Lameness Watch

Signs of trouble include wounds, an elevated pulse and hot, swollen legs.

From Knack “Leg and Hoof Care for Horses,” by Micaela Myers. Published by KNACK, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut

Aside from the horse moving differently or limping, physical signs of lameness may also be detected when examining the leg.

Wounds are generally easy to spot if they break the skin. However, wounds that don’t break the skin can be harder to see but often create swelling.

If you suspect your horse is lame, use your fingertips to feel and examine the leg. If a horse consistently reacts to touch he normally wouldn’t (or touch he doesn’t react to on the opposite leg), it’s a good indication he’s experiencing pain in that area.

Palpate or feel the suspect leg, looking for signs of heat or swelling. The best way to detect heat or swelling in a leg is to compare it to the same leg on the opposite side.

Place the fingertips of one hand on one leg and the fingertips of the other hand on the opposite leg in the same place. Does one feel warmer than the other? Next, visually assess the two legs, comparing the same parts of each leg to see if swelling is present.

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In a healthy leg, the digital pulse in the fetlock area will barely be detectible. If the digital pulse is pounding and easily felt, then it’s likely a sign of trouble. Check the digital pulse on all legs for comparison. Unlike pulses taken in other areas, you’re not counting beats, you’re checking for the strength of the pulse. It’s helpful to check your horse’s digital pulse regularly so that if there ever is trouble, you’ll know the difference.

Detecting Heat or Pain

    • When you clean your horse’s pen, groom him and clean his feet, visually inspect his legs and note his reactions to your touch.
    • If your horse’s legs look different than usual, he reacts differently when you groom a leg or ask him to pick up his hoof, this warrants further investigation.
    • Feeling the horse’s legs with your fingertips and comparing both front or both hind legs helps you detect pain or heat, which are both indications of trouble.

Checking Digital Pulse

    • To feel your horse’s digital pulse, squat down beside his lower leg and use your fingertips to feel around the back part of the fetlock, at the level of the proximal sesamoid bones or in the mid-pastern area.
    • Feel for a cordlike bundle, which includes a vein, artery and nerve.
    • Once you locate the bundle, press your fingertips against it with varying pressure for several seconds, trying to feel the pulse.

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Swollen Legs

    • It’s important to be familiar with your horse’s legs and what’s normal for them.
    • If the two front legs or two hind legs don’t match, and one seems puffier in parts than the other one, that’s a good indication one leg is swollen, which suggests a problem.
    • Sometimes both front legs, both hind legs or all four legs become swollen.
    • Knowing your horse’s legs well helps you catch changes easily.


    • Legs have very little padding, and tendons, ligaments and bones are not far from the surface.
    • Legs can be easily wounded by interference injuries, kicks from other horses or run-ins with the stall wall, paddock fencing, feeders or other objects.
    • Because equine legs are so vulnerable, leg wounds can cause lameness, depending on their placement, depth, width and whether they heal without complication.

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