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Recognising Equine Lameness by Sarah Holland-Villa Sync Technician

Monday, March 11, 2019  ‹ Back To Latest News List

Here's the latest blog from our West Sussex based Technician Sarah Holland-Villa on recognising equine lameness.

Sarah is a BHS Senior Coach and Equinology Equine Body Worker. She has ridden and been around horses since a child and her childhood obsession with horses has never left her.  She has been a riding coach for thirty years and also helped run her family livery yard. In her twenties she competed in show jumping and eventing but now concentrates on dressage. She has ridden to PSG level and would love to ride at GP level. Sarah is very aware of how easily horses are injured and how many horses show signs of pain and are carrying a chronic injury. She's helped in the rehabilitation of many horses, which led to her interest in equine massage and also sparked her interest in Thermal Imaging.

I've met many instructors and trainers who regularly comment on client's horses 'not being right', with statistics stating at least 50% of horses are lame or have a gait abnormality this is not surprising. So why do some trainers not recommend the horse see a vet? I know many that do and subsequently lose income.

Many riders for various reasons don’t want to accept that their horse is not right physically. It is very difficult to convey to the rider or owner who fears the worst and doesn’t want to acknowledge a potential issue for fear of not being able to ride their horse (that they have put so much time and effort into) and also the fear of financial loss, our horse becomes part of our lives and none of us want a lame horse, we blame ourselves for lack of progress, push through the schooling issue!

At the same time the instructor fears the financial consequences  if the horse is unable to work and as so many performance issues are subtle and hard to diagnose, they know that if the horse isn’t obviously lame it’s going to take time and money to get to the bottom of the problem something most riders/owners don’t want to hear. Elite riders may have unlimited funds at their disposal, they also may be able to get a lot of help via sponsorship deals (the latest tack, rehabilitation equipment etc). The problem may not be a major issue at this stage it may be a saddle issue, muscular weakness, a number of scenarios but if not addressed the horse will compensate in its movement and put unnecessary strain on joints/tendons and ligaments which can lead to much more serious problems.

I personally have lost clients when I have suggested that their horse needs a veterinary assessment and I know other trainers who have had similar situations. There is always another trainer/rider that will push the horse through the problem! This is a lose lose scenario and the longer it’s not addressed and left unsaid the more likely the issue becomes chronic and then difficult to treat. The horse suffers but so does the rider/owner in the long term. Is there a way to turn this scenario into a win win situation?

Insurance may be helpful eventually, when the vet is called, but we are all so worried about having an exclusion clause put on our policy we are reluctant to call the vet until the horse is really lame! Insurance companies penalise conscientious owners who try to assess all potential problems. Chronic lameness is usually much more difficult to treat. Also, horses are actually really compliant and try to hide pain, this has kept them alive for thousands of years, weakness is spotted by predators and makes them vulnerable. Additionally, bi-lateral lameness is hard to recognise. I’m ashamed to say I competed a horse at novice level BD, I qualified for the regional finals in three outings. I felt the horse wasn’t forwards enough but I didn’t acknowledge the subtle signs. Three weeks later the horse wouldn’t canter and was diagnosed with SI Pain and PSD! I had trained with a List one judge, a highly regarded BHSI, I’d ridden him on a clinic with a FEI Judge and an Olympic rider, not one of these suggested that the horse could be lame. I am not blaming these incredibly talented trainers for one moment, I am just trying to demonstrate how bi-lateral lameness and back and spinal issues can go un-noticed, especially in the modern athletic sports horse, that is "born on the bit and has amplified gaits without training."

It’s not just trainers and riders who have a responsibility to acknowledge lameness issues. I know some fantastic musculoskeletal therapists who are really good at recognising lameness issues and advising clients to seek a veterinary assessment but I know others who don’t even want to see the horse trot up. We know that if the horse has a distal limb lameness it will stiffen it’s back, so if the pain is not removed from the limb the horse will continue to have a back issue, no matter how many times he is treated by the therapist!   Saddle fitters too have a part to play, how many times are they asked to fix a saddle that slips to the side? Saddle slip can be caused by a hind limb lameness in 50% of cases, so saddle fitters should make owners aware of this fact.

I believe that we must take a more holistic approach to the horse's well being and performance. Maybe elite riders already do this? But as far as I can tell no one talks about sports horse wastage for want of a better word. How many top riders talk about the horses who didn’t make the grade. In my role as an Imaging Technician for SyncThermology, I have had professional riders tell me they don’t want to know what’s wrong with a particular horse because they know it’s not right and they want to sell it! What does that tell you?

Owners, riders, para professionals and vets all need to work together. I know many owners who will only call the vet as a last resort, which may be acceptable for a horse that only does light hacking for example but if you're expecting your horse to work in an athletic manor is this fair?  We know that early diagnosis and subsequent timely intervention are more likely to result in positive out comes. So why aren’t we taking this approach to our beloved horses.  As they cannot verbalise their aches, pains and distresses we need a diagnostic tool box that can indicate areas of pain and dysfunction. With advancement in diagnostics especially MRI and CT scans we are able to see so much more but we all need to be better educated at seeing subtle signs that can indicate lameness and back issues in the first place. The Animal Health Trust have designed an Ethogram to help identify pain in the horse but how many people are using it? How many of us have looked at horses at competitions and observed uncomfortable horses? I believe that physiological Imaging (Thermography) is another tool to add to the tool box in assessing performance issues and help in the early detection of disease and injury to help aid a better prognosis. A physiological full body scan is a very useful indicator of problem areas which can then be assessed more fully by the attending vet. 

SyncThermology's screening service is non-invasive, low cost and 100% safe. Our technology is mobile and provides a thorough examination of your horse's physiology. Thermography has been recognised as a useful tool in the identification of musculoskeletal and neurological injuries, especially nonspecific and difficult to diagnose lameness. 

We can identify a range of conditions and therefore assist diagnosis. Our imaging service is offered via many veterinary practices and we work in conjunction with your vet and other health care professionals. All of your results are provided by one of our vets to ensure they assist diagnosis in a useful and constructive manner. Thermography, like all other diagnostics, should always be interpreted by a trained veterinary surgeon. We provide screening for lameness, pain and injury along with preventative detection and also a way to monitor recovery.