Lameness in horses

Just like human athletes, horses need to be conditioned properly to perform at their peak level.  In the beginning of the season, or after a long time not working, horses should be worked lightly and consistently (about 60 days) to build up their muscles, strength, and endurance. During this “legging up” period, the horses should do a variety of stretching and strength training exercises to properly develop strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments and protect their joints.

Knowing what is normal for your horse’s movement, behavior, or body structure will aid in catching a small issue before it turns larger. Early signs of pain or soreness may start with acting grumpy or unwilling to work. There may be an abnormal swelling, heat or painful area over the body, neck, or legs. They may start refusing to be caught, grumpy when being saddled or stiff going one direction versus another.

One option for owners when their horse becomes lame may include giving the horse a few days to rest in a stall or small paddock. If an area on the body is swollen or has heat, it may respond to cold water therapy by using a hose, or doing topical liniments or poultice. Sometimes a horse will benefit from a few days of anti-inflammatory medication, such as Bute or Banamine. These medications are similar to humans taking aspirin or Tylenol for minor pain.

When the lameness is severe it is time to call the vet. Severe lameness causes the horse to show major signs of pain, such as short striding on a limb, or bobbing its head. Or if a minor lameness persists for a long time and does not get better with a rest period. Sometimes lameness can be so severe that it may end the career of a show horse, especially if that horse is being judged on its movement.  Luckily there are good diagnostics and good therapies that have developed in the past few decades that can help many horses recover from injuries.

A horse in poor body condition, or has poor conformation (body structure) can be more prone to lameness. Their body is not in shape to handle the work load or the poor conformation will put more stress on joints, tendons or ligaments.  A horse’s job can cause lameness in certain areas. Jumping horses can be prone to soreness in their back or hind limbs from the power that it takes to jump. These horses can also be prone to front end soreness from landing on their front legs. Reining, barrel, and cow horses can get sore in multiple areas due to the quick turns, acceleration, and stopping fast. Dressage and Western Pleasure horses can be sore in multiple areas from the strength that it takes to do the collected movement for a long time period. Race horses can get sore in the front feet and fetlocks or knees from extended high speed and poor track conditions.

Good wellness care is the best prevention of lameness. Good nutrition plays a role in proper development of strong muscles and good body condition. An exercise program to properly condition the horse so that it can stand up to the physical demands of the discipline you are asking the horse to perform is also very important.  There are good joint supplements that can help the animal. Routine chiropractic care can help keep the body in alignment and may help prevent a major injury. Joint injections are useful for inflamed and sore joints.

Lameness is a part of owning a horse. Knowing what is normal and that there are good tools available help our horses perform longer and give us peace of mind.

Detecting Lameness

As I stated earlier, assessing the gaits of the equine can be challenging. It takes a lot of practice and a good eye to pick out subtle lameness. Not all lameness is obvious to the average person. First, let’s define lameness as soreness or “off” (subtle) to lame (obvious) in one or more legs. A lame horse will typically “short stride” (shorten swing phase) on the affected leg. Pain causes the horse to spend less time bearing weight on the affected leg.

When I assess a horse, I watch it travel in a circle and/or in a straight line. Hard or firm surfaces are better to visualize subtle soreness whereas; obvious lameness will easily show up on soft ground. I typically observe the horse at the trot and sometimes at a lope/canter. The trot helps most lameness to be seen easily as it is a two beat gait (see last month’s article). Some hind end soreness is better observed at the lope/canter.  I look for 3 key things when watching a horse travel. The length of the stride, how long the feet “hold the ground” and head bobbing.

To assess length of stride, I observe the horse on a circle. I watch all four legs and see how far they reach out in front of themselves before hitting the ground. I look for both front and both back legs to reach out evenly. If a horse is not striding out as much in one leg I will later perform flexion tests on that leg to help pinpoint which joint or area is plaguing the horse. Stifle soreness will generally show up as a shorter stride, dragging of the toe and is more pronounced on outside of the circle.

The second thing I assess is how long the feet “hold the ground”. If the horse is sore in a leg, they typically are quick off that leg in the first phase of the stride to avoid prolonged concussion and compression. For example, a horse that is sore in a hock is quick off it at the lope/canter, especially if that leg is on the inside of the circle. Often times, the hip of the affected leg will hike higher than the non-affected leg or the hock appears to have a “popping” action. I will then flex the hock for one minute and watch the horse travel at a trot, in a straight line on hard ground. This causes the lameness to be more pronounced.

Head bobbing is the third thing I look for with lameness. It can be subtle at the trot or very obvious at the walk. The head will rise when the sore leg hits the ground to shift the weight to the hind end and ease pressure on the front. Hind end lameness will bob head down on sore leg to shift weight to the front end. Head bobbing may be subtle or very obvious depending on the area causing the soreness.

