Lameness problems and decreased performance are common in the equine athlete, and comprises a large part of performance horse
veterinary medicine. Every equine sport or disciple has its own set of common disorders, so a basic knowledge of the sport
and training techniques is very useful in both finding the problem and communicating with the people involved. However, the
basic skills and knowledge necessary is the same for all equine disciplines.
Examining lame horses requires time and dedication. It is important to remember that not all lameness or performance evaluations
can be completed in one day. Additionally, a trained staff and adequate facilities are essential. Ideally, areas where horses
can be evaluated on hard and soft surfaces should be available, as well as an area where a horse can be examined under saddle.
The basic lameness exam begins with a thorough history of the presenting problem. The essential information that I like to
obtain prior to looking at the horse includes the primary complaint of the owner or trainer, duration of the problem, prior
treatment and any response to treatment, and expectations for the horse including future show schedule. It is important to
remember that many times the presenting complaint may be simply a decrease in performance rather than a specific lameness
issue. I rely a lot on what the trainer is seeing and feeling in the saddle. Often times a decrease in performance can be
related to a lameness, however soreness in an area not bad enough to cause an obvious lameness can be highly significant in
reducing the quality of performance of the horse. Other potential problems not related to lameness that are commonly seen
in athletic horses are equine protozoal myelitis, gastric ulceration, and dental disease.
Whatever pattern of examination you choose should be based on individual preference, but I believe that a systematic approach
should be taken to evaluate the entire animal. Once you are comfortable with your system, it can be used for every horse that
you evaluate. This is a good way to pick up any subtle abnormalities that can help streamline your examination. This basic
lameness or performance evaluation also serves as the basis for my pre-purchase examination.
Once I have obtained a history on the nature of the problem, I like to evaluate the horse in motion. A lot can be ascertained
simply by watching the horse unload off of the trailer. Any obvious asymmetry in musculature or abnormal swellings can be
seen. Many horses with bilateral rear limb soreness may have a hard time backing off of a step up trailer, and can even fall
or go down while backing. As my unloading area is on gravel, I can observe how the horse behaves while walking. Horses that
are sore in the feet may show an obvious lameness while walking or turning on the gravel.
After the horse is unloaded, I will observe the horse at a walk in-hand on the hard surface (asphalt). Once the horse is accustomed
to the handler and surroundings I systematically evaluate the horse walking and jogging in both directions of the circle.
It is important to have a handler that you work with every day and a set routine to the sequence of the evaluation. I always
begin with the horse in a left circle and then proceed to the right. A lot can be ascertained during this initial examination
even prior to laying your hands on the horse. While examining the horse on the circle, both the front and hind end can be
evaluated at the same time. Occasionally I may examine the horse in a straight line, however the front and rear limbs can
only be evaluated independently in this manner. If the lameness is very subtle or if the horse is not amenable to jogging
in hand, I may observe the horse on a lunge line. Many horses in my practice are never taught to lunge, so this may be difficult
and can carry some liability if the horse injures itself. If the problem is not clear during these manipulations, I may watch
the horse move in a sand arena in hand or under saddle. Many very subtle problems are made much more apparent when the horse
is worked under saddle by an experienced rider. For some horses with decreased performance, it may be necessary to watch the
horse performing their discipline to ascertain if there is a problem