How to Tell if A Horse is Lame on A Front or Back Leg

vet examines tifle
How your horse moves will tell you if a front or back leg is injured or sore. Image: Alan Crowhurst - Getty Images

Your horse appears lame and is limping. Perhaps the signs can be subtle. Sometimes there is no obvious swelling, you can't feel a warm area, there are no cuts or other visible injuries so you're not sure what leg to start looking for a problem on. But you need to determine which leg to treat or hoof to examine for a problem. Here is how to tell whether your horse is lame on a front or back leg.​

How To Tell If Your Horse is Sore in A Foreleg or Hind Leg

First of all, watch the horse as it is standing still. If it is lame, and obviously resting and avoids placing weight on one leg, that will probably be the injured leg. It might stand with hoof tipped up on the toe, or it might stand pointing the hoof forward of the normal standing position. If the horse is standing with one hoof is forward, this is called pointing.   This can indicate a hoof problem, or a lameness problem further up the leg. Sometimes a horse will try to point with both hooves. This means there is a problem with both. Foundered horses or those with navicular will also point, and they may point more than one hoof at a time and look uncomfortable overall.

Identifying Forequarter Lameness

Watch the horse as it is ridden on a loose rein, or trotted in hand in a straight line on a loose lead rope over firm, level ground. If the horse is lame on a front leg, the horse will dip its nose down. If the horse pops its head upwards slightly, the lameness is in the hindquarters or legs. If a horse is obviously lame on both front or rear legs, there will be no head bob. Their strides will be choppy and short.

When the horse is lame in the front you can determine which leg is lame by watching carefully and noticing when his head is up, and which leg has hit the ground at that moment. He will dip his head down as the sound leg hits the ground and lift his head as the sore hoof or leg contacts the ground.

Identifying Hindquarter Lameness

If the lameness is in the rear, he'll drop his hip slightly on the side that is lame. Horses with hindquarter stiffness on both sides will have stilted gaits, and not bob their head. The head bob is the horse is attempting to take the weight off of its leg.

When looking for the site of injury, start with the hooves and work your way up. Stone bruising, tender soles after a trim and injury or strain anywhere up the leg can cause a horse to be lame. Navicular, punctures or even an advanced case of thrush in the hooves can cause a horse to be lame. Further up the leg, tendon or ligament strain can cause slight lameness. Bone chips in the joints, arthritis and many other problems can cause slight lameness.

Causes of Lameness

On very close inspection, you might notice stone bruising on the sole of the hoof, slight puffiness somewhere on the leg that indicates swelling, or sensitive areas that make the horse wince when palpitated. Signs of injury can include swelling, heat and a visible mark where the horse might have injured itself. Lameness can be caused by any type of injury while working or in the pasture or stall. Or, hoof problems can occur from a poor diet, poor farrier care or microbial infections such as thrush and grease heel.