Severe Lameness

Lameness can vary from very mild to severe or non weight-bearing.  All cases of severe lameness are an emergency and should be seen by a vet.

What to do if your horse is severely lame:

  • Examine the entire leg for wounds, areas of heat, pain or swelling.
  • Look in the foot for stones or penetrating objects.
  • Can he walk or is he truly non weight-bearing?


Common causes of severe lameness:

1) Foot abscesses

This is by far the most common cause of lameness.  Other causes of severe lameness should be ruled out.

What to do:

The foot will need to be pared by a vet or farrier to release the pus and assess the extent of infection. A poultice is often applied to the foot for a number of days.

2) Foot penetrations

If a sharp object (such as a nail) pierces the foot and damages the structures within, it may result in an extremely serious infection.  Penetrations towards the central foot are potentially dangerous.  Penetrations around the periphery of the sole or heel are usually less serious; however, all such injuries should be thoroughly assessed by a vet.

What to do:

Unless leaving the object in will cause further damage, it is advisable not to remove it so that your vet can accurately assess which structures may be affected.  Padding around the object can help to prevent further damage while waiting for the vet.

3) Lymphangitis/Cellulitis

This is an infection of the skin and lymphatic drainage vessels. The affected limb is usually very swollen and the horse is reluctant to move.  Although the cause is most likely to be a wound this may be very small such that it is never found.

What to do:

Veterinary advice should be sought to rule out other causes of swelling and pain and to advise on appropriate treatment.

4) Joint infections

Every joint and some tendons are surrounded by a sac of fluid (synovial fluid) which allows the joint/tendon to move smoothly. If punctured, this fluid can become infected (synovial sepsis), a situation which is extremely serious.  A wound is usually present but this can be as small as a thorn which can be easily missed.

Lameness usually develops rapidly over 12 to 24 hours such that the horse will be unable to put any weight on the limb.  There may be signs of distress such as sweating and an increased respiratory rate. Other signs may include heat, pain and swelling around a joint or tendon.

What to do:

Synovial sepsis is an emergency and immediate veterinary advice should be sought in all suspected cases.

5) Fractures

In most cases the horse is severely lame (unable to bear any weight) with obvious signs of distress (e.g. sweating, shaking, increased or laboured breathing).  There may be obvious injury and swelling to the limb; however the location of some fractures may not be immediately apparent.  Some injuries, particularly kicks from other horses, can result in damage to the bone without severe lameness at the time of injury. These should be thoroughly assessed by your vet (see Kicks).

What to do:

  • If a fracture is suspected seek immediate veterinary attention.
  • Try to keep the horse calm and still (food and quiet equine company can be useful).
  • Do not ask the horse to move if at all possible until it has been examined by the vet.
  • If the horse is distressed try to put it in a safe place where nobody will be hurt by it.

6) Tying up

This is a severe form of muscle cramping which most often happens soon after the onset of exercise. It can vary greatly in its severity and may be very serious in some cases.

What to do:

Do not move the horse except on to a trailer/to a nearby loose box

  • Ensure the horse is comfortable: provide a deep bed; offer water at head height; avoid draughts and keep warm using rugs as necessary
  • Consult your vet as the horse will usually need some form of pain relief and careful management over the next few days

7) Tendon Injuries

Injuries to the tendons on the back of the lower limbs below the knee or hock (the superficial and deep digital flexor tendons) commonly occur.  They can be due to direct trauma (e.g. sheep wire) or to stresses and strains put on the tendon during work, in which case there is no associated wound.  Early signs of tendon strain may be very subtle with only an increased sensitivity on palpation or mild swelling and heat in the area.  In more severe cases there may be obvious swelling and bowing (a curved appearance when viewed from the side) of the tendon and an acute onset of moderate to severe lameness.

What to do:

If you notice any abnormality around the tendon area you should consult your vet before turning the horse out or continuing with work. Traumatic injuries involving the tendons will always need urgent veterinary attention.

  • First aid measures for wounds apply (see Wounds).
  • Application of a stable bandage over two to three layers of gamgee can help to support the tendon until the vet arrives.
  • Do not move the horse other than to a nearby stable or safe area.

Severe strains/rupture:

  • Do not move the horse other than to a nearby stable or safe area (call for a trailer if you are a long distance away).
  • Cold hose the leg to reduce inflammation.
  • Application of a stable bandage over 2-3 layers of gamgee will help to support the tendon and make the horse more comfortable until the vet arrives.

8) Laminitis 

Laminitis is inflammation of the soft tissues (laminae) that join the pedal bone to the hoof capsule.  It can occur due to hormonal problems, diet, trauma

or secondary to other illnesses.

Mild to moderate laminitis:

  • Shifting weight (alternately and frequently resting each leg in an attempt to be comfortable).
  • Some reluctance to move, and the heel of each foot may be placed first with each stride.
  • The feet may feel hot to touch and with experience you may be able to feel an increased digital pulse (obvious pulse felt at the sides and back of the fetlock).

Severe laminitis:

  • Complete reluctance to move, standing as though leaning backwards with the weight on the heels.
  • Sometimes the horse is unable to stand at all.
  • Signs of distress (sweating, increased respiratory rate) +/- loss of appetite.
  • Signs may look like colic or tying up.

What to do:

  • Do not move the horse other than to a nearby stable.
  • Provide a deep soft bed right to the stable door (shavings, sand or peat provide more support than straw).
  • Ensure that food and water can be reached without the horse moving.

Urgent veterinary advice should be sought in all cases of laminitis; early treatment is essential to minimise the damage to the foot.

From the Blog

Date: 23/04/2018

Busy times at Coach House!
Date: 31/07/2015

More from the blog

24 Hour On Call

Our vets are only a phone call away 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Call us on:

01635 254544

How to Find Us

How to find us Burlyns