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horse 'faking' limp

From: Matthew

Dear Jessica, I've looked through all the horse sense archives, and I don't think you have answered a question like this before. I need to know what to do about a horse that is trying to fake me out. I have a roping mare that messed up a frong leg ligament a few months back, not a real bad tear but she was pretty sore on it and we had to use linament and wrap the leg and keep her in a stall for two months. The vet looked at the leg and said she was fine to go back to work, but to take it easy for another month. When I started riding her she was acting a little sore on that leg at first, but after the first few days she started limping on the other leg, not the one that got hurt. I figure she's fine and she knows it but she likes getting out of work, so she's limping but she forgot which leg was supposed to be sore! Not real smart. So what can I do to let her know that she's got a job and she can't fake her way out of it? I was just going to get after her big-time, but my wife said we should ask you first, which is fine by me because we both have learned a lot from reading horse sense in the past.

Thanks for your advice, Matt

Dear Matt, you're right, I haven't answered this one on horse-sense before. I am glad that you wrote -- and I think your hors will be glad too. ;-)

I don't think that your mare is faking anything -- I think that she is sore. Let me explain.

First, horses just don't lie. They don't always tell us exactly what we want to hear, but they don't make up stories for our benefit. So let's begin by assuming that your mare is telling the truth -- she hurts, and she hurts on the OTHER leg.

Now you're thinking "No way, I know which leg was injured and she's saying that she's sore on the OTHER leg -- this has to be bogus." Well, actually it doesn't -- and this is why.

You already know that horses carry 60% of their weight on their front legs. That's a LOT of weight, even without tack and a rider, and it's a lot of weight that is distributed between two legs that are smaller around than your own legs. ;-) Let's say that your mare weighs 1000 pounds (just to make an example). 60% of her weight would be 600 pounds carried on those front legs, which means that when she is completely sound, she's carrying 300 pounds on each front leg JUST STANDING IN HER STALL.

Now, add an injury to the equation. I don't know which foreleg was hurt, but again for the sake of example, let's say that it was the near fore. A horse with a sore leg takes weight OFF that leg -- just as we do when we have an injured foot or leg -- because putting weight on a sore leg HURTS. But the weight doesn't just go away -- if YOU have a sore leg and stand so that you can take weight off that leg, you put a lot MORE weight on your good leg. And if you have to stand for most of the day, you'll be putting a strain on your good leg, and your hip, and your back... because you are meant to stand straight with your weight distributed evenly. The same thing is true of horses. If your mare has an injury to her near fore, and so tries to carry most of her weight on the OFF fore, that puts a lot of strain on the off fore, and on the shoulder, and on the muscles of her chest and neck. If she does this for a long time -- even a week or so -- she can strain the "good" leg and become sore in the shoulders, in the neck, and in the back.

Your mare has been in a stall for two months following an injury. That injury may be healed now, but it's quite possible that she has strained the "good" leg by putting extra stress on it for all those weeks. When this happens, the horse will show the discomfort by limping on the leg that hurts -- and that will be the one you think is the "good" leg.

Why not have your vet take another look at the mare? I'm sure that you don't want to take chances with your good roping mare. ;-) And in the meantime, remember that even if she doesn't have a new injury, she is probably very stiff and sore. Horses don't lose muscle as quickly as people do, but two months of confinement take a toll on muscle, tendons, ligaments, and bone. Give her at least that long to get back to full work. Now is the time when she is most likely to GET hurt -- she's been sore on one leg, she is now sore on the other leg, and her strength and coordination are not what they were before she was laid up.

If your mare has strained her "good" leg, you need to know right away so that she doesn't do too much and make it worse. Your vet will be able to tell you what is going on. If -- as I hope -- your vet finds nothing acutely wrong, you can help bring your mare back into work by taking her for long walks and short trots on straight lines and wide turns, on good footing.

Take your time with the mare. Let her build up slowly and steadily -- and evenly. Working hard when one leg hurts will set her up for injury somewhere else. I'm sure you've had the experience of trying to do a day's work when you were injured -- you know how difficult and uncomfortable everything is when you are trying to get the job done and protect the injury at the same time.

And remember, give her the benefit of the doubt if she limps or takes short steps. She can't TELL you that something hurts, or why; all she can do is SHOW you.


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