Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is Lame?

by Laura Crum

Not too long ago I read a blog post in which the blogger talked about how much she hated seeing people ride lame horses. My immediate reaction was yeah, that’s one of the reasons I quit competing—I got so tired of seeing all these poor half crippled horses being pushed to keep going and then dumped when they finally couldn’t go any more. Its awful. Right on.

Then I started to think about it. And I realized that just like many other things I’ve written about lately, lameness isn’t black and white either, much though we might like to think so.

What do you mean, you say, surely a horse is lame or he isn’t? Well, yes and no. Let me explain what I mean.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m gonna talk about rope horses, because that’s the sport I competed in most recently. But the same things hold true for the cutting horses and reined cowhorses I knew. I’d guess this holds true for horses in any competitive discipline, though I don’t know this for a fact. I’d even say it probably holds true when friends gather for a casual non-competitive trail ride.

Here’s what I mean. You go to a roping and watch the horses warm up. If you are good at spotting lameness (and I am), you can easily see that maybe ten per cent of the horses in the warm up pen are slightly lame at the trot. Some of them will warm up out of this. Now, if you took the rest of the horses out in the parking lot and trotted them in small circles on hard ground, as a vet would do in a soundness exam, the number of noticably lame horses would go up to about thirty per cent. Then if you added in every horse there who was on some sort of medical supplement to reduce symptoms of various lameness (bute or whatever) the percentage of technically lame horses would go up to at least fifty per cent.

At this point you realize that half the horses here are technically lame (feel free to dispute my percentages if you want to—I think they’re accurate). The horses who are sound are not (in general) the better horses. No, they’re the younger, greener horses. Most of the best horses in the ring are not truly sound. They’re “servicably sound”.

What does this really mean? Is it evil for these people to be using these not-really-sound horses? Here’s where you get into the gray area. Cause its not black and white at all. How do I know? Well, I was once one of these folks roping on a good horse who had a little bute in him to make him comfortable—because he was lame.

OK—now I’m part of the the evil empire. Before you jump to this conclusion, listen to the rest of the story.

I roped for several years on my good horse, Gunner. When Gunner was eleven years old, he developed bone spavin in his hocks, something which is relatively common in rope horses. This was long before the days of “Adequan”, “Legend” and various other similar products in use today. My vet advised me to keep the horse on one gram of bute a day and keep using him. I did so.

Gunner was sound on his gram of bute a day regime and I kept roping on him. But I had now joined the ranks of the folks who were roping on horses who were actually lame.

Why did I do this?

First off, because my vet said it wouldn’t do my horse any harm. We knew what was wrong with him. Bone spavin doesn’t get worse through use—often it improves. Second, because I didn’t want to retire Gunner and I didn’t have the sense Gunner was ready to be retired. Third because Gunner really seemed to do fine on this system. When Gunner was thirteen, he became increasingly reluctant to run, and I had my vet reevaluate him. This time X-rays showed that Gunner was developing navicular in a hind foot (unusual but true). My vet discussed my options with me, but I made the choice to retire Gunner from roping. I felt the horse was telling me he didn’t want to run hard any more. And unlike bone spavin, hard use does tend to make navicular disease get worse. I used Gunner as a riding horse for one more year—light riding only—and then retired him to the pasture. I still have Gunner today—he is thirty years old and trots sound, if stiffly, across the field where he lives. I’d say I took pretty good care of him, even though I did rope on him when he was technically lame.

On the other hand, I have been moved to tears and outright rage by the sight of a good old head horse I knew, mostly crippled at this point by navicular and ringbone, being loaded up with bute and used to run steer after steer until he bowed a tendon (and was then put down). There is a line (somewhere) between appropriate use of a horse who is not technically sound and abuse. The number of horses in many competitive events who are forced to keep going until they cripple up so badly they cannot even be retired (supposing their owners were willing to retire them—which is often debatable) is huge.

