Lameness in Horses - Common Causes

When we think about our horses becoming lame, we tend to assume they are experiencing problems with their hooves. Our first thought should be to check their feet for nails, injury or infection. A survey of 944,000 horses in the United Kingdom in the latest British National Equine Health Survey (NEHS) indicated that lameness is three times more likely to be caused by conditions in the limb rather than feet problems.

What Are the Most Common Causes of Lameness?

Contrary to popular belief, lameness begins in the limb more often than the hoof*

In an extensive survey taken by owners of horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules, conditions that were directly responsible for equine lameness were chronicled in detail. Although the horse’s foot is a fundamental component in equine soundness, the survey made it fairly clear that limb lameness, as opposed to foot lameness, was the bigger issue.

Breaking down the results of the study, of the horses surveyed, 18% of equids were recorded as lame. 13.5% of a section of the survey were recorded as suffering from lameness associated with osteoarthritis, (Degenerative joint disease.) This was actually a significant decrease compared to rates of lameness reported in previous years: 13.9% in 2014 and 14.8% in 2013, respectively. However foot lameness was reported at 4.5%, a consistent figure throughout the study.

What Other Health Concerns Were Highlighted in the Study?

The six most notable equine diseases have remained consistent during the course of the study and were identified as follows:

1. Lameness
18%, with 13.5% having limb lameness such as osteoarthritis, not relating to the foot, compared to 14.8% in 2014, 14.8% in 2013, and 9.3% in 2012-10; 4.5% of these horses had foot lameness compared to 4.6% in 2014, 3.8% in 2013 and 4.5% in 2012-10.

2. Skin diseases
17.2% (sweet itch, mud fever, and external parasites,) compared to 18.3% in 2014, 14.6% in 2013, and 15.2% in 2012-10.

3. Back problems
7%, compared to 7.7% in 2014, 5% in 2013, and 3% in 2012-10.

4. Recurrent airway obstruction
6.7% (the most frequently recorded respiratory problem), compared to 6.9% in 2014, 4.2% in 2013, and 3.6% in 2012-10.

5. Laminitis
6.4%, compared to 7.1% in 2014, 4.4% in 2013, and 3.6% in 2012-10.

6. PPID (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or equine Cushing’s disease)
6.4% confirmed or suspected, compared to 5.6% in 2014, possibly reflecting increased surveillance through sponsored testing programs as opposed to true increases in prevalence from the pre-2014 surveys.

Another important observation was the continuing upward trend in the percentage of equine obesity. 23.2% of horses were reported as being overweight with a body condition score of 3.5 to 5 (on a 5-point scale,) continuing the upward trend seen in previous years (16.9% in 2014 and 7.8% in 2013.)

Will this Annual Study be Continued?

The results of this large survey are exceptionally useful. Although they cannot be validated, the identified trends are an excellent baseline for continued research into these issues. The next survey will explore links between obesity and the possible associated rise of obesity-related diseases such as equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. It will also introduce questions on gastric ulcers, another growing concern for the industry.

The survey gives participants the option to report on any health problems not covered in the survey questions, giving them a chance to shape future survey topics.

*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club