.

Horses are amazing creatures, but they are stoics. They put up with crazy demands from humans to do things they would never do on their own, and in most cases they do it with few objections. But, when I see a study that found almost three-quarters of the horses that were considered sound, pain-free and comfortable with being ridden, but actually turned out to be lame, in some cases seriously so, it makes me wonder just how many of us are overlooking what our horses are trying to tell us every time we want to go for a ride.

Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at or 575-388-1830.