So, here’s my topic for today. Let’s discuss where that line lies. When is it Ok to keep a horse going, even when he isn’t technically sound, and when is it abusive? And you folks in other competitive disciplines, what’s your take on it? Are these other disciplines better in this respect than what I saw? Terri did a nice post on how well the eventers treat each other. Are they equally careful not to “abuse” lame horses by forcing them to work past the point where they should be retired from competition? And again, where is that point? I’m not saying I know. I think it may vary from horse to horse. And then, how can we judge others when we don’t know that individual horse? My team roping partner kept his great heel horse going for many years because the horse really didn't want to quit. I knew that horse; I knew how much he liked/wanted to go roping. I helped my partner retire the horse when the gelding literally couldn’t do it any more. We patched Pistol together so he had ten good retired years in the pasture before he got so painful he had to be put down. Should that horse have been retired earlier? It’s a tough call.

Again, I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. I’m saying that this is a subject worth discussing and thinking about. I’d welcome your insights.


OneDandyHorse said...

I might go on and on about what I think of this.

First, my black and white thought! If the horse is limping, therefore, he is in pain (otherwise he wouldn't be limping!) I think you should stop riding and treat the animal. IF, and only if, you are treating your horse to Bute, and I am not saying large amounts here... only small amounts, and it improves his condition to the point where he doesn't limp, then I think this is great!

If I was faced with a lame horse... I would begin to assess the situation. We have an OTT Standardbred mare that occasionnaly comes up lame after a trail ride. First thing I do when I notice that she is lame, is assess her foot, look for injury, heat, etc. I know she comes up lame, but I have to make sure it's not caused by something else. She is bow legged in the front which causes her to use all of the outside wall of her hooves and after it's gone, she becomes outchy on that foot. I put ice clay to make swelling go down and leave her alone for as long as it takes. She is not a horse that we use often, only once a month, maybe slightly more in the Summer.

She is 17 years old, a bit arthritic in her back hocks and bow legged in the front. She was originaly bought to be a trail horse for my honey, which doesn't ride very often. Since he is now getting a shine to riding, I have decided to put shoes on that horse. She will be much more comfortable and it might help with her legs. I have chosen Easywalker horse shoes to reduce concussion and provide flexibility, just like a barefoot hoof would. I have yet to put the shoes on, but I have a good feeling about them.

Thing is... if your horse is lame, limping or whatever, have a look at what the problem is, assess your options for treatment and apply them. My options with my Standard was to leave her time to recover or shoe her if I am going to use her more often. I don't plan on using her much more, but at least we wont be stopped if we want to go for a ride. I don't expect miracles, but I would like to have her exercise more often to help her arthritis and get her into shape. She was a rescue so she hasn't had a chance to put on good weight and muscle mass.

I've seen people riding lame horses... I mean REALLY lame, the horse could barely walk and they made her run around at a full galop. Makes me feel like my heart and lungs are tearing appart and I just feel like smacking anyone who does it really hard. Then again, I don't like starting fights and as a horse owner myself, I have enough concerns with my horses without bothering with other people's. I decided to turn a blind eye because I often couldn't sleep at night.

So to sum this up. Assess your lame horse, apply treatment, stop riding if that is what's needed. Don't go about like there is nothing wrong, you could possibly worsen the situation. Your horse is your work and play partner, take care of him as much as he takes care of you.

Shanster said...

Good post Laura!

My vet suggested hock injections after a lameness exam and x-rays showing the slightest thinning in an area of cartilidge on my mare.

The work we were doing and asking her was putting more and more stress on her. I didn't want to retire her at age 9 to the pasture.

Ultimately that is what it came down to - either stop the harder collected work and semi-retire her or go with the injections.

I chose to inject her and she seems quite comfortable and happy in her work now.

My old gelding HATED being retired in his 20s but with his ringbone, founder issues from Cushings... he hurt when worked and was sore most of the time. Given his age I retired him completely and he definately got grumpy and Eeyore like out of "work".

There is a lot of grey here... when horses are happily doing their work and you can keep them comfortable it seems some lameness issues are o.k. I don't know how well I'd pass a lameness exam at my next physical! We all have some aches and pains...

When it's physically damaging your horse in leaps and bounds and they are unhappy or in pain more often than not ... I think it's time to call it quits.

