Is My Horse Lame?

Is My Horse Lame?

Written by our member: Roy Drinnan

Before I get into these thoughts, let me provide some background info. I am not a rider, and I am not certified in any discipline of equineness. This article is based on my knowledge gathered during my time spent with horses and horse people, both in competition and not in competition. I do not profess to know more than other people in any of these issues, nor do I profess to be an expert. I simply wish to explain this issue as I have come to understand it. I welcome any and all comments, positive or negative, for without discussion, knowledge is useless.

What is lame? this is the crux of the issue for me. When I came to understand this single issue in my own mind, I began to look at situations differently. I would have to credit Dr. Art King for being the person to originally bring me to understand this, although many other vets and judges have confirmed it to me. A lame horse is a horse that is in degenerative state of being off. Not all horses that move off are lame, all horses that are lame move off. Confused, I'll try to explain.

Off? If we compare each and every horse to our individual idea of the perfect moving horse, few will come out at 100%. Any horse less than 100% is moving off. For some horses this is a chronic situation, often referred to as 'a way of going.' For others it is a temporary situation which may be caused by a number of circumstances. As an example, Terry Fox moved off for obvious reasons, yet he successfully ran farther than most people could fathom running. A horse which is off, but not lame, is not expected to suffer from continued usage.

Lame? A horse which is in pain or is in a worsening state of 'offend,' is lame. This is not in its self a long term threat to the horse. Continued usage at this level probably will be detrimental to the animal. In my opinion, this is the criteria a good judge should use as a basis for pulling a horse from a ride.

I have heard it said, many times, that this or that judge/vet can't tell a lame horse. I have actually questioned seasoned endurance vets on large rides about what I thought I saw was what they did with the horse. This is where I have come to understand this issue. Vets have acknowledged that some horses have demonstrated off movements but are not lame, while other horses expressed minimal off movements but, in the opinion of that judge, were expected to worsen under stress and therefore considered lame.

To give an example. At the 1999 Old Dominion Endurance, a horse that I was helping crew was the subject of a long series of rechecks and discussions among the vets at the pre-ride vet check. This horse had spent twelve hours in a trailer Thursday night, to arrive at the ride site about 9 am on Friday. The horse had at least two shoes replaced between arrival and the vet check. The pre-ride check was a 1 pm Friday and one of the most grueling 100 mile rides on the east coast followed on Saturday. The horse moved off at the trot out and was the subject of much discussion as to probable cause and effect. The horse was allowed to start.

My position with the crew did not afford me to attend the trot outs for the horse, but I was assured at each check that he was looking good. At the 87.5 mile check I was helping provide light for the trot outs by using the headlights of my truck. I sat in horror as I watched my horse trot by in the lights with a noticeable head bob. After the trot out, I shut off the truck and headed off to help console the rider. What I found was the rest of the crew actively working on the horse and rider, and all was well. After the horse left, I quietly and calmly went to the two vets who watched the trot out and asked, if I had seen something that wasn't there. They looked at me and sort of laughed. They said it was there all right, but that was the best that horse had looked all day. He had moved slightly better with each checkpoint. And as the head hold vet said, no horse that was really suffering would have come that far on that trail and been getting better.

As it turned out, the vets had been concerned that the horse would suffer during the ride, and considered not letting it start. What they had decided was to let it start and keep a close eye on it at each hold to ensure that the situation did not deteriorate. Some of the rechecking was to ensure that the vets who would see the horse early on really had a feel for the way the horse was moving. The rider interpreted this as the vets were out to get him. At the 60 mile hold I had caught a passing comment from the ride's head vet after this horse's trot out. He simply said, "I didn't think that horse would look this good, this far in the ride."

My point is that two horses that at first glance may look to both be trotting off, may in fact be in very different situations. One must evaluate each individual circumstance before passing judgment.

For those of you who are skeptics, or think I have no idea what I am talking about, take a minute to think about those of us who do not ride, but attend a fair number of rides. Think about how often you see us on the trails. Think about how often we observe the horses trot by. How many times on each ride? How many trot outs do we see? It adds up to a lot of observed trotting.

This is a simplified explanation of this issue, put in my own words and based on my interpretation of discussions I have had with many people. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. All I ask is that the next time you see something in a horse's trot, ask yourself the following:
Is this horse in pain?
Is this condition likely to get worse?
Is this condition likely to cause the horse to hurt or endanger itself in another way?
If you can't get a yes to any of these, maybe the horse is just moving a little off.

It is not my attempt to support poor judging, we do have problems there. A horse must be scored on the way it moves versus the ideal, whether it is lame or off. This can be a very subjective difference. Any error in deciding this difference must be made to the benefit of the horse. Riders must ask themselves, would I rather miss a ride I could have finished, or miss the horse when I did. That may sound like a harsh statement, but it is the question that should be asked. The preceding comments apply to all criteria used to evaluate a horse, not just lameness.

We should not support the riding of lame horses, however we must acknowledge that not all horses move with the ideal gait, length of stride and impulsion.

Thank you for your consideration, if you have any opinions please let me know, if you want something I've written explained, please ask.

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