Horse Care Tips

Horse Lameness Lingo (Simple Beginner’s Glossary)

vet and owner with gray horse in stall
Written by Natalie Gasper

Equine Lameness for Rookies

Lameness: a word all horse owners fear. Lameness is a symptom, not a condition, so knowing what to look for can help pinpoint the cause and get your horse sound again.

Lameness is a change in gait due to pain.

Lameness can stem from muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, skin infections, bones, or hooves. We’ve compiled an overview of lameness causes (including arthritis, laminitis, and kissing spine), as well as the most common symptoms.

Most causes of lameness can be treated through various means (including stall rest, shockwave therapy, and cold hosing), while conditions that can’t be cured (like founder and navicular) can be managed.

vet stretching out horses front leg

Source: Canva

Lameness in Horses: Defined

At its simplest, lameness is any change to a horse’s gait, typically in response to pain.

Form to Function: Why Conformation Matters

As many lameness issues stem from mechanical function (how a limb moves), horses with poor conformation (short backs, low withers, etc.) are more likely to develop issues.

Lameness by Area

While a horse can develop lameness almost anywhere, it’s usually confined to one area of the body:

  • Hoof
  • Lower Leg
  • Joint: Knee
  • Joint: Hock
  • Joint: Stifle
  • Forelimb vs. Hindlimb
  • Shoulder
  • Hip
  • Back

The Accident-Prone Horse

Horses who are accident-prone (or clumsy) are more likely to become lame. Trips, falls, stumbles, and frequent cuts or scrapes can all lead to lameness.

Using Radiographs (X-rays) to Predict Soundness

While X-rays can’t predict soundness, they can paint a picture of a horse’s current skeletal condition. The presence of some issues (like DJD, OCD lesions, arthritis) can be detected. X-ray findings should be taken with a grain of salt, however, as X-rays can indicate problems that may never bother the horse.

Horse leg xray

Photo Cred: Canva

Glossary of Equine Lameness Terms

Lameness comes in many forms. Here’s a list of some of the most common causes of lameness and how to identify them.


Bacteria enters the hoof and forms an infected pocket, creating an abscess. Lameness will be severe and sudden. The hoof may feel warm, and the coronary band will be sensitive to the touch.

Potential Causes: A small hole or puncture wound, a sole bruise, or a diseased white line (between the hoof wall and sole).

Typical Treatment: The abscess must drain for the horse to heal. Usually, it will “pop” on its own, typically at the coronary band. Your vet can create a small hole (in the white line, hoof wall, or sole) to help expedite the draining process. A poultice is strongly recommended (it will pull the remaining infection from the hoof).

horse hoof

Source: Canva


Navicular syndrome occurs when the navicular bone in the hoof deteriorates. Your horse will show signs of front-end lameness like head bobbing, limping when making small circles, heel pain, or tripping.

Potential Causes: An exact cause isn’t known, but genetics likely play a part. It can also be caused by poor conformation, heavy weight bearing on the front legs, too little exercise, or poor hoof care.

Typical Treatment: There is no cure for navicular. Your vet will likely do a nerve block (to see if the lameness occurs in both legs). Then, they may opt for an x-ray to figure out the extent of the problem.

Your horse may need special shoes (to reduce pressure on the navicular bone), Bute (short-term pain relief), OSPHOS injection (may help reduce lameness), joint injections, or surgery to cut the nerves.

xray of horses's hoof

Photo Cred: Canva


Laminitis is when the laminae of the foot (between the hoof wall and pedal bone) become inflamed. Your horse will show sudden lameness, as well as hoof heat, frequent weight shifting, and “founder stance” (leaning most of the body weight on back legs with front legs pressed forward).

Potential Causes: Some common causes include equine metabolic disease, overfeeding (particularly grain), obesity, and lush spring grass (high in sugar).

Typical Treatment: While there is no cure, steps can be taken to prevent and manage laminitis (including a low-sugar diet and limited grass intake). Quality farrier care is key. A round of Bute (to reduce inflammation) and cold hosing can help. Recovery from an episode can take several months.

vet examining horse's hoof

Source: Canva


Founder is a more advanced case of laminitis. Inflammation and pain are more severe, and the coffin bone will rotate. The symptoms of founder are the same as for laminitis.