I think this is also a big issue in dog Agility ... I have a friend who competes very seriously and deals with this as well. Interesting...

Laura Crum said...

One Dandy Horse and Shanster--I think you guys are illustrating my point quite nicely. As responsible horse owners we are often faced with this question. When is a horse too lame to use? To some degree, it is certainly appropriate to medicate a horse (various ways) and keep using him. Shanster, the hock injections didn't help my Gunner much, thus we resorted to bute. But this was almost twenty years ago. I'm sure the injections are better now. And yet, this medicating and using them can really be overdone--as it was with the team roping head horse I mentioned in the post. And its so true that many horses really don't want to retire. Pistol sulked when we turned him out to pasture--and yet I still felt bad that my partner kept using the horse until he really had a lot of lameness issues--and we had to work very hard to make him comfortable in the pasture. Where do you draw the line? Its not clear at all. But again, worth thinking about.

lopinon4 said...

My horse is lame. He was diagnosed with navicular (whatever the heck that is, anyway...go ahead, research it!), and was ordered to wear the traditional shoes, and go on Bute to be ridden lightly. I was told, point blank, that this would only buy him some time. Navicular has no cure, and is a degenerative condition.

He was 8 years old. He was in fantastic shape. He packed his little girls around with a big equine grin on his face, and met me at the gate every day for his workout. I was his trainer; I had looked high and low for the perfect horse for this family. He arrived from Michigan green broke, but sweet as pie. I had spent a TON of time with him. When he was diagnosed, tears slid down my cheeks. His owner simply asked all the necessary questions. I felt like a heel.

Fast forward a few months. Owner is relocating. Doesn't want to drag a lame horse with her. "Is there a rescue we can take him to?"

Now, he's mine. He's a lesson horse, and puts in at least 20 hours of ride time per week, sometimes more in the summer months, not counting the horse shows. We've had our ups and downs for 3 years. Since I pulled his shoes permanently, last October, he never limps (from navicular), he doesn't wear shoes, and he's not on bute. He's still lame, I guess. But, I'm sure glad I didn't give up on him.

I'm proud to say I ride a lame horse.

Susan said...

I think what needs to be addressed is the reason for the lameness. Lots of times it's overuse. I am against 3 year old futurities for this reason. Young horses are worked way too hard and if they're good it can last most of their, oftentimes short, lives. It's people with their fragile egos who demand perfection that injures horses. That all consuming need to be the best overrides the horses health and they become disposable.

As for using drugs, I am against them in most cases. Lots of times rest will take care of the problem, along with proper hoof care and feed, etc. Remember that vets have a vested interest in you needing them, and they get kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies. I don't believe they have the animal's best interest in mind many times, once again it's in their best interest to sell you a drug. And remember drugs always have side effects.

Laura Crum said...

lopinon4--Thanks for a very touching comment which perfectly illustrates the point I am trying to make. And I'm glad your horse is going well. Barefoot sounds like it is totally working for him. Hurray!

Susan--I am against three year old futurities also--for the same reasons. I'm not so much against buting a horse if you know what's wrong with him. Its kind of like me taking Advil so I can hike without so many aches. I've given my twenty-one year old horse, Plumber, who is sound but getting stiff, a little bute before and after a practice roping last summer. It just seemed to make everything more fun for him. I probably wouldn't put a horse on a daily dose of bute any more, as I did Gunner those many years ago, it goes against my instincts, for much of the same reasons you raised. Nonetheless, thirty year old Gunner shows no ill effect from that regime, and we were able to enjoy three extra years as a happy working partnership. Certainly buting a horse to use him can be horribly abused, as in the head horse I referenced in my post. I think it all comes down to intention. If you mean to do right by a horse, then mostly you'll do him good, though you may make mistakes. The people who trashed that old rope horse I talked about in the post were rich folks who could have cared less about the horse--they just used him as a "slave" (common team roping term). If he could have done better than hobble, they probably would have hauled him to the sale to recoup at least kill price for him, rather than euthanizing him. The horse world is (sadly) full of people like this. So perhaps it boils down to intention. Though, having said that, good intentions aren't much help if they're coupled with vast ignorance. You know, the well intentioned backyard horseman who puts lots of trail horse miles on a very lame horse, never knowing it is lame.

