Ask the Vet – Lameness

Answered by Terri Van Wambeke, DVM, Oregon City, Oregon

Question: How do you distinguish between: lameness, imbalance and unlevel?

Answer: Lameness – Definition from the AAEP website “Traditionally, lameness has been defined as any alteration of the horse’s gait. In addition, lameness can be manifest in such ways as a change in attitude or performance. These abnormalities can be caused by pain in the neck, withers, shoulders, back, loin, hips, legs or feet. Identifying the source of the problem is essential to proper treatment. “  Lameness refers to any unevenness or irregularity, a deviation from normal, of the gait of the horse. You can have a mechanical lameness that causes a gait deficit without pain (we would call this a gait irregularity). Gait irregularities can be normal for a particular horse, such as how a horse with a club foot will have different front leg strides. You can have an area of pain in the horse that, because of taking weight off that limb or compensation, causes a gait deficit.

Imbalance – We generally use this term when referring to the foot. A foot imbalance would be a deviation from the normal anatomy of the boney column of the lower leg secondary to changes in hoof growth, trimming or shoeing. These deviations can be visible with the naked eye or seen via radiographs. Sometimes you will hear people use this term if the horse has one foot that is different than the other. Occasionally we will refer to imbalance or unbalance when discussing a horse with neurologic signs that is losing its balance. This term is also used to describe young horses that are early in training and have not yet learned how to balance themselves while doing figures (circles, serpentines etc.) or while carrying a rider. Imbalance can also refer to a horse that is stronger going one direction than another while being ridden.

Unlevel –  I will use the term uneven in addition to unlevel here. This can refer to a lameness or a gait irregularity and is a descriptive term. Uneven or unlevel can mean a change in the regularity of the footfalls for a normal gait. For example, instead of an even 1—2—3–4 beat at the walk, you might have a shorter pause between two of the foot falls. For example 1-2–3–4. Uneven or unlevel can refer to the length or height of the stride. Where one leg might have a longer or more elevated arc than the opposite leg. These terms can also refer to the musculoskeletal system of the horse. From behind you might see, for example, unlevel/uneven hips, where one tuber coxae or tuber sacrale is higher than the other.

You can see how all of these terms can easily overlap in their usage. Imbalance and unlevel/unevenness can be the cause of, or the result of lameness. An imbalance can cause, or be the result of, unlevel/unevenness, and likewise. This is why you see these terms used simultaneously and interchangeable. Hope this helps answer your question.


Question: I have two ten-month-old Quarter horse colts that their hooves are splintering at the bottom. Could this this be from the wet conditions or something else? Should I apply a hoof conditioner? 

Answer: I think what you are describing are cracks in the hoof wall or chips along the bottom of the hoof. Small or superficial cracks will grow out over time and generally do not cause a problem. Your farrier can trim the feet on a regular basis (every 6-8 weeks) to help. If you are letting your horse’s feet get long without regular trimming, there will be more pressure on the long hoof wall causing cracks and chips to occur. Cracks left unattended and allowed to propagate can cause lameness, due to hoof wall instability, and in some cases infection. Cracks and chips in the hoof wall are more common in the winter, when there is increased moisture in the environment, making the hoof wall softer and weaker. You will want to rule out white line disease contributing the hoof issues you are having. Either your veterinarian or farrier should be able to help with this. White line disease would need to be treated if your farrier is unable to remove the diseased tissue during repeated trimming.

Because I do not have information about your horses housing and what type of weather you are dealing with, I am unable to recommend any particular remedy to your problem. If the feet are too wet, keeping the horses in a dry environment, like a shavings bedded stall, will help dry out and firm up the hoof wall. There are topical hoof products you can use to help horses feet maintain integrity in the winter. Examples are Keratex and Farriers Finish. In addition, make sure that you are providing adequate nutrition for quality hoof growth. In particular, amino acids, Copper, Zinc and Selenium are important for proper hoof growth. Most ration balancers and young horse complete feeds are designed to provide these nutrients. There are oral supplements available (such as Farriers Formula) if you feel your horses need targeted nutrition for hoof growth. You should speak to your farrier and your veterinarian to determine the best course of action for your horses. Good luck with your youngsters and I hope you can their feet looking better!