Potential Causes: Endocrine diseases (like Cushing’s), insulin resistance, equine metabolic disease, overfeeding (particularly grain), obesity, and lush spring grass (high in sugar).

Typical Treatment: Like laminitis, founder can’t be cured. If laminitis reaches the point of founder, special farrier care and shoes will be needed, along with minimizing sugar and starch intake.

Your horse will also benefit from soft surfaces (sandy turnouts, extra bedding in a stall), and shouldn’t be ridden or worked on hard surfaces (anything paved, gravel, etc.).

You can learn more about laminitis, and founder, here.

horse legs with chipped hooves

Source: Canva

Osteochondritis Disease (OCD) – Stifle

This common condition affects the bone and cartilage of joints, creating flaps that break off.

Potential Causes: OCD is considered a developmental disease that mainly affects young/growing horses. High-calorie diets and rapid growth are often the cause.

Typical Treatment: Some OCD lesions will heal on their own. Others require rest and ample turnout (for lots of low-impact movement). In more serious cases, surgery may be required (to remove the lesions).

horse back legs and tail

Source: Canva

Arthritis / Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD)

Arthritis, or the degeneration of joints, is very common in horses. Signs include lameness, stiffness, cracking noises during movement, and swelling or heat at the joints.

Potential Causes: Horses can develop arthritis at any age. Intense athletic careers, upper-level dressage or jumping, trauma, and poor conformation can all contribute to arthritis.

Typical Treatment: Arthritis can’t be cured but can be easy to manage. When caught early, injectable joint supplements are very helpful. Joint injections can also give relief. Daily exercise is highly recommended (paired with ample turnout to maximize movement).

xray of horse hock with arthritis

A radiograph of a horse hock with arthritis

Kissing Spine

Kissing spine happens when two or more bony projections of the vertebrae (the spine) touch or overlap.

This problem can be difficult to diagnose, as not all horses show the same outward symptoms.

Signs include anxiety around mounting/riding, back soreness, resistance to work (especially collection or jumping), and trouble cantering. An x-ray of the spine is the only way to know for sure.

Potential Causes: Kissing spine is largely a matter of genetics and conformation (it’s more common in thoroughbreds, warmbloods, quarter horses, tall horses, and horses with short backs). It’s often seen in dressage horses, hunters, and jumpers, and can sometimes result from an injury.

Typical Treatment: Non-surgical options include physical therapy (building muscle and tendon strength), steroid injections, and shockwave therapy.

Surgical options for more severe cases include mesotherapy (medication injections), ISLD (cutting the ligaments between the bony projections), and bone shaving (removing the troublesome sections of the touching vertebrae. This option is the most dangerous and has the longest recovery time).

view of bay horse's back

Source: Canva

Tendon & Ligament Injury (Ex: Bowed Tendon)

Tendon and ligament injuries usually present as heat, inflammation, and pain. With upper leg soft tissue injuries, signs may include resistance to being ridden or shortened strides.

Potential Causes: These injuries usually stem from either traumatic accidents or prolonged stress from overworking.

Typical Treatment: Treatments will vary based on the location and severity of the injury, but cold hosing, Bute, ice therapy, wrapping, rest, and shockwave treatments can all help.

horse with front leg wraps and poultice

Source: Canva


Cellulitis is a skin infection caused by bacteria. Signs include sensitivity to touch, heat, and swelling.

Potential Causes: A small scratch (that breaks the skin) is all it takes.

Typical Treatment: Cellulitis is easily treated with antibiotics. Hand walking can help reduce swelling.

Muscle Strain

A muscle strain is when a muscle breaks down or is damaged. Common signs include stiffness, swelling, heat, sensitivity to touch, and lameness.

Potential Causes: Strains most often result from an accident (tripping, falling), injury, or overuse. Insufficient warm-ups and cooldowns can contribute.

Typical Treatment: Rest, Bute, and cold-hosing or ice can all help a muscle strain. After the first few days, a massage or chiropractic treatment can help. Severe cases may require physical therapy, acupuncture, or electromagnetic therapy.

Diagnosing Lameness

Some horses cry wolf for things as simple as a rock in their hoof. Others can be dead lame, and still working under saddle. With such a range of reactions, how can you be sure your horse is lame?

Hoof Tester

You, your farrier, or your vet, can use a hoof tester to check for sensitive areas of the hoof and sole.


