Spotting Lameness in Horses
Lameness. As someone who's never grown up around horses, I'm starting to realise that a word often said by horse owners is this: Lameness. Sometimes spotting the reason is easy. A horse that won’t put its hoove down, and you find a nail in it? Easy. Take the nail out, bandage it and leave it be. Rarely it is this easy though. Most owners are very much in touch with their horses and will immediately be aware when something changes. Maybe the horse isn't getting round enough, or maybe something just feels a little off? Owners and trainers will conclude something is wrong, and sometimes a veterinarian can quickly discover the reason and act accordingly. Other times, not.
I spend a few days on a farm filled with horses to learn more about them, and a man who has owned horses his entire life gave me a good advice: Count the steps. A horse will walk in a rhythm, if the rhythm is off, something is wrong and the horse is probably lame. It’s a great place to start. He carefully explained that if you could find the rhythm, you can also see on which step there's a problem. He had impeccable skills for this - for someone with less experience with horses, it wasn't that easy though. Sometimes you can trot that horse up and down, trying to see where the problem is, and sometimes you won’t find or spot anything at all. Sometimes a local anesthetic block will help, or maybe it suddenly seems like the problem will switch legs! It can leave you scratching your head. The real issue is that the human eye isn't very reliable always. I'm sure there's great equine veterinarians out there who can spot a lame horse, and the cause, a mile away. I am afraid that at the moment I'm not really there. Therefore, when I for the first time saw a "new" diagnostic equipment in action is was quite fascinated: The Lameness Locator. Three accelerometers (measuring acceleration) are placed on the horse, on its head, lower back and front legs. This then measures the horse when it's moving, and will via Bluetooth technology send the data to a computer. This will give a much clearer picture of whether the horse is moving asymmetrical, or compensating because of pains. This way the lameness can be shown much easier, especially since it will be a lot easier objectively to see the effects of a local anesthetic blockage put by the veterinarian. Though it's still very important for the veterinarian to actually look at the horse and make a judgement, I believe the application of this machine goes far. It gives any veterinarian the opportunity to combine the subjectivity of looking, with the objectivity of numbers.
Personally like objectivity. I like putting my bet on something I can measure with numbers. Subjectivity is a lot more complicated, especially when it comes to animals, and especially spotting lameness in horses. I believe it's a fine art that will take me many years to perfect. But exactly because of this, despite the new advances made by medicine, including the lameness locator, bringing some subjectivity into the treatment of the animals is so important still. Sometimes all the numbers will tell you that nothing is wrong, but you will still have an animal in front of you in pain - or just acting differently. That's when it's important in veterinary medicine to combine the gut feelings, the numbers and the experience. First step towards healthy animals.