How to Tell If a Horse Is Lame on a Front or Back Leg

vet examines tifle
How your horse moves will tell you if a front or back leg is injured or sore.

Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images

Your horse appears lame and is limping. Perhaps the signs can be subtle. Sometimes there is no obvious swelling, you can't feel a warm area, there are no cuts or other visible injuries, so you're not sure which leg to examine more closely for a potential problem. But you need to determine which leg to treat, or which hoof to examine. Here is how to tell whether your horse is lame on a front leg or back leg.​

How to Tell If Your Horse Is Sore in a Foreleg or Hind Leg

First of all, watch the horse as it is standing still. If it is lame, and obviously resting, but avoids placing weight on one leg, that will probably be the injured leg. It might stand with the hoof tipped up on the toe, or it might stand pointing the hoof forward of the normal standing position. If the horse is standing with one hoof forward, this is called pointing. This can indicate a hoof problem, or a lameness problem further up the leg. Sometimes a horse will try to point with both hooves. This means there is a problem with both. Horses with founder or those with navicular syndrome will also point, and they may point more than one hoof at a time and have a general appearance of discomfort.

Identifying Forequarter Lameness

Watch the horse as it is ridden on a loose rein, or trotted in hand in a straight line on a loose lead rope over firm, level ground. If the horse is lame on a front leg, the horse will dip its head downward. If the horse pops its hip slightly upward, the lameness is in the hindquarters or back legs. If a horse is obviously lame on both front or rear legs, there may be no head bob. Their strides will likely be choppy and short.

When the horse is lame in the forequarters, you can determine which leg is lame by carefully noticing when the head goes up, and which leg has hit the ground at that moment. The horse will dip its head downward, as the sound leg hits the ground, and lift the head, as the sore hoof or leg makes contact with the ground.

Identifying Hindquarter Lameness

If the lameness is in the hindquarters, the horse will drop the hip slightly on the side that is lame. Horses with hindquarter stiffness on both sides will have stilted gaits, and may not bob their heads. The head bob indicates that the horse is attempting to take the weight off of its leg.

When looking for the site of injury, start with the hooves and work your way up. Stone bruising, tender soles after a trim, and injury or strain anywhere up the leg can cause a horse to be lame. Navicular punctures or even an advanced case of thrush in the hooves can cause a horse to be lame. Further up the leg, tendon or ligament strain can cause slight lameness. Bone chips in the joints, arthritis, and many other problems can cause lameness.

Causes of Lameness

On close inspection, you might notice stone bruises on the sole of the hoof, slight puffiness or swelling somewhere on the leg, or sensitive areas that make the horse wince when palpated. Signs of injury can include swelling, warm areas on the skin, or a visible mark or wound where the horse might have injured itself. Lameness can be caused by any type of injury while working or in the pasture or stall. Or, hoof problems can occur because of a poor diet, poor farrier care, or microbial infections such as thrush and greasy heel.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
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  1. Overview Of Lameness In HorsesVeterinary Manual, 2020