What Does a Lame Horse Feel Like?

10 sensations and sounds that something’s not quite right

Have you ever been riding and suddenly gotten that sinking feeling that, well, one of your horse’s legs is sinking with every step? It’s a kind of nondescript sensation that says, “Something’s not right.” It might be that clop-clop-clop-CLOP. Or an ever-so-slightly higher tension in the reins every second step. Maybe it’s how you keep having to shift the saddle upright. Or, maybe it’s something deeper, something in your gut, telling you something’s simply off.

Whatever the sensation, it’s about to make you utter that dreaded four-letter word to the rider nearby: “Does my horse look lame?”

To help you better understand what kinds of clues to feel, watch, and listen for when you’re riding, we’ve gotten help from veterinarians well-versed in equine biomechanics. They take the non out of nondescript when describing these 10 under-saddle lameness signs. Here we’ll show you how to fine-tune your riding senses— particularly your eyes, ears, seat, hand, and balance—to recognize lameness when you’re on your horse. That way you can seek diagnosis and treatment, which will help you get back in that saddle as soon as possible.

What Does a Lame Horse Feel Like?

1. Your horse bobs his head more on one footstep than the other.

The brightest red flag that your mount is lame—short of him actually hopping or becoming three-legged—is the uneven head bob. When the head drops lower during one step than another, you can be sure there’s a lame limb somewhere. Usually that leg is in the front, and it will actually be the one opposite to the foot he’s stepping on when his head bobs.

If you don’t see it in the head from where you’re sitting, you might notice it in the shoulder, says Laura Werner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, an associate at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, in Lexington, Kentucky. “They’ll seem shorter-strided or heavier in one shoulder than the other,” she says.

Your riding style might influence that bob and short stride, however, says Marie Rhodin, PhD, associate professor in equine clinical biomechanics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala. “Riding in a short rein can mask these signs” in a mildly lame horse, she says. “This actually happens fairly frequently with experienced riders who don’t even realize they’re doing it.”

When riding the horse forward, with short reins, and in a frame is the rider inadvertently balances the horse’s movement with the aids and keeps his head fairly steady.

But with a sensitive hand, riders can pick up on it, says Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVSMR, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England. “I would ask them, ‘Have you got an even contact in each rein?’ If they haven’t, there’s probably a reason for that, and it probably reflects underlying pain,” she says.

If you aren’t entirely sure your horse’s head is bobbing, try dropping the reins and putting him on a 10- to 20-meter circle, our sources say. Circling should exacerbate the symptoms. And the loose reins will allow the horse the freedom to bob his head and shorten his stride to express his pain.

2. Your horse is making dragging or uneven hoofbeat sounds.

A hard, flat surface such as a road is particularly useful for amplifying hoof-fall noises—even better if you ride next to a wall that bounces sounds back up to your ears.

“You’ll hear the horse hitting more heavily on one foot (the healthy one) than the other, especially if it’s front-limb lameness,” Werner says. “If it’s hind-limb lameness, you’re more likely to hear a dragging sound.”

You don’t just hear dragging; you might also notice its effects. “You might see that one back toe is worn,” she says. “Or one back leg might be more covered in dust or mud than the other.”

Like head-bobbing, however, these signs probably won’t appear with subtle forms of lameness, Dyson says.

What Does a Lame Horse Feel Like?

3. Your horse has issues turning one direction.

Changing direction can be a real turning point for detecting lameness, and not just during veterinary lameness exams. Even from the saddle, you can pick up signs of lameness when you notice your horse has difficulty making turns or performing lateral movements.

“Turning, and especially circling, is going to exacerbate the expression of lameness in most cases,” Rhodin says.

The signs can be obvious: marked asymmetric movement, head-bobbing, and a shortened stride when turning. Or it could be quite subtle, with very light resistance to turning. “You might just feel a certain unevenness in a step, when turning a corner or turning onto the center line (as in dressage), but otherwise the horse feels normal,” Dyson says.

Reining horses might be challenging to spin in one direction or the other. Barrel horses might have difficulty rounding barrels in a single direction. And dressage horses might suddenly have more difficulty with half-pass to the right or the left, she says, referring to the lateral movement in which the horse moves forward and sideways simultaneously, bent in the direction of travel.

