Recognizing Signs of Lameness and When to Call the Vet

Updated July 12, 2023
Equine veterinarian watching a horse trot during a lameness exam.

Are you not sure what to do if your horse suddenly comes up lame with no apparent injury? Do you always need to call the vet, or are there cases where it is okay to wait and see? What should you do in the meantime to keep your horse comfortable?

Understanding Lameness in Horses

A horse that is lame or has a lameness means he has a change in his normal gait caused by a pain somewhere in the limbs, a mechanical restriction in his movement, or a neurological issue.

Signs of lameness may be very subtle and can include:

  • Inflammation, pain or swelling
  • Non-weight bearing or shifting weight on a limb
  • Pointing or dragging a toe
  • Reluctance to move or stand
  • Head bobbing
  • Limping
  • Irregular gait or stride reach on one leg
  • Poor performance or reduced athletic ability

It is crucial for riders and caretakers to understand what their horse’s normal is in order to recognize when something is not right and take prompt action.

When to Call the Vet for a Lame Horse

equine veterinarian feeling a horse's lower leg and hoof during lameness exam.

Knowing when to call the vet for lameness in horses will depend on the unique situation. Making the correct call will depend on these factors:

  • You - Is it your first time owning a horse or are you an experienced racehorse trainer that has had a string in the shed-row most of your life?
  • Your horse - is he a young dressage horse that just started training a few months ago and has never been lame or is he a teenage trail horse that always starts out a bit stiff?
  • Your facility - are you at a boarding stable with a well-stocked medicine cabinet and plenty of hands on deck or do you keep your horse by yourself on your own property with just a few basics?
  • Your veterinarian - are they 30 minutes or 3 hours away?

As you can see, there’s not one answer that works for all these different situations. It comes down to how knowledgeable you are, how likely this is to be a new or serious lameness, how much help and supplies there are where your horse lives, and how available your veterinarian is.

The best thing to do is contact your veterinarian at the first sign of any problem in your horse, whether lameness or another issue. Explain the situation along with any recent changes in your horse’s care and let this trained professional help you decide if the situation warrants a visit right away or if it is something that observation and medical advice over the phone may resolve. You’ll probably end up spending less time and money in the long run — and have a better outcome – if you involve your vet right away and follow their specific instructions about what to do and what NOT to do.

Only administer medications and other treatments upon the specific recommendation of your vet, and only turnout and exercise if your vet thinks that’s wise. Above all, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your vet regarding your horse’s improvement, decline, or if he is unchanged.

Additional Horse Owner Resources

This article was originally an Ask the Vet question submitted via

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.