Lameness - Pt. 1

Lameness, Part I

How to Determine if a Runner is Lame, and Where

Mairen leads Firefly into the riding ring, looks around a little nervously, lays the longe line she is carrying on the ground nearby, and begins. "When a runner is lame we need to be able to identify the location of the injury. This may not be as easy as it seems; the runner rarely will hold up the injured leg the way that a dog does, so you must watch the runner's whole body as it moves. The trot is a very even and balanced gait and is the best for evaluating lameness."

Leading Firefly out in front of the assembled Herders, she continues more confidently. "Before beginning your evaluation of the runner's trot, you should be sure that the hooves are clean and free of stones." She picks up a front hoof to demonstrate and cleans out the sole and around the frog, carefully scraping all the dirt from the outside of the hoof. "Also look closely for cracks in the hoof wall or dark spots on the sole of the hoof." She pauses to indicate these areas. Grinning, she says, "I am sure that you all remember how to properly clean the hooves from Master Matison's lecture." Carefully setting the hoof down, she demonstrates the next step. Feeling the legs carefully from the coronary band around the top of the hoof up to the shoulder, Mairen demonstrates how to use gentle pressure to elicit any obvious pain. "Next you need to check for any cuts or obvious joint injuries. Run your hand down all four legs, checking for heat and swelling, particularly of the joints. Use the legs on the opposite side as a comparison if you feel anything that concerns you. Be sure to check the legs again for heat and swelling following the trotting. Sometimes the exercise will accentuate the lameness."

"I am sure that we have all heard that a runner will bob its head when it limps, but it is important to know if the head is bobbing up or down. When a front limb is lame the head will lift up as the front foot begins to bear weight. With a rear lameness the head will drop down as the hind foot bears weight. The runner is attempting to decrease some of the weight resting on the injured leg by bobbing his head this way." Taking Firefly's lead up again she says, "Now I am going to trot Firefly along here for you and I want you to concentrate on his head movements and how they relate to his gait; I won't tell you until after which leg is lame. One helpful hint for you though… if you can trot the runner in front of something with horizontal lines, like a fence, you can use the fence planks as a reference for how much the head is bobbing." Clicking her tongue at the runner trots him off and makes two passes in front of the assembled herders. Firefly trots off willingly enough but his head drops noticeably lower when he steps on his right hind. Stopping again and catching her breath, Mairen says, "Now I hope you all caught that. He is a bit lame on the right hind leg; this is a pretty noticeable lameness - you won't always see such a definite head bob, so I want to show you a few other ways to identify a lameness."

"You should always watch the runner trot from the front and back as well as both sides. When a lame rear limb bears weight the hip on the same side as the lameness will drop lower than the hip on the other side does when that hoof bears weight." Smiling, she explains further demonstrating, by limping a few steps. "This is very similar to when you have a stone in your shoe; you drop that hip as you try to bear your weight, returning your full weight to the other leg as quickly as possible." Pausing to pat the runner before continuing, she says, "Always watch the overall rhythm of the runner's gait, and compare the movement of the opposite legs. This will help you identify any joint stiffness. Often times trotting the runner in a circle will exaggerate a lameness on one side or the other; if you plan to do this be sure to trot them in a circle to the right and to the left." Now trading the lead rope on Firefly's halter for the longe line, she says, "I want you to watch Firefly again as I longe him, both to the right and the left. We know now that he is lame on the right hind but we need to be sure that is the only leg that is lame and not just the worst." Leading Firefly out to the center of the riding ring, she clicks to him and waves the end of the line behind his rump, sending him trotting off in a circle to the left. She calls out to the others, "You'll notice that he doesn't look lame at all going this direction; the majority of his weight is on the inside legs when he trots in a circle. Now watch closely as we reverse the direction." Giving a tug on the line and calling out a soft ho to the runner, she walks out and turns him around before sending him off to circle to the right. Laying his ears back and tossing his head, Firefly starts out then slows, only to be urged on again by the end of the line; he settles into an obviously lame trot, the inside hip dropping markedly and the head bobbing very low. This time the runner stops immediately at the first gentle tug on the line, standing with his right hind toe pointed at the ground and the weight resting on the left hind. Patting the geldings neck gratefully and murmuring an apology to him before continuing, Mairen says, "I hope you all noticed how reluctant he was to trot to the right. The right hind is obviously painful and circling in that manner is very difficult, but it is sometimes the only way to verify a lameness."

Then indicating Firefly's present stance she says, "Occasionally the runner will make it easy for you by standing with the injured leg resting and the toe of the hoof pointing at the ground, not bearing weight. This, however, is not very reliable as a runner will often stand like this when there is nothing wrong; but it is worth noting if it is present in conjunction with the other signs."

Then with smile Mairen says, "Now since we need to repeat the examination of his hooves and legs I would like each of you to come up and try it. I think you will be able to identify the cause of the lameness pretty accurately now. Once you have all had a chance to examine him we are finished, thank you for being so attentive." Mairen finishes and turns her attention to the runner with a steadying word or two as the first volunteer begins.

This lesson will be continued in Part Two .

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