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Lameness in Livestock - Part 2:Lameness in horses, ponies and donkeys

ponyYou know how uncomfortable it is when you have a stone in your shoe, or an infected toe-nail?  Then you can imagine how painful it is for your horse or pony when he has an injured or infected foot. 

If fact, injuries to the foot of the horse are particularly painful.  This is because horses walk on one toe on each foot, and each toe is encased in a horny shell.  When an injury to the foot becomes inflamed and swollen, it is compressed within the horn.  Very painful! 

So you should always be on the lookout for signs of pain in the foot so that you can deal with it right away.  And the main sign of pain or discomfort in the foot or leg is of course an uneven gait - lameness.

We will deal in this article with some of the main causes of lameness in horses and ponies – stone bruises, trauma, laminitis and arthritis.   

Stone bruises

One of the most common causes of lameness in horses is a stone bruise. 

  • If you suspect a stone cutting into the bruise or abscess to drain it through the sole of the foot.
  • This is not a job for the inexperienced.
  • The foot may requirebruise, call your farrier or vet early. 
  • With the right treatment, the bruise may heal uneventfully in a week or so.
  • Without treatment, a bruise under the horny sole will often become infected, causing a very painful abscess that will enlarge and eventually burst out over the top of the hoof. 
  • Foot abscess is a very painful condition that takes months to heal.
  • Treatment involves carefully  bandaging to keep it clean.
  • The animal may require antibiotics from your vet.
  • There are very many other types of traumatic injury that can cause lameness in riding horses and ponies.
  • Cuts and scrapes are common.  They may cause a puffy swelling around the injury, and they often become infected.
  • It is usually best to clean the wound right away by very gentle hosing with cold water, then applying mild dilute antiseptic such as povidone iodine or even better a specific horse wound ointment that you can buy from your vet.
  • The earlier treatment is given the better.
  • You must consult your vet for a significant wound, i.e. for a wound that is gaping, or bleeding or that has debris embedded in it.
  • As part of the treatment, your vet may decide to stitch the wound, or to apply a pressure bandage to prevent ‘proud flesh’ developing, or to give antibiotic injections - or all three.
  • The horse may require tetanus antitoxin if it has not been vaccinated against tetanus.
  • Traumatic injury may not break the skin, but it can still cause lameness, for example strained tendons and sore shins. 
  • In many injuries of this type, rest is an important part of the treatment, and it may take weeks for the injuries to repair fully.
  • You will have to consult your vet for an accurate diagnosis and the best treatment.
Laminitis or founder
  • In ponies and donkeys particularly if they are overweight, laminitis (founder) is a very common cause of pain in the front feet. 
  • This is a very difficult problem to deal with. 
  • Early cases often improve if the animal is put on a diet (taken off grass and offered only a little hay and water). 
  • Regular gentle exercise and pain-killers from your vet will help too. 
  • If laminitis is left untreated, the hooves and feet become distorted.
  • Treatment involves expert trimming at regular intervals for a long period of time. 
  • Arthritis is a common cause of lameness, especially in older horses and ponies, but sometimes also in young horses after joint injury.
  • The affected joint is usually enlarged.
  • Treatment aims to control the pain and encourage lubrication of the joint.
  • In many cases especially long-standing cases, the condition is incurable. 
  • Pain-killers like ‘bute’ can help relieve the pain but it won’t cure the arthritis.
  • There are many arthritis remedies available to help the arthritic horse, both conventional and herbal. 
  • Not all are effective, and if the pain and loss of mobility persists, you must talk to your vet. 
  • The stiff horse will not be able to get up and down easily and it may not even be able to get around to graze effectively.  It will be uncomfortable, maybe in pain and it will probably lose body condition. 
  • You should consider euthanasia in your old horse if he has long-standing arthritis that won’t respond to treatment.  It may be the kindest option for him at the end of a useful life.   
Other causes of lameness
  • Over-trimming of horn makes the soles of the feet very tender, so beware of over-enthusiastic trimming. 
  • Over-exercising unshod horses and ponies on hard ground will also wear the horn and soles, making the feet tender.
  • If the feet are tender, allow the horn time to grow before asking the animal to exercise on uneven or hard surfaces.  This may take weeks.
To prevent foot problems in horses, ponies and donkeys
  • Check your horses’ feet regularly, and clean them out at least once a week to check the soles.
  • The feet of horses, ponies and donkeys should be trimmed regularly preferably by a farrier.  This will prevent splitting and breaking off of overgrown horn. 
  • Don’t let your pony or donkey get overweight.  Keep them in trim condition.  Make sure they get regular light exercise.

Not all lameness is caused by pain in the foot or leg.  There are a few other problems like muscle stiffness and back injuries that can cause shortening of the stride and an uneven gait.

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