The more I think about this topic, the more complicated it gets...

little K said...

Wow, what a good post. I love how everyone is explaining their expereinces with servicably sound horses because everyone encounters these horses at some point in their riding career. And I think Laura Crum's averaged percentages of lame horses would hold up at most hunter shows as well.

I don't really take to much issue with the many people riding servicably sound horses in our area. I congratulate everyone who retires their own horses when the time comes and keeps them and ensures them a happy end. That however is not the case for a lot of horse owners. Many owners have a horse for a specific purpose, ususally to ride and show on. I think the longer a horse can compete and be ridden the longer it is gaurenteed a good home. And if NSAIDS and injections are going to help keep a horse sound and pain free I'm okay with that if it means they are being taken care of. I guess that is a realist opinion.

I also have seen horses that break my heart because they are so lame and sour but still trying their heart out at a show despite their pain. I want to ban their riders from ever riding again. I guess the trick is recognizing when the horse is too lame to continue. And I think that will vary horse to horse and owner to owner.

I know an old show horse named axel. He's 23 and arthritic. He'd pass as lame in most books. The few attempts at retirement have ended in disaster; he runs the fence line until he's heaving, drops weight despite best efforts and is wracked with anxiety. So bute and hock injections are now used to keep him in light work. He still goes to a few shows each summer and a lot of kids owe him their first ribbon. He won't have it any other way.

little K said...

Also, Happy St. Patty's Day everyone!

Jami Davenport said...

I have given this a lot of thought myself over the past few years. Not just because Gailey has the "big leg" issue. Before the big leg, I was warned her suspensories in her hind legs were stretching. Eventually, her fetlocks would be on the ground. For now, she's comfortable, but I know that day is coming.

So how do I judge when enough is enough? First of all, Gailey is happy to see me everyday. She appears to enjoy being ridden: Her ears flick back and forth, her facial expression is pleasant. She's not flattening her ears or swishing her tail or kicking at my leg. When she reaches the point that she's obviously uncomfortable, that's when I retire her to pasture at my house.

Right now, she's on medication because of the big leg, but prior to that I did have her hocks injected once a year (for 2 years in a row). No other treatment was given to her on a regular basis to keep her sound. She's going to be 15 this May. Considering her size, I'm feeling pretty good that she's lasted this long with minor medications.

Joy said...

Oh man, this post hits so close to home, it's right on my noggin.

I think I need to buy a t-shirt that says "yes I know my horse is lame"

Willie broke his small pastern bone on June 27, 2006. LOOOOONNNG road to today.

Some days he is mechanically lame; that is, he starts off stiff and, yes limps and when he warms up he's sound. Some days he's sore. I don't ride him when he's sore. He does excellent in sand. No limp at all. Lopes and has a ball. He does excellent in mud as well. No limp.

Hard ground, I hand walk him on. I sometimes hand walk him half a trail ride until we get to sand and then we ride.

Some days he doesn't limp at all.

I always assess him, every day and sometimes several times a day. I have a great vet and a great shoer. My shoer uses a level and balances my horses feet to the rest of his body. Each time he gets his feet done, he improves. Sometimes ever so slightly, sometimes dramatically.

Willie went out to pasture in summer '08. I needed to know if he could live as a horse. And he did. He thrived and came off the trailer sound. I know that he HAS to move in order to stay sound. And I usually do pretty good by him. I have my off times when he doesn't get out for two days in a row. and then I feel horrible and I go back to the beginning and do turn out, hand walking etc.

My case is different. I do the best I can by Willie. And someday I will probably have to put him in a big pasture and leave him there. He won't care. He wouldn't even probably look back. So I hope that the pasture will be on property I own....

Joy said...

btw, I never bute willie. I don't want to mask how he's doing, ever. He is on nimble supreme and it helps a lot. But I don't give him any painkillers.

Anonymous said...

My horse is going to be 29 in May this year. I use her mainly for drill team events. I also will show her in speed events when shows are at her barn. We ride 3 times a week year round except in summer then it can be as much as 5 times a week.