Watching the horse move in hand, on a lunge line, or under saddle can show the lameness and help your vet decide which area/s to investigate.

Nerve Block

A local anesthetic is injected into a specific joint or nerve, blocking pain. The vet starts at the hoof and works up (as necessary). Once the horse moves soundly, the problem area has been identified.

Flexion Test

Your vet will stress a joint (by picking up and holding a tight bend in the leg), then have the horse trot off. If the horse looks more lame, the vet has a better idea where to look for the cause.

Neurologic Examination

Lameness can be caused by neuromuscular disorders, so a neurological exam is important. The vet will test for motor function by checking facial functions (blinking, nose sensations, tongue use, etc.), skin sensations, reflexes, and more.

The Lameness Scale

0 – Lameness not perceptible
1 – Lameness difficult to observe and not consistent
2 – Lameness difficult to observe at walk and trot (in a straight line) but consistent under specific circumstances (riding, circles, hard surfaces, etc.)
3 – Lameness is consistent at the trot under all circumstances
4 – Lameness is obvious at the walk
5 – Lameness allows for minimal weight bearing (in motion or at rest) or the inability to move

Treating Lameness

There are many ways to treat lameness.

Stall Rest

Most common after surgery, for fractures, and severe tissue damage (tendon, ligament, or muscle). In some cases, light turnout (in a small paddock where the horse can’t run) may be allowed.

dapple gray horse in stall

Source: Canva

Hand walking

Hand walking is used when a horse needs controlled movement (no running allowed).

Cold Hosing

Cold hosing is helpful with any injury or lameness that involves inflammation, heat, or swelling.

NSAIDs (Bute)

Bute (and other NSAIDs) help reduce inflammation and pain. This is a short-term treatment.

woman doing bodywork on a horse

Source: Canva


Bodywork (like massages and chiropractic treatments) can help break up scar tissue, improve circulation, provide pain relief, reduce inflammation, and more.

Corrective Shoeing

Many conditions benefit from corrective shoeing, which provides additional support to the hoof and can help relieve pressure from certain bones and joints.

Joint Injections

Joint injections can provide relief from arthritis, DJD, and navicular (among other joint-related issues).

gloved hand holding syringe with horse in background

Source: Canva

Magnawave Therapy

MagnaWave therapy uses a pulsing charge to help with sore muscles and pain.


Surgery is typically reserved for extreme cases, like severe kissing spine, bone chips, inserting pins, or tendon/ligament injuries.

horse legs with polo wraps

Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the most common cause of lameness in horses?

Hoof problems, like abscesses, and arthritis are two of the most common causes. More generally, any source of pain can cause lameness.

Q: How do you treat lameness in horses?

This will vary depending on the cause of lameness, but when in doubt, rest—and lots of it.

Q: What are the symptoms of lameness?

Some of the most common symptoms are limping, head bobbing, a shortened stride, inflammation or swelling, and resisting/refusing to work.

Q: Can you ride a horse with lameness?

99% of the time, you shouldn’t ride a lame horse. If the horse is clearly in pain or if the lameness is sudden (they’re moving fine, then they suddenly start limping), you shouldn’t ride.

The other 1% is chronic issues (like arthritis or an old injury with scar tissue). With these, your horse may be fine to ride. In cases like this, it depends entirely on the horse (and your vet’s opinion).

I owned a horse that had fractured his hock with his previous owner. He had a lot of calcification (his hock looked like a grapefruit). Unless he showed signs of pain or discomfort, I rode (with my vet’s OK).

Q: Why do horses suddenly go lame?

Most sudden lameness issues come from the hoof: a stuck stone, a nail, an abscess, a stone bruise. Laminitis can also cause sudden lameness.

Parting Thoughts

While lameness can’t always be prevented, it can be managed. The better you know your horse’s body and movements, the more likely you are to catch a problem early.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


The Lameness Examination in Horses – Musculoskeletal System – MSD Veterinary Manual

Causes of Equine Lameness: Degenerative Joint Disease – Horse Illustrated

Love it? Share it!

About the author


With a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Central Florida and an editing certificate from the University of Washington, my decade-long writing journey has been a kaleidoscope of diverse experiences. I've had the privilege of contributing to a spectrum of platforms, including newspapers, print and online magazines, literary journals, and individual clients on subjects spanning from horse care, gardening, motorcycles, to exploring East Asia.