Equine lameness can affect any horse at any time, so it's important to know how to detect it.
There are many different types of equine lameness, some chronic, some temporary, but all with the same result -- a horse that is not moving soundly and therefore not able to work at its full potential.
While some lamenesses will require a vet visit, it can be hard to decide if your horse's lameness is real or imagined, or severe enough to require a vet. That is when an at-home lameness evaluation can come into play.
Here are the steps to perform a lameness check yourself.
Consider the whole horse.
If you're unsure whether or not your horse has a problem, first consider non-specific signs. Has your horse's personality changed recently? What about his appetite or work ethic? All of these thing can point to pain, which may point to lameness.
Next, perform a full-body exam. Run your hands over your horse's body and down each of his legs. Watch his reaction; if he flinches, pulls away, pins his ears or flicks his skin, it could indicate a problem.
Do you feel any heat or swelling, especially on the legs? Be sure to compare against the opposite leg to be sure. Watch how your horse is standing -- is he pointing a foot or habitually shifting weight from one side to the other? These signs can be indicative of a problem as well.
Watch the horse move.
The most common and often the best way to check for lameness is while the horse is moving. Put the horse on a lunge line and send him in a circle in both directions. Most lameness is exaggerated by the circle, and best seen at the trot, so this should make even a slight lameness easier to spot.
You will want to watch your horse move in a straight line as well, from directly in front, directly behind, and from both sides. From the front, watch your horse's head. Is it bobbing normally at the walk, or does he jerk it up when a certain foot hits the ground? If so, that hoof or leg is the problem.
Make sure that his hooves are landing evenly, that he is flexing his knees equally on both sides, and that he isn't dragging a toe or stumbling. Watch from behind to make sure his legs are moving forward in a straight line, and that his hocks flex smoothly, without wobbling. From the sides, make sure he is not short-striding.
You may want to try this with and without tack; if the lameness shows up only when the horse is tacked up, the tack may be causing the pain.
Feel for under saddle cues.
You won't want to ride your horse if he is obviously and seriously lame, but with slight lameness, it's sometimes hard to decide whether or not your imagination is playing tricks on you, and that is when saddling up can really help.
At the trot, does your horse throw you out of the saddle evenly on both diagonals? If not, the less bouncy side is probably hurting. Is he reluctant to take one lead at the canter? That probably means the hind leg on that side is the problem. If he's reluctant to turn in one direction, one of the inside legs might be hurting.
Listen to the hoofbeats.
If you suspect there is a problem with your horse but can't see any problem in his movement, you may want to try listening for the problem. When a horse is moving on a hard surface, you should be able to hear slight differences in how hard his hooves are landing.
It usually helps to close your eyes while listening. Each footfall should sound equally loud and you should hear an even rhythm as the hooves strike the ground. If one hoof is louder than another or you hear a "skip" in the beats, there is definitely a problem.
Taken together, these tests will give you an accurate assessment of the location and level of your horse's pain, and help you make the best choices for his care.