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Why is my performance horse lame?

Erin Malone, DVM, University of Minnesota

Did you know your horse's occupation makes it prone to particular types of injuries? Your veterinarian is always interested in what type of work your horse does as it can provide important clues. These clues need to be confirmed with consistent responses to palpation or manipulation, local blocks, radiographs and/or bone scans but help shortcut the examination process. The data below are from research performed in Texas.

Racing Quarter Horses (QH) generally injure forelimbs (89% of limb injuries) between the carpus (front knee) and the fetlock (ankle). The most common injury is the suspensory apparatus including the sesamoid bones as well as the suspensory ligaments. Racing QH tend to injure themselves more at the starting gate than do thoroughbreds, and have more carpal joint injuries than their thoroughbred counterparts.

Barrel racers tend to have more problems in the front limbs but do have significant risk of hock arthritis as well (14%). In 26% of the cases seen at Texas A&M, both forelimbs were affected. Foot pain is a significant problem (33%), followed by hock joint arthritis (14%), and suspensory desmitis (13%). Fluid in the fetlock joint and tendon sheath, while common, is not usually associated with lameness. In a review of cases seen in the field, suspensory desmitis, hock arthritis, and back issues were the main problems. Rather than presenting for obvious lameness, the majority present for refusal or failure to turn properly around the first barrel, failure to push off for the next barrel or for decreases in speed.

In team ropers seen at Texas A&M, the horses used for heading had more problems than those used for heeling. Forelimb (especially right fore) issues predominate, but 38% had more than one limb affected. Particular issues include caudal heel pain (navicular area), hock joint arthritis, tendon and ligament tears in the pastern area, and carpal arthritis. In a review of cases seen in the field, right forelimb suspensory issues and sacro-iliac problems were also common. Heeling horses were also likely to have foot problems but were more likely to have hock joint arthritis or fetlock joint problems, as well. The horses used for heading tended to present for evaluation because they quit pulling the steer after it had been roped, while the heeling horses were examined because they quit stopping after the hind feet of the steer had been roped. Often they seem to becoming "untrained" rather than showing obvious lameness.

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