Before you assume it’s just a “sidedness” problem, consider the more likely possibility that it’s lameness. “In a well-trained horse, you should not notice much of a difference from one side to another,” Dyson says. “In an untrained horse, you might. But significant differences from right to left normally signify an underlying problem.”

Riding the horse in different-diameter circles could reveal more obvious signs of lameness.

“You might have a horse do well in a 20-meter circle, but when you ask him to do a 10-meter circle, he changes rhythm or changes his outline, or he starts to toe-drag or to lean in,” Dyson says. “There’s something about the 10-meter circle—not the 12-meter but truly the 10-meter—that horses seem to find more difficult.”

How the rising trot feels on a circle can be especially telling. A lame hind limb might feel like a “flat tire,” says Werner. And the posting motion can feel generally uncomfortable in a particular direction.

“A good test is trotting in a circle and changing diagonals every five steps,” Dyson says. “Does the horse feel different on one diagonal compared to another? A normal horse should feel similar.”

What Does a Lame Horse Feel Like?

4. Your horse feels choppy or rigid.

A lame horse shortens his stride to reduce the amount of time he’s putting weight on a sore limb. “The horse might feel choppier than he used to and less free-moving,” Dyson says. This is particularly true when both forelimbs are lame because neither limb is comfortable under the weight.

Sometimes horses’ choppiness translates into missteps and stumbles, adds Werner. Stumbling in front or behind consistently could indicate lameness, with the heel area a likely cause, she says.

Lameness doesn’t just affect the legs, though. It can influence the entire musculoskeletal system’s fluidity. “Horses can adapt to lameness by reducing the range of motion of the back, so the rider feels reduced movement of the horse’s back, especially behind the saddle,” Dyson says. “The sitting trot might feel more jarring because the horse has stiffened its back, and you’re getting bounced up and down more.”

And while it’s usually impossible to see lameness at the canter, riders can sometimes feel it. “They feel crooked and stiff,” she says. “It’s like your pelvis is getting moved in an abnormal way, sort of like you’re being jumbled around in a washing machine.” Certain horses even react to the pain by bucking.

Horses also can stiffen their head and neck positions, which Dyson says is more apparent in Western horses that usually carry their heads low.

Some riders blame this choppiness and stiffness on breeding, but that’s a dangerous assumption, says Dyson. “There is too much acceptance of just, ‘This is how the horse has always been.’ Or, ‘This horse isn’t bred to do this,’ ” she says. “But actually many of these horses are lame horses.”

5. Your horse is running low on power or changes speeds spontaneously.

A horse trying to evade pain sometimes adjusts his speed to one that’s more comfortable, says Dyson. You might suddenly find your horse deciding to go faster than usual or slow down without being asked. In more subtle cases of hind-limb lameness, you might just feel a loss of power.

“The hind limbs are the pushing limbs, the ‘engine,’ so to speak,” she says. “So a horse that used to feel powerful might now feel less powerful. Or he might have easily gone from slow canter to fast canter and now he’s more reluctant.”

The opposite can also be true, depending on what movements help relieve the horse’s pain. “He might accelerate, so you get the impression he’s trying to rush all the time,” Dyson says.

Transitions can help expose these subtle lamenesses. “If a horse used to have smooth transitions from trot to walk but now doesn’t want to step under behind, or feels like he’s trailing behind, that’s abnormal,” she says. “That’s also true if he jumps into trot from the walk.”

What Does a Lame Horse Feel Like?

6. The saddle keeps slipping.

If you’re getting into a habit of always having to shift your saddle to center it during a ride, your horse might be lame. “It feels like the saddle is slipping off to one side or the other,” Werner says.

That’s because hind-limb lameness can make the horse feel like he’s “rocking unevenly behind the saddle,” Dyson says. “You’ll get the impression that you and the saddle are being pushed to one side, especially in trot.”

Dyson’s group has carried out extensive research on the connection between saddle slip and subtle hind-limb lameness. Their work has revealed that providing pain relief in a suspected lame hind limb results in a straight saddle throughout the ride—proof that lameness is the cause.

7. Your horse always lands on the same lead after a jump.

Observant riders might be able to pick up a subtle lameness by noting side preferences when jumping. “You might find the horse consistently lands on one lead, even if you’ve asked for the other lead,” Werner says. “Or he might always land with the same foot in front of the other to relieve the painful leg.”