At almost 29 she does have arthritis. Her's is mainly in her right shoulder. Trust me that there aren't many drug options for that.

If I were to pull her from her field and make her trot tight right circles on hard ground she would be lame. However if we do our stretching exercises before saddling up, and then start in nice big circles to the left she loosens up and is 100% sound. And she is still 100% sound in a tight right circle after she warms up.

My rule as always been listen to my horse. This includes getting off and checking her legs and her ability to correctly flex. She has a heart of gold and wants to work. She does now wear a full set of support boots just for extra protection since we do spin the occasional barrel even at her age.

I do not give bute because she might do something her body can't handle if she's not warmed up enough but she wouldn't know because she doesn't feel the warning messages ie pain.

This is how I manage my old lady. I bought when she was 26, knowing that any time she could have to be fully retired and I'm okay with that. I had been this horse's primary rider for 4 years already before I bought her. The consistent work with a lot of focus on making sure she is warmed up and loose seems to be doing wonders for her.

Buttercup's Mom

Laura Crum said...

Little K--Axel is an excellent example of how hard it can be to find the right choice for a lame horse. Pistol, who I referenced in the post, was a similar type. I had a friend who worked for a rodeo stock contractor. She took care of the bucking horses. Contrary to what you might suppose, some of the good bucking horses loved their job. This contractor retired the good ones to pasture when they got too old and sore, and my friend told me that some of them just pined, staring longingly over the fence and crying as the trucks rolled out to the next rodeo. She told me that they hauled a few of these old guys, even though they didn't use them any more, just to keep them happy. It is darn sure a complicated subject.

Joy, you've been writing in here a long time and I really know you do the best you can for Willie. I think your case is another great illustration of how complicated the parameters are. It can only be decided individual by individual and one nees to have good intentions toward the horse and some knowledge. That's as far as I've gotten. I have a horse with a similar (though a different injury) situation to Willie. He has a mechanical lameness that comes and goes due to this old injury. I used him for a couple of years and then retired him (though he was only ten or so, because I have other sound horses I can ride and keeping this horse going and managing his lameness issue so it worked for him just was more trouble (and expense) than it was worth to me. (Also this horse had an issue with cinchieness and would sometimes buck--hard--which made him problematic in a different way.) Danny is comfortably pasture sound and bucks, plays and gallops with his friends, but I swear, when I go out to check on the herd, that horse gives me a sad look. I'm sure he'd rather I did with him what you did with Willie.

Jami, I know how much effort you put into doing your best for Gailey, and again, your situation shows how difficult it can be to find the right line. As Buttercup's Mom said, listening to your horse is the real answer, and I think you do a great job of that.

Buttercup's Mom, you are a real inspiration. Sounds like your old girl is thriving. I am facing some of the same issues with my horse, Plumber, and the whole situation is complicated by the fact that I have a younger (sound) trail horse that needs my time. I am struggling to decide what is best for Plumber, and haven't come to any conclusions yet. Thanks for the input.

Anonymous said...

I am one of "those" people, I've owned and ridden a horse that was completely lame. Actually completely broken.
I got her for free when she was twenty years old from one of "those" lesson barns because they had recently resanded the arena and she could no longer walk in it.
There was no history on her anywhere, she had been pulled out of a meat pen by a dealer because of her sweet temperament. She had badly broken BOTH her kneecaps, and had numerous scars from electroshock therapy. As far as we could tell, she had been an expensive show horse at one time, purebred, well-trained, and thrown away when she hit menopause (the vet said her ovaries were completely inactive).
She couldn't bend her knee fully. She hobbled at the trot.
But you know, she was pleasant and willing, and she always seemed much better (more flexible, less swelling/pain) after a canter across the pasture. We never asked her to trot for longer than three minutes with a rider. We kept her manageable with the occasional dose of bute when it got bad, always rubbed her legs down with liniment after a ride, and kept her on joint supplements.
Knowing more about ethics and trying to be a more moral rider, would I do the same thing now? Probably not. But likely because I've gotten more hardhearted, and no longer have that idealism that spoke against euthanasia at all cost.

stilllearning said...

