Is He Lame or Just a Lefty?

Distinguishing Between Lameness, Weakness, and Sidedness

By Keelin Redmond, DVM

Talk to any rider, and you will hear it: “His left lead is better.” “His right to left change is better.” “His right hind is the weak one.”

Talk to any rider and you will hear this too: “My vet injected his right stifle and it got better.” “My vet injected his hocks and it got better.” “My chiropractor adjusted his left pelvis and it got better.”

So which is which? How do you know when your horse is just dominant on one side (a “right-handed” or “left-handed” horse) and when he is in pain? Which issues require a trainer and which require a vet?

Sometimes It’s Easy If your horse is lame, your problems are based in pain. Most of the time, a visible limp is an indicator of pain, even if he improves with warmup. There are some “mechanical lamenesses”, or gait abnormalities not related to pain, but they are few and far between. If your horse is lame, your veterinarian needs to check him out.

Sometimes It’s Not So Easy So your horse looks sound to you and your vet when moving in a straight line and a circle. But the left lead canter still doesn’t feel the same as the right, or one change isn’t as good as the other. It could be one of many things.

“Sidedness.” To a degree, this is normal. Remember that all of us have a dominant side. I am right handed. I write, brush my teeth, play tennis and dust my house with my right hand. But here is the key; my left hand doesn’t hang limply at my side. I can and do use it. And the more I use it (like when my right has been injured), the better it gets. Try it. You can write pretty darn well with your non-dominant hand if you practice for a few weeks. So if your horse simply CANNOT change leads from right to left, he’s not just right-handed; something is wrong. The same goes if he can’t land on the right lead or hold the canter in a small circle one way. His left hand is hanging limply at his side. You need to consider the degree of an issue. If it is a total inability to perform a fairly routine task, your vet needs to rule out pain as a cause.

“Weakness” and its duration. Many, many flaws in a horse’s gait or performance are due to weakness. But these weaknesses should not persist forever. If your horse has been performing at the same level for several years, and he still struggles to canter in a circle to the right, it’s not weakness. Weakness is something that should improve over time. If the problem isn’t improving, and certainly if it’s getting worse, it’s not weakness. It’s either pain, or it’s restriction of range of motion.

Range of Motion. A good rider knows which leg is pushing less. What no rider can tell is if that leg is weak or if it’s stiff. What a rider perceives as a lack of power can come from either cause. Diagnosing abnormalities in range of motion and being able to improve them is the basis of chiropractic therapy. Chiropractic, acupuncture, physiotherapy and massage generally will not make a lame horse sound. But identifying and correcting abnormalities in range of motion is where these therapies excel. Subtle differences in range of motion between different legs and different sides of the horse’s body can be hugely involved in “sidedness,” and remedied by chiropractic and related therapies.

What is the Rider’s Role?

1. Establish a Baseline for Your Horse: “Normal” is different for every horse. You should be familiar with how your horse feels under saddle in each direction, at the beginning and end of each ride. But remember that horses have a tremendous ability to compensate when at work, and that riders can unconsciously affect that in the way that they ride. A good rider can mask even a fairly severe lameness. Take the time to watch your horse move, both in hand and on a longe line. Watching a horse on a longe line, with no equipment other than a halter, can be very informative. You should know what your horse looks like at the trot and canter on a longe line, and so should your trainer. The horse only needs to make a few circles in each direction for you to get an idea of how he moves. Set a schedule for yourself and watch your horse move on a regular basis, so that changes are noticed immediately and before they present a problem under saddle.

2. Help Your Veterinarian Establish a Baseline for Your Horse: Your vet should know what your horse looks like all the time, not just when he’s lame. Whether it’s weekly, monthly, or quarterly, schedule an appointment for your vet to watch your horse move in a straight line and on a longe. Your vet will be able to make more informed decisions for your horse if he/she is very familiar with the horse’s individual movement.

3. Consult a Certified Veterinary Chiropractor: A certified veterinary chiropractor is either a vet or a doctor of chiropractic who has been through extensive training and testing on veterinary chiropractic. A chiropractic exam and adjustment can help provide a baseline for your horse’s musculoskeletal system, and may be beneficial in correcting problems of “sidedness”.

4. Watch the Trend: Are your horse’s struggles getting better, getting worse, or staying the same? Try not to think of the struggles day-to-day, but rather in two month increments. Is your horse better in the left lead canter than he was two months ago? If so, you may have a strength issue that is moving in the right direction. Worse or no different? Consult your vet.

We’re All in This Together. Remember that you know your horse better than anyone. If he’s trying to tell you something, listen. Get close to your team. Your vet, trainer, farrier and chiropractor all want you to be successful. A happy, comfortable horse is good for all of us.


This article originally appeared in print in the April 2016 edition.

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