Lameness can be very challenging to diagnose. Often times soreness resolved in one limb leads to the discovery of an issue in another. I often say it’s like “peeling the layers” of an onion. There are many videos on the internet to aid you in visualizing normal equine gait and different lameness.

Equine Biomechanics and Gait Analysis

This article will be the first of two in a series on equine biomechanics and gait analysis. I will first talk about conformation. In order to understand a horse’s biomechanics and assess its motion and gaits, we first must take a horse’s conformation (body structure) into consideration. To evaluate a horse’s conformation for correctness and balance, it must be viewed from the left and right side, as well as from the front and back. A well balanced horse has a better chance of moving efficiently, which results in less stress and lessens the likelihood of injury. So what do we look for when we assess a horse’s conformation?

First, when viewing the horse from the side, the forehand must be balanced with the hindquarters. When the forehand and hindquarters are balanced, the withers are level or slightly higher than the level of the croup, and the center of gravity is located more toward the rear of the horse. A horse’s center of gravity is a theoretical point in its body around which its mass is equally distributed. This point can be found by transecting a vertical line from the highest point of the withers, to the ground and a horizontal line from point of the shoulder to the point of the Buttock.

Most horses must learn to rebalance their center of gravity when moving and when being ridden. How much weight is shifted depends on the horse’s conformation, the rider’s position, the gait, the degree of collection, and the style of performance. The higher degree of collection, the more the horse steps under the center of gravity with the hind limbs. When the forehand is larger than the hindquarters, a horse’s center of gravity tends to be forward. This causes the horse to travel heavily on its front feet. The extra stress on the front end can set the stage for increased concussion to the feet, stress on the tendons, ligaments, and joints, and an increased chance for lameness.

Second, the top line should be smooth, the neck should tie well into the shoulder and the limb angles should be correct for that breed. Interestingly, a horse’s front limbs are not attached to the rest of the spine by a collar bone as are the arms in humans. Rather, a horse’s front limbs are attached to the rest of the skeleton by strong muscles that make up the shoulder “girdle.” The nature of this attachment requires the horse to use its long neck to balance the motion that originates when the hindquarters engage.

There are many other characteristics of a horse’s conformation that can affect a horse’s movement, too. For example, the neck length should be greater or equal to the back length. The hip, from the loin to the point of the buttock, should be at least two thirds the length of the back. If the neck is shorter than the horse’s back, a horse tends to have decreased flexibility and a harder time balancing its motion. Longer-backed horses tend to “hollow” out because they have a harder time lifting, and rounding their backs, and moving their hindquarters underneath their center of gravity. Horses with a shorter hip in comparison to the neck or back tend to lack propulsion/impulsion. 

As you can see, a horse’s conformation is a key component to movement. Some horses cannot physically or really struggle to do what we ask because their conformation won’t allow them. Keep conformation in mind when purchasing a horse for a specific job. It will help both you and the horse be happier.


Biomechanics of Normal Equine Gait

Assessing the gaits of the equine can be difficult. Educating yourself on proper movement and watching multiple horses can help the average horseman to recognize proper or improper movement. The use of video is very useful as the stride is faster than the human eye can process.

I want to talk about the common gaits of walk, trot, lope/canter and gallop. There are some breeds that pace or rack but due to length of this article, they will not be discussed here. Within each gait of the equine is what we call the stride. The stride has two phases. In the first phase the hoof is in contact with the ground. The limb is under concussion and compression forces are occurring during phase one of the stride. Phase two of the stride is the swing phase or movement of the hoof. As the heel leaves the ground, this is called break over.  Then the toe pushes off, called propulsion.

The walk is a four beat symmetrical gait. Propulsion for the walk starts in the hind legs and the front legs follow. For example, right hind, right front, left hind, left front. The walk also contains a diagonal which is difficult to see without video technology. The link at the end of this article shows a great example.

The trot is a 2 beat, natural gait. The legs move together in diagonal pairs. For example, the right hind moves forward with the left front following and the left hind moves forward with the right front following. The trot has variations to the length of stride and rate of speed.

The lope or canter is a restrained form of the gallop. It is a 3 beat gait with the diagonal legs paired in movement. For example, if the horse is traveling to the left, the right hind is the driving leg. The left hind and right front move together for balance, followed by left front and a moment of suspension. The gallop is a strung out lope/canter. It is faster than the lope/canter, a 4 beat gait, asymmetrical and has a longer period of suspension. To visualize the natural gaits of the horse watch the video below:

Shedding light on equine endeavors

Shedding light on equine endeavors Seminar provides a variety of details on keeing your horses healthy.

Photo by: Wendy Pauly for the TH

shedding-lightChristine Woodford, DVM, gives the audience tips for good horse performance last week. Woodford was the keynote speaker at a horse seminar held in Dubuque.