Another grey area...there are so many, aren't there?

Love this: I think I need to buy a t-shirt that says "yes I know my horse is lame"
Been there, with one of our OTTB who had restricted movement due to an injury, but loved to go out on hacks (and wasn't in any pain).
I know people meant well, pointing out that he limped, but...

He ended up with a great family as a companion/trail horse, and everyone seemed quite happy, limp and all.

Anonymous said...

As someone who's reasonably athletic myself, I know that I'd fall into the "serviceably sound" ranking due to arthritis, aches and pains. I also know the difference between acute pain that means "you've hurt yourself, STOP NOW" and chronic pain that might get better with the right kind of exercise.

I had to teach this to my horse when she was a five year old. She'd stumble, tweak something, and then be very self-protective and unsure about working on under saddle. I can pinpoint exactly when she realized that what I was asking her to do would help her work through an ache--ever after, she'd let me know that she hurt, I'd help her through some exercises, and she'd work it out. Once she developed the confidence in me that I knew the difference between acute and chronic pain, then she worked harder.

At age 10, she often comes out of her stall a little stiff and favoring one leg. She has hock injections twice a year. Not hard use, and she's not a candidate for hard use as a result. But stretching and keeping up with the Legend (though I'm talking to the vet about Adequan as an alternative) keeps her sound, as well as liniment post-ride.

Her attitude is the main determinant as to what we do. She wants to work and work hard. She has the best work ethic of any horse I've ever owned or ridden. I do my best to preserve this attitude, which means being sensitive to where she is with her aches and pains.

And that's the key to it. If the horse is limping slightly but wants to do something, then it's well worth the effort to see if it works out. Athletic horses will strain or injure something even in turnout play. It's worth doing stretching and bending exercises to see if you can help it. But if an otherwise eager or athletic horse gets even more gimpy, or starts objecting (or if you've got heat in a limb), then you stop. That's my particular criteria for those mild lamenesses (obvious, big favoring, swellings, can't touch hoof to ground are different stories entirely).

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--that is a really good description of "listening to your horse", which I think we've all agreed is key to figuring out how to best manage the horse who isn't entirely sound.

stillearning--I am finding that the more I explore my thoughts about the horse world the more paradoxes I find (and in the rest of the world too). Nothing is simple. Truth seems to reside in paradox. It can be a terrible thing to ride a lame horse and it can be a good thing. Just look at the comments on this post--a perfect illustration.

And Anon, that is really an example of what I mean. Where do you draw the line?

Leona said...

I'm glad I found this post. I have my own experience with my TB youngster Tax. I got him at 2 1/2 he has a 'blemish' on his hock, and was sold as sound (was told he was 3 1/2 and I rode him a bit, soon as I found out his real age straight too pasture for a bit till he was older) When he was actually 3 I started riding him lightly again. Couple of hacks a week. I noticed his trot was very bouncy and one day he pulled up limping. No one else could see it but I could feel it. Got X-rayed, was Scar tissue and he had "mechanical lameness" There was no treatment other than bute to stop him appearing lame. He wasn't in pain had nerve blocks done to his hock and leg and nothing, didn't do his head bobbing, just his stride in trot was shorter than the rest. Think they said something about being a 1/10th lame on his bad leg. Canter was fine, and so was his gallop. So I gave him time off work and he looked miserable, I didn't want to put a 3 year old on bute. He loved playing in the field, rearing, bucking, running, all sorts. So one day I though, ill try him loosen him up first and after 10 minute of gentle excerise his trot seemed more free. Still bouncy, but he never limped (except that one time which I mentioned above) but always looked stiff on the lunge. Straight he was fine, so started with larger circles and he improved. Hes not on any medication now or suppliments, he's 4 and a bit now and he will always be slightly stiff all I use him for his a happy hacker and he loves it. Head high, ears forward and always comes running to me from the field? Many people say it's wrong I do it. He prances like an arab with tail in the air and everything. So I'm doing the right thing I would say and till a vet tells me to stop riding him, I wont or the day he starts limping again - if he does.