If it’s a hind-limb issue, he might “drift one way or another over the fence,” she adds, as that can relieve pressure on one side.

And a horse that used to easily make his distances in fence combinations might suddenly have more difficulty doing so, says Dyson.

8. Your horse is strangely asymmetrical (or too symmetrical) trotting a circle.

We know a lame horse often looks lamer when trotting in a circle. But what a rider feels can vary considerably, depending on the direction, the way he or she rides the trot, the location of the lame limb(s), and the kind of lameness. In fact, in some combinations of those variables, a lame horse can look even more symmetrical than a sound horse, says Rhodin, based on work she did with PhD student Emma Persson-Sjodin.

“When you’re posting a trot, you’re loading one hind limb in the sit phase, causing asymmetry,” she says. “When you’re trotting in a circle, the forces of the circle also cause the horse asymmetry. And so does lameness. So you can either exacerbate that lameness or cancel it out completely.”

Her biomechanics team induced temporary subtle lameness in sound study horses. They analyzed the effect of trotting on a circle on movement asymmetry. The circle induced asymmetry in sound horses and increased or decreased the degree of lameness, depending on whether the lame limb was to the inside or outside of the circle. Then they studied the effect of different riders’ seats in various combinations of directions, circles, and lameness types.

One of the things they noted was a significant difference in the way horses move, depending on whether they have “impact” (foot landing) or “push-off” (foot leaving the ground) pain.

If the rider sits when the sound limb hits the ground in impact hind-limb lameness, the asymmetry gets worse. That asymmetry is further exacerbated if the lame limb is on the inside of the circle. The opposite might be true if the horse has push-off pain, Rhodin says.

Meanwhile, if the rider is sitting when the impact-lame hind limb hits the ground, the asymmetry evens out. If the lame limb is on the outside of the circle and the rider posts the trot on the incorrect diagonal, the asymmetry might cancel out completely. In extreme cases the horse could become asymmetrical in the opposite direction.

“Lame horses can actually feel very even, depending on the various combinations of forces under rider and in a circle,” Rhodin says. “It’s important to be aware of the different factors involved. Otherwise, it’s too easy to just say, ‘Oh look, he’s fine after all!’ ”

Dyson adds that irrespective of which rein you are on, if you switch diagonals the horse should feel the same. “If it does not feel the same or if the horse preferentially throws you on to one diagonal, that is not normal,” she says.

9. Your horse feels weird to a different rider.

The bond we build with our horses can mean we don’t always pick up on subtle changes. That’s why putting another rider on your horse could reveal lameness issues you wouldn’t have noticed.

“Many lamenesses are insidious in onset and, if you’re a one-horse rider, these things can creep up so slowly, you won’t even be aware of them,” Dyson says.

Having a higher-level rider get on your horse can help, Werner says. “No offense—I’m an amateur rider, too,” she says. “But we’re not always as skilled as our trainers. And their better balance and greater experience can mean they feel things on our own horses that we don’t.”

10. Your horse just feels “off.”

Regardless of your skill level, if you know your horse well, you might pick up on clues he’s lame just because he feels different. That’s particularly true if the onset of lameness, even subtle, is sudden.

“Good riders are in tune with their horses,” Werner says. “They notice when there’s an unusual change from one day to the next.”

And some people just have a knack for picking up those changes, says Dyson. “There are some less talented riders who actually have a better feel for changes in gait than more talented riders,” she says. “Some people are intuitively better at feeling than others.”

If you’re one of the many riders not blessed with that natural skill, though, rest assured. It can be taught “to an extent,” says Dyson.

“I’ve had the privilege of riding some very good horses and some very sound horses,” she says, “and generally when I get on a horse can almost immediately feel if it’s lame or not.”

She passes on that experience by riding a horse, having another rider ride the horse, then having a discussion about what they’ve felt. “With guidance, people can become much more aware of these subtle signs in the saddle,” she says.

Take-Home Message

If you’re picking up lameness cues from the saddle, good for you for being an observant rider. Not all riders can, and even fewer can pick up on the subtler signs. But regardless of whether you’re a natural at it, you can learn to look for the red flags indicating lameness while riding. And the sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can get your horse the help he needs to be sound and pain-free.