Lameness and Poor Performance in Horses Used for Team Roping

Editor’s Note: Robin M. Dabareiner DVM, PhD, works in the Department of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. She received her DVM in 1988, MS in 1992, PhD in 1998, and became a Diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1998 (Board Certified Surgeon in Equine Surgery). Initially, she worked on the racetrack, then private practice, performing equine surgery and lameness for 10 years. In 1999, she joined the Texas A&M staff as an equine lameness specialist. Her focus is lameness, and she spends all day, every day looking at lame horses; the majority of horses are team roping or barrel racing horses. She speaks nationwide at various veterinary meetings on lameness issues in horses. She is an addicted team roper and has worked on top-quality horses owned by Tyler Magnus, David Key, Kermit Maass, Rich Skelton, Twister Cain, Kinney Harrell, Dugan Kelly, Clay Tryan, Bubba Strait, Squeaky Terrell, Booger Barter, Matt Funk, Charly Crawford and many others. The following study was conducted over a three-year period, from 2000-2003, and studied 118 cases. It is the first step in a process that will ultimately give team ropers specific recommendations to decrease the risk of lameness. I think you’ll find the findings of Dr. Dabareiner and her staff very interesting and look forward to the results of forthcoming studies.

Lameness is defined as an abnormality of gait such that the horse cannot be used for its intended purpose, and is the most common reported health problem for all types of horses. According to a study conducted by Ross and Kaneene in the 1996 Pre Vet Med, it is estimated that lameness problems cost the horse industry over $600 million annually (compared to $155 million annually for colic problems). Additionally, based on a national study, it is estimated that half of horse operations with three or more horses have one or more lame horses annually and on a given day as many as 5 percent of the horses are lame.

Whether you are a professional roper, amateur, beginner or weekend roper, you are at risk of your horse becoming lame-and more than likely he already has been. There are many opinions from many sources, including veterinarians, farriers or roping friends, on how to prevent or decrease the risk of lameness in your horse. However, most of these opinions are just that: advice based on individual personal experience, common sense, or hearsay.

At Texas A&M University, we are trying to develop proven facts and methods based on systematically collected data to decrease the risk of pulling a tendon, having hock problems or sore feet in your roping horse and I’d like to share with you the information that we have thus far. This idea originated from my own string of five head horses. I noticed over the past several years that three of my five head horses have had various lameness issues over the years but all involved the right front limb. Since my job at Texas A&M involves looking at lame horses all day long and since I am an addicted roper, the majority of horses I see are team roping or barrel racing horses. I began to notice that if a roper called for an appointment with a lame head horse, it usually had a right front limb problem but I did not know why.

In order to decrease the risk of a problem, we first must know what the problem is. So this initial study involved collecting information from the medical records from a large group of team roping horses that solicited the lameness service at Texas A&M veterinary school for lameness or poor performance. The goal was to identify the most common limb affected by lameness, the most common lameness problems seen in these horses and then compare horses used primarily for heading versus those used primarily for heeling to see if what activity the horse performed caused any differences. The results of that study are presented in the rest of this article. The next step is to use this information in a much larger population of team roping horses to determine why specific limbs are affected and to see if it varies based on level of roper, management practices (how often and number of steers roped per week), horseshoe-type worn, tendon boot protection and so forth. The ultimate goal is to give ropers ways to decrease the risk of their horses sustaining a lameness problem or injury.


Results –
Of the 118 horses examined for lameness or poor performance, the following data was obtained:
63% were head horses
37% were heel horses
Average age: 11
Average head horse age: 12
Average heel horse age: 9.5
93% were geldings
7% were mares

The average duration of lameness or poor performance