Horse enthusiasts gathered recently to break bread and learn more about their four-legged friends. Three Rivers Town & Country Store, in Epworth, Iowa, sponsored a dinner and seminar last Tuesday at the Best Western Midway Hotel in Dubuque. About 45 attendees listened to talks on feeding horses and equine conformation (how the animal is built). Katie Kotz, equine and lifestyle specialist for Three Rivers, organized the event. She started the night with a discussion on feeding for weight gain.

While many humans struggle to avoid packing on extra pounds, some horses need to gain weight. Horses might need to improve their condition to look better in the show ring, improve fertility, increase growth or performance, in preparation for sale, or to recover from neglect. Kotz discussed how to assess a horse’s condition using real-world examples. She updated the group on the progress of Lola, a horse the Kotz family is fostering after she was rescued by the Dubuque Regional Humane Society.

Lola was very thin but has been gaining weight. She also had her teeth worked on and is learning better behavior. Kotz was joined by Fran Minnaert, with Land O’Lakes Purina. Minnaert discussed some characteristics of Purina products. After some audience participation on judging horse conditioning and running some feed calculations, Kotz turned the floor over to Christine Woodford, DVM.

Woodford, of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, is certified in animal chiropractic care and acupuncture. These services can relieve stress and pain in horses, similar to the relief they can provide humans.
Woodford spoke to the group about equine conformation and gait analysis. The body structure of a horse is important to consider before studying his gait.

“Balanced conformation is important so the horse can perform well,” Woodford said.
She gave the audience tips on how to examine their horses. The veterinarian also explained how some imperfections could be worked around to make horses comfortable and to perform better.

Woodford also noted that sometimes, a horse just might not be built right for certain activities. But horses are resilient and even a short, stocky pony might be good at going over jumps.

After discussing how horses are put together, Woodford tied conformation to how horses move. A well-balanced horse is likely to move with good rhythm. This should yield a healthy horse, free of pain that might be associated with activities. When something is out of balance, the horse can feel pain. Risk factors for soreness include unbalanced feet, an unbalanced rider, poorly fitting equipment or poor conditioning. Fortunately, steps can be taken to correct many issues. Woodford noted, “Proper foot care is important for horses all year.”

Horse hooves grow year-round but faster in warmer months. Keeping the hooves trimmed and level can help the animal move with balance. Woodford also explained how to examine a horse for lameness (soreness) in their legs. She noted that owners should be sure their horses are trained to be led at the walk and trot pace when they are healthy. If an injury is suspected, a horse will need to be led at these gaits to help the vet determine the problem.

Shedding light on equine endeavors Seminar provides a variety of details on keeing your horses healthy.
Sunday, November 22, 2009

You can view the story by clicking on the link below or copying and pasting the link into your browser:

What bloodwork tells you about your horse

Before you can understand what blood tests are and how they can help diagnose ailments in your horse, it’s a good idea to understand some of the basics about the study of blood–hematology.

Blood tests are a part of veterinary medicine known as laboratory medicine. This branch of medicine is used by your veterinarian–along with physical examination findings–to aid, confirm, or disprove a suspected diagnosis.

When all is normal, most of the components of blood are regulated to a very narrow concentration that varies only slightly from horse to horse. Because of that fact, a reference range for what is normal is available for comparison. Many blood components change in a very predictable way relative to a disease process; therefore, blood tests can be extremely valuable aids in disease diagnosis and determining health status.

The RBC’s main function is to carry oxygen throughout the body, while the various WBCs mainly carry out immune system functions. The red and white blood cells are manufactured within the bone marrow and released into the bloodstream. A small quantity of red and white blood cells are manufactured in the spleen. Platelets are cells that function in blood clotting, and are also manufactured in the bone marrow.

The main protein in the blood is albumin, which is manufactured in the liver, as are other proteins, including ones involved with blood clotting. One example is fibrinogen.

Hematology is used to examine a horse’s red and white blood cell counts. The common name for evaluating these components of the horse’s blood is a complete blood count or CBC. The first test in this category is the packed cell volume or PCV (also called hematocrit). The PCV is the percentage of red blood cells compared to the liquid component of blood, called the plasma. A low red cell mass would indicate anemia, and an increased red cell mass would indicate dehydration (or an overproduction of red cells, which is extremely rare in the horse). There are many causes of anemia (low red blood cell count), including chronic parasitism, blood loss, and chronic inflammation.

This reminds us that a single laboratory test only helps a little with finding the cause of a problem, but when used in combination with other tests and clinical examination, the puzzle can become more clear.

For example, with chronic parasitism there is often weight loss and a low blood protein concentration, and with chronic inflammation there might be low-grade fevers and an increased blood protein concentration. Hemoglobin (the protein within the RBC that contains iron) is normally 10-18 grams per deciliter of blood; a low hemoglobin level in conjunction with anemia would be an indication of iron deficiency anemia. The more common cause of iron deficiency anemia is not dietary, but chronic inflammation or the “anemia of chronic disease” (iron is tied up in the infection-fighting processes of the immune system).

