Battling equine lameness

UF equine lameness experts help save a horse’s life

By Allyson Fox

First Cadet

Terri Rines trained with her horse, First Cadet, five days a week in Melbourne, Fla. And five days a week, First Cadet jumped over cavallettis, which are training poles, without a problem.

But one day in January, First Cadet stumbled over a cavalletti and injured her right leg.

Progressively, her leg got worse. First Cadet had a case of lameness, which is when a horse has an abnormality in its gait most often caused by pain, said Alison Morton, D.V.M., a clinical associate professor of large animal surgery at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.

A local veterinarian gave First Cadet an injection, but she had a reaction that caused her leg to swell. So her veterinarian recommended that Rines bring First Cadet to UF. Rines drove three hours to see Morton and to take advantage of the college’s advanced lameness diagnostic services.

UF’s advanced diagnostic services were exactly what First Cadet needed. Most veterinarians can perform X-rays and ultrasounds, but UF has additional equipment that helps identify the affected area, Morton said.

Diagnosis starts with talking to the owner about a horse’s history and a physical and lameness exam that includes looking for swelling or other abnormalities, and then watching the horse walk and trot, Morton added.

A new wireless gait analysis system may help pinpoint the problem. Morton places sensors on the horse that send signals to the computer, which help determine where the horse is lame. UF’s MRI and CT units also provide detailed images, which can help further diagnose the problem.

After First Cadet had an MRI to look at her injured ligament, Morton decided the horse would need surgery, which she had in April.

“They handled her (First Cadet) really well,” Rines said. “I really felt like she was in good hands.”

First Cadet is not the lone horse with this problem.

“Lameness is the most common reason a horse owner will seek veterinary attention,” Morton said.

The severity of the diagnosis determines the treatment, Morton said.

Some horses simply need rest and a rehabilitation program, but others may additional therapy or surgery.

And today, integrating more holistic therapy, like massage,  is sometimes recommended with treatment.

In First Cadet’s case, Morton surgically removed part of the ligament. Then First Cadet went to the KESMARC rehabilitation facility for 60 days.

Here, she began swimming,walking and had therapy, said Lee Byrne, a manager at KESMARC.

“The correct diagnosis is everything to getting a good result,” Byrne said. “Most of the horses we get in from them (UF) are on the right track.”

And horse lameness is a serious problem. As soon as owners suspect it, they should contact their veterinarian. If left untreated the problem may get worse, , Morton said.

“For a few horses it can be life-threatening,” Morton said. “These horses can become lame to the point that they’re suffering.”

First Cadet returned for a follow-up at KESMARC in October and received a good prognosis, Byrne said. She was given the clear to start jogging and build up time gradually. An ultrasound showed no adhesions that would cause problems.

“We are thrilled with the result and hope to see Cadie back in the dressage ring in the not too distant future,” Byrne said.

“It was worth the trip (to UF) to make sure I did the best I could for her,” Rines said.

For another story on a horse treated at the UF Large Animal Hospital and KESMARC, click here.