If you have been riding for very long you will have encountered a time when you pull a horse out and they don’t look quite right. Often times our solution is to put the horse away and call a vet out or wait and see if the horse is better tomorrow. However, this approach assumes that anytime the horse doesn’t look quite right he is lame. Quite often the horse is actually just stiff and needs to work through it. Going back to a stall with stiff muscles will only exacerbate the situation.
So how do we tell the difference between lameness and stiffness?
The first thing to consider is just how bad the horse looks. If the horse is dead lame or non weight bearing on a leg you should call a vet. Don’t even try to work the horse.
However, the more common situation is that the horse just looks slightly off. Often times riders can’t even tell where the horse is off, they just know something doesn’t look right. In this situation I always recommend further investigation.
Try to trot the horse on a circle. Does the horse look more off or about the same? If trotting makes the horse much worse or causes significant head-bobbing then he is lame. If the horse looks about the same, I generally recommend working the horse lightly from the ground. If there is someone else there to take a look that is more knowledgeable than you I’d recommend getting their opinion. It can never hurt to have a fresh set of eyes look at something.
If you decide that working the horse is the best course of action, do lots of walk work and stretching on the ground. I generally don’t ride a stiff horse unless I can get him close to normal first. Yield his shoulders and haunches a few times. Note where the horse struggles and potentially looks more lame. This will help you determine where the horse is hurting. If he can easily step under with his right hind, but struggles when you ask him to yield his left hind then you know that there is something going on with his haunches. If you look even more closely you can start to see which little movement within that big movement is bothering him. Maybe his right hind hurts so weighting it in order to really step through with his left is difficult. Or maybe it’s the stretch in his left leg as it moves across that is hard.
Figuring out exactly where your horse is sore can help you determine whether it is a muscle issue or something more serious. If you determine the horse is sore through his hamstrings or back then you can work on stretching him, massage him, and use liniment to help ease the pain. If you pinpoint the soreness to a fetlock then you are better off getting some diagnostic work done. Most issues with a fetlock are going to be ligament / tendon / bone issues versus muscle. If you are having trouble telling then consult with somebody more experienced or have a vet out if the problem persists.
All of this information is also useful so that you can start to form a baseline. As you work your horse, note whether he is more or less off. If you notice that your horse is getting more off then there is probably something wrong. This is normally when I put the horse away and start looking for an injury. However, if the horse gets better then you can guess the horse was probably just stiff. Maybe he has arthritis in his joints and warming up is hard. Or it’s possible he overexerted himself or slipped previously and is now muscle sore.
Another useful point to note is how your horse looks from day to day. Sometimes I will get a horse in training that is very sore. I want to make sure that the horse is looking better as time goes on even if it takes weeks for the horse to start to actually use himself properly and not look stiff and sore. If it is your own horse that you are looking at you probably have an idea how weather, work load, and varying exercises affect your horse so you can understand what levels of stiffness he might get and where. This can help you predict what days he might be sore so that you are less concerned about possible lameness when he looks off and also help you prevent soreness.
Following these guidelines will help you determine whether your horse is lame or just stiff, which in turn helps you find a solution quicker. Working your stiff horse in ways that stretch out and relieve the stiffness will help him feel better and also prevent him from getting stuck in a rut of compensating for soreness. Overall you will have a sounder, happier horse by pushing him through the stiffness.