Looking at the total WBC count and the differential can help diagnose various types of inflammation. For example, with severe acute inflammation/infection, the WBC count might decrease with the appearance of immature neutrophils. With more slowly developing or chronic inflammation/infection, the total WBC count tends to increase. With allergic-type inflammation, increases in the numbers of eosinophils and basophils might be noted. The monocyte is the “clean-up” cell of the body, so with chronic inflammation there usually is an increase in the number of monocytes. The WBC count is also useful in determining if you are getting a response to treatment. For example, with a mild/ moderate case of pneumonia, you would expect an increase in the WBC count. If the antibiotic of choice is correct, you would expect–in addition to improvement in the clinical signs–the WBC count to decrease toward the normal range.

If the infection is extremely intense and involves a vigorous bacteria (or virus), the WBCs are consumed rapidly and the total count decreases because consumption exceeds production. With less intense and more chronic infections, the WBC count increases. Blood testing can provide important information, but it almost always needs to be interpreted relative to the clinical examination findings, history, and additional testing in order to arrive at an accurate diagnosis of the problem.


Remember that blood is approximately 60% water and approximately 40% red and white blood cells, with the rest of “blood” containing hundreds of elements, electrolytes, enzymes, and proteins.

We are now interested in some of the components in the blood’s “serum.” The serum is the clear-to-yellowish fluid remaining after the blood sample is allowed to clot and has been centrifuged (spun so that the red cells are removed). The serum contains electrolytes, a variety of proteins, enzymes, and many waste products of metabolism.

The first components measured in a blood chemistry profile are typically the electrolytes sodium, potassium, and chloride. The major function of electrolytes in the body is electrical in nature. For example, when a nerve ending is stimulated, the signal is transmitted to the brain, spinal cord, or muscle by the movement of sodium across the nerve cell membrane. Another example is the collection of cells controlling the trigger for contraction of the top part of the heart (the atria); the signal also depends of the movement of sodium across the cell membrane. Potassium also is closely involved with nerve conduction and muscle contraction.

Electrolytes can also be “lost” through severe or chronic diarrhea or kidney dysfunction.

Another relatively common cause of electrolyte changes (particularly potassium) is a ruptured bladder in foals. The potassium in urine is absorbed into the bloodstream via the lining of the abdominal cavity–a clinical sign of high potassium is an abnormally low heart rate (bradycardia). Electrolyte alterations also can be caused by severe sweating.

The next components often measured in a chemistry profile include calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. These electrolytes are very important in bone health and muscle contraction.

Changes in these electrolytes can be related to diet, various illnesses, sweating/ dehydration, kidney dysfunction, and other problems. For example, the inflammatory intestinal disease caused by the blister beetle (cantharidin toxicity) is often associated with a decrease in serum calcium.

Phosphorus and/or magnesium increases or decreases are typically associated with extreme dietary imbalances.


Serum protein is an important component of a serum chemistry profile that is typically differentiated into the two “main” proteins (there are many others in relatively small concentrations), the albumin and globulins. Albumin is a protein manufactured within the liver that is mostly responsible for water balance within the blood system. Typical causes of decreased albumin include kidney disease, a decrease in albumin production by the liver, or a malabsorption condition of the gastrointestinal system (sometimes caused by chronic parasitism).

Globulins, or immunoglobulins, are the proteins of the immune system. A common cause of increased globulins is excess production stimulated by chronic inflammation or infection–a long-standing chronic abscess is often a cause of increased globulins Two commonly measured enzymes are SGOT–standing for serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase (also called AST)–and CPK (standing for creatine phosphokinase), which are the muscle enzymes.

Elevations of CPK and SGOT are indictors of muscle inflammation–tying-up or rhabdomyolysis. The term “rhabdo” means muscle and “myolysis” means rupture of muscle cells.

The CPK and SGOT are very sensitive indicators of skeletal muscle damage, and they rise in concentration proportionally with the amount of damage. A bit of timing is required in order to obtain the most sensitive results; CPK rises (due to its leakage from muscle cells into the blood system) approximately six to eight hours after the onset of muscle inflammation, and SGOT rises after approximately 12-14 hours. The absolute peak of CPK concentration and the time it takes to return to normal are important indicators of the severity of muscle damage and the response to therapy.

The next compound is creatinine, which is a waste by-product of muscle metabolism that is eliminated very efficiently via the horse’s kidneys. The serum concentration of creatinine is directly related to kidney function; therefore, an increase in serum creatinine is an indicator of renal insufficiency. Creatinine monitoring is useful for a variety of illnesses and conditions that can affect kidney function. For example, severe cases of tying-up can release the protein myoglobin into the blood system, which can be toxic to the kidneys. Monitoring creatinine evaluates how well the kidneys are coping and if additional treatment is necessary.

The next two take a look at liver function. The enzymes SDH (sorbitol dehydrogenase) and GGT (gamma-glutamyltransferase) are associated with liver function. Diseases that cause liver damage or inflammation cause an increased serum concentration of SDH and/or GGT.

Another liver-related compound is bilirubin, which is a compound secreted by the liver into the intestine to aid in digestion. Increases in serum bilirubin concentration can be caused by bile duct obstruction via infection and occasionally even bile stones (gall stones in humans, but horses don’t have gall bladders). Due to the lack of a gall bladder, rises in serum bilirubin concentration can also be caused by relatively short periods of being off feed. Increased serum bilirubin is responsible for the yellowing of skin (jaundice or icterus) often observed with liver disease or hepatitis. Of course, there are more blood tests than can be discussed in this one article, but these are the ones horse owners will most often hear about when they have a sick or injured horse. Remember that some of these tests will need to be done repeatedly over a period of time to see if the levels of various substances in your horse’s blood are rising or falling as an indication of whether he’s getting better, or worse. If you have questions about specific tests done on your horse, ask your veterinarian.

Chinese herbal medications

chinese-leaficd-yinyangIn the fall of 2006 a boarding stable in our equine practice lost two horses with in days of each other because of acute liver failure. Several horses on the farm were blood tested and 1 out of 4 had increased liver enzymes. The horses at the stable were voluntarily quarantined and monitored closely. Several plant samples, water samples, feed samples, and insect samples were sent to the diagnostic lab at Iowa State to determine a cause for the acute liver failure. We monitored the horses closely and gave vitamin B shots and antibiotics to the severe cases. Fortunately only one other horse died, and the rest recovered. Unfortunately, the cause of the incident was undetermined.

As for me, one of the attending veterinarians, the most frustrating aspect about the incident was not being able to treat the horses with any medicine that would specifically target the liver. In our conventional veterinary medicine bag, our arsenal of medications is limited to specific classes of drugs. This particular incident sparked my interest in learning about Chinese acupuncture and herbal therapy.

In the summer of 2007 another farm, located several counties away from the farm previously mentioned, had horses suffering from a syndrome affecting the liver and kidney organs. One mare in particular had very high liver enzymes in her blood profile. When no conventional medicines were available, this mare was treated aggressively with acupuncture and a Chinese herbal formula called Liver Happy. Within two months her blood work was back to normal. I was pleased with this case because we were able to expand our arsenal and offer more treatment options to combat the liver disease.

Herbal Medicine paired with acupuncture has been used for over 2,000 years in China. In fact, over 80% of the cases in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) are treated with Chinese herbs, or a combination, of herbs and acupuncture. The founder of the Chi Institute in Florida, one of the countries leading TCVM practitioners, considers Chinese herbal therapy as “a daily dose of acupuncture.”

It has been proven that Chinese Herbal Therapy can be extremely effective for treating a variety of medical disorders. New clinical evidence shows that chronic conditions such as gastric ulcers, fatigue, poor digestive function, endocrine dysfunction, chronic cough, asthma, and heaves in horses can not only be treated to restore health, but can also be prevented by utilizing herbal medicine.

There are several Chinese Herbs that I have personally witnessed as being highly effective in relieving pain, calming down nervous horses, and improving health, fertility and performance. Body Sore is one formulation that invigorates the blood, or Qi to relieve pain and increase circulation. It has been useful in treating horses suffering from trauma, arthritis, joint and muscle disorders. In fact, several barrel racers that used this formulation have seen improvements in their horses. The horses are running faster and turning the barrels sharper, which has shaved seconds off of their pattern time. There is another formulation, Tendon Ligament Formulation, which targets the repair and aids to strengthen tendons and ligaments. I have prescribed this formulation to race horses with strained suspensory ligaments and bowed tendons. In my experience the horses on this combination seem to heal faster and stronger than without the herb.

Behavioral problems can be treated with Shen Calmer. This formulation is designed to ease separation anxiety, mental stress, fearfulness, and out of control behavior episodes. There are also herb formulations that can aide in controlling heat cycles in performance mares, and increase fertility in mares with a history of being difficult to breed.

The herbal formulations may take several days, perhaps even weeks to show a clinical improvement, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. The herbs come in a powder form that can be top dressed over the grain. Most horses will readily eat the formulations, while a few finicky eaters may need some assistance. Syrup, molasses, or applesauce will usually help to conceal the taste and texture.

Because the herbs affect body organisms and systems, there could be unwanted side effects if used improperly. Chinese herbs can have powerful effects and should be considered as if they were drugs, thus used with caution. Many Chinese herbal formulas sold to the public are not safe due to impurities. The Chinese herbs that I prescribe are carefully formulated by TCVM veterinarians at Jing Tang Herbal in Florida. The formulations are safe and effective when used as prescribed. They are also guaranteed to be drug test free at a performance event.

I have found that after a thorough examination and treatment with a combination of acupuncture and chiropractic therapy for the specific condition, the Chinese herbal medications prescribed will amplify and prolong the affects of the acupuncture therapy. In addition, Chinese herbal formulations may be prescribed for long term as a preventative and to enhance performance.

Chiropractic Treatments

In recent years the use of alternative therapies in equine medicine has almost doubled. Therapeutic options such as Acupuncture and chiropractic performed by properly trained individuals can complement the treatment protocol and aid in the getting the horse back to optimal health and performance.

The majority of lameness issues that we see in our equine practice are caused by lower limb abnormalities. However when a horse is lame, they will start to carry themselves differently in order to “get off” the sore limb. In doing so, they use different back muscles and neck muscles. Depending on how long this goes on, several areas of the animal can begin to hurt. It is just like if we were to drop a heavy object on the big toe of our left foot. The toe is the number one source of pain. If we had to continue to walk on that sore toe, we would compensate by putting more weight on our right hip, back, shoulders, and neck. If we did this for very long, soon the pain in our sore toe may be gone, but we are left with very sore muscles and joints in other areas of our bodies. In most cases anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen do not alleviate all the pain and we are left with stomach ulcers from too many non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. This can also happen to our horse patients. It is a little difficult for them to tell us exactly where things hurt. But if we look, there are some subtle signs.

Horses with conditions that might respond to chiropractic treatment can display some of the following signs:

  • Loss or decrease in level of performance;
  • Reduced neck or back flexibility;
  • Localized muscle tightness;
  • Uneven or asymmetric gait;
  • Recent change in spinal conformation (such as an arched back, scoliosis (curve), or sway back);
  • Discomfort with saddle placement or tightening of the cinch or girth;
  • Stiffness and more warm-up needed;
  • Behavioral changes (refusals, cinchy, bucking)
  • Lameness only when ridden;
  • Difficulty with a lead or gait transition;
  • Consistently stumbling and/or toe dragging;
  • Muscle mass asymmetry;
  • Pelvic asymmetry;
  • Not standing squarely on all four limbs;
  • Difficulty standing for the farrier;
  • Holding the tail to one side;

If the horse is showing one or more of these signs, it may be in need of a chiropractic adjustment. The horse should have a full lameness and health examination by a licensed veterinarian. If the condition has been a long progressive process, sometimes the original source of pain is gone (just like our sore toe!). However, if the horse has been compensating for the pain, he may be left with specific sore areas in his back, hips, shoulders, ribs, and neck. At this point a chiropractic adjustment may be necessary. You should follow the advice of you veterinarian and only seek help from an individual who has been properly trained in the chiropractic methods for animals.

In 1989, a program called Options for Animals was started in Illinois. This program is available to licensed veterinarians or chiropractors. The program has grown and developed to its own campus now located south of Kansas City. It consists of over 210 hours of classroom and hands on training of horses and small animals. After each of the five, five day long sessions, there is a written and practical examination. When participants have completed the course, they are eligible to become certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. This association was started to supervise individuals who perform animal chiropractic. Beware of imitations! There may be people out there that say they are trained in animal chiropractic. However, there are some very specific moves and techniques and if not properly employed, can cause permanent damage.

Dental care for your performance horse

skeletal-skullAn interesting experiment to try on yourself is stand with your arms straight out at your side and pick up one leg off the ground. Next, slide one piece of paper between your teeth (just 1 paper thick) and repeat standing with your arms straight out at your side and pick up one leg off the ground. Do things change? How do you think your horse feels when we slide a bit into their mouth? A bit can really change the motion and balance of the animal. This change can be for the worse if the bit is knocking on wolf teeth, long premolars and sharp enamel points. To avoid this problem, routine dental care should be performed on all performance horses.

Dental care is very important part of the horse’s health care. A foal should get its mouth examined in the first week of life for proper jaw alignment and incisor placement. Horse’s teeth continually grow throughout their lifetime. Also, a horse’s upper jaw is wider than their lower jaw. Therefore the outside edges of the top teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth do not get worn down and they develop sharp points. The sharp enamel points can make it difficult for horses to properly chew their food. This can lead to large particles in the digestive tract and cause the horse to be at risk for impaction colic. Also, the sharp enamel points can cause sores in the horse’s mouth and allow bacteria and toxins to enter the horse’s bloodstream. The sores also can cause behavior problems in horses especially when a bit is placed in the horse’s mouth.

For a complete examination the horse should be sedated and a full mouth speculum applied to hold open the horse’s mouth. A good light source is needed to visually examine the teeth and oral cavity. All the teeth should be palpated to check for loose teeth and sharp edges, especially the back teeth on both the upper and lower jaw.

Floating is the most common dental procedure veterinarians perform on horses. Floating is the process of rasping or filing down a horses teeth to remove the sharp enamel points and create an even chewing plane. Floating also keeps incisors and cheek teeth at a desirable length. For most riding horses, a bit seat is added to the first cheek tooth on each side of the upper jaw. This procedure involves filing down the front edge of the tooth to the gum line so that the bit fits nicely on the bars of the mouth and does not irritate the horse.

The bit may also be irritated by wolf teeth in a horse’s mouth. Wolf teeth are small teeth that generally erupt in front of the first cheek teeth in the upper jaw. Most often these teeth erupt by 1 year of age. Not all wolf teeth cause problems, however enough of them do. These teeth also do not serve a purpose in chewing. Therefore we recommend that wolf teeth be removed when they are found in a horse’s mouth.

The first dental floating could be done as early as six months of life. Then the teeth should be floated every 6 months until the age of 5 years old. By the time the horse is 5 years old, it should have shed all its baby teeth and have a full set of permanent teeth. Horses from 5 to about 15 years of age usually need to be floated one time a year. Older horses should be checked every 6 months, especially if they are missing teeth or have poor alignment.

A common question that is asked is “How do horses in the wild survive with out dental care?” Wild horses did not live very long! The average life span of these horses was 10- 15 years of age. Wild horses grazed continuously, picking up grit and dirt in the process. This, plus the silicate in the grass helped to wear down their teeth. Stabled horses, do not give their teeth the same workout. The domestication of horses has caused them to wear their teeth improperly. Feedings are usually scheduled, and not continuous. Also the feed is typically processed grains and hay. These processed feeds are softer and require less chewing. Thus, the horse’s teeth can become long or wear unevenly. It is imperative for stabled horses to receive routine dental care. Proper dental care not only will make a positive influence on your horse’s health and performance, it can add 5-15 years to a horse’s life.

Equine Emergencies and First Aid

If you have owned a horse for a period of time, chances are you have or will encounter a situation in which veterinarian attention is necessary. When this time comes, you must be able to assess the situation and determine if it is an emergency, or can the situation wait for a scheduled visit from your veterinarian. To determine if the situation truly is an emergency, it is first important to know what is normal for your horse. The following table lists the normal vital signs for an adult horse.
Temperature 99-101.5 °F
Pulse/Heart Rate 28-40 beats per minute
Respiration Rate 20 breaths per minute
Mucus Membrane Color Pale pink
Capillary Refill Time < 2 seconds

It is a good practice to check your horse’s vital signs regularly so that you can quickly recognize when something is abnormal and react to the situation in the appropriate manner. If you do encounter an emergency situation gather the following information before you call the veterinarian. Vital signs such as temperature, pulse, respiration rate, mucus membrane color and capillary refill time, will inform the veterinarian on the seriousness of the injury or illness. Be prepared to list specific details such as the location and nature of the injury, the horse’s attitude (agitated/depressed), the time that the injury has occurred, and if the horse is lame and the degree of lameness.

There are several situations that are true emergencies and require immediate veterinary attention. Below is a list of the most common emergencies, but of course the list is not inclusive.

Injury with profuse bleeding Obvious or Suspected Fractures Cut that requires sutures
Nail in the Hoof Sudden Lameness Respiratory distress
Choke Seizures Tying Up
Eye Injury Colic Allergic Reaction

Injuries with Profuse Bleeding

Due to the horse’s natural instinct to flee from scary situations, they tend to run into (or through) sharp objects such as fences, tree branches, and metal doors. These injuries tend to bleed profusely. The good news is that horse’s can loose up to 10 liters of blood before any major circulatory damage is done. If you do encounter an injury that is bleeding profusely, you should take certain steps as you are waiting for the veterinarian to arrive. First apply pressure to the wound with a clean dressing to slow down the bleeding. The dressing may be secured in place with a bandage if possible. The bandage should be secured tightly enough to slow down the bleeding, however be sure that it is not too tight and cuts off the circulation. The use of a tourniquet is not recommended because these often do more damage than good. If the wound is severely dirty, first gently rinse the wound with cold water. Do not use too much water pressure or scrub the wound, because it may cause the wound to bleed more. If there is a chance that the wound can be sutured, it is best to do as little as possible to the injury before the veterinarian arrives. Do not apply any medication, disinfectant or ointment to such a wound. These materials may cause tissue damage that can interfere with suturing and the healing process. In such cases, the less that is done to these injuries before the veterinarian arrives the better.

Fractured Limb

If you suspect that your horse has a fractured limb it is very important to call the veterinarian immediately. Report the horse’s vital signs to the veterinarian. Often times these horses will go into shock due to the pain and immediate action is critical for the life of the animal. Attempt to keep the horse calm and do not administer any medication unless directed by a veterinarian. Certain tranquilizers can lower the blood pressure of the animal and cause them to go into circulatory distress. The injured limb should be stabilized to prevent further injury. A splint can be made out of PVC pipe that is split lengthwise. It is important to pad the injury well before applying the splint. A temporary splint can be made out of a pillow and several rolls of elastikon tape, Vet-wrap, or duct tape. If the horse needs to be transported it is important to protect them during the hauling procedure. If the injury is on a front limb, it is best to haul the horse backwards, so that if a sudden stop is to be made, the horse will be putting more pressure on his hind limbs rather that the injured limb. It is also important to wrap the uninjured limbs to give the horse extra support to the remaining three legs. Unfortunately horses were not designed to distribute their weight on less than four limbs. Therefore, with a severe injury such as a fracture, often times the supporting limb may experience a bowed tendon due to the excessive weight bearing.

Eye Injury

Due to the large, protruding eye on the side of the head, eye injuries are common in horses. The most common injuries include foreign bodies (gravel, dirt, twig, hay, insects) in the eye tissue, corneal ulcers, conjunctivitis, and bruised eyelid. If you notice signs such as excessive blinking, tearing, discharging, swelling or reddening or a blue cloudiness to the cornea, call the veterinarian immediately. Eye injuries are very treatable if they are acted upon quickly. However, if they are left untreated, small problems can turn into huge problems and blindness may result. Do not apply anything to the eye without directions from veterinarian.


If you have ever witnessed a horse that has an obstruction in its throat, it is a dramatic situation that you will never forget. Choke is defined as an obstruction in the esophagus and can be caused by a horse that eats too quickly or does not chew properly. Also pelleted grain or unsoaked beet pulp can cause choke because these items expand when they are moistened. The signs of a horse that is experiencing choke included large amounts of saliva and food particles discharging form the nostrils. The horse cannot eat and may show signs of pain such as pawing, coughing and panicking. As long as the obstruction is only in the esophagus, the horse is not in grave danger, however choke is an emergency and should be relieved as soon as possible. Aspiration pneumonia is a complication from choke because the horse can inhale food particles that it is coughing up. As you wait for the veterinarian, remove all food sources. Warm water can be offered to the horse if it would like to drink. You can palpate the left side of the horse’s neck for an abnormal lump in the esophagus. If you feel a lump you can apply a warm compress to the lump to aid in relieving the choke.

Tying Up

A horse that suddenly experiences extreme muscle cramping and pain is most likely tying up. Tying up is a common name for a condition known as exercise related muscle degeneration. Clinical signs of tying up include a sudden reluctance or inability to move and the muscles (especially the hindquarters) become hard and tense. The horse may experience excessive sweating, resting heart rate over 60 beats per minute, and resting respiratory rate over 30 breaths per minute. If you suspect your horse is tying up, immediately dismount, stop working the horse, keep the horse as still as possible, and call your veterinarian. Do not administer any medication unless directed by your veterinarian. If the episode is acted up quickly, most horses recover fully, however the urine may be discolored for the first 48 hours. If the urine is very dark in color, this indicates kidney damage and the horse should have a follow up visit with the veterinarian.


One of the most common emergencies that we encounter are colics. Colic is a term to describe any abdominal pain in a horse. There are many causes of colic and they fall under three main categories. The first category is due to intestinal dysfunction such as increased gas production, impaction, smooth muscle spasms and paralysis of gut motility. A second category is due to intestinal accidents such as displacements, torsions, and hernias. The final category includes enteritis and ulceration of gut which may due to inflammation, infection or lesions. Signs of colic can vary and may include looking at the flank, pawing, kicking or biting at sides, stretching out to urination, yet not voiding, rolling, decreased gut sounds, increased heart rate and lack of defecation. If you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, first remove all food sources from the stall and call your veterinarian immediately. As you are waiting for the veterinarian to arrive, monitor vital signs such as temperature, pulse and respiratory rate. The horse should be watched closely and keep him calm and comfortable. It is ok for the horse to lie down, however it should not be allowed to roll.

Items to have on hand in an Equine first aid kit

  • Important phone numbers, veterinarian, horse ambulance and farrier.
  • Thermometer
  • Stethoscope
  • Saline Solution to rinse eyes
  • Leg wraps
  • Cotton Wraps
  • Vaseline
  • Wound ointment
  • Scissors
  • Electrolytes
  • Dilute Iodine solution
  • Twitch
  • Hoof pick
  • Fly lotion
  • Hoof pick
  • Ophthalmic ointment
  • Latex gloves
  • Syringes
  • Sterile Needles
  • Antibiotic spray
  • Epson Salts

It is also a good idea to keep a some medication on hand. Do not administer any medication with out the direction of a veterinarians. Phenylbutazone and banamine are both nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory agents and aid in controlling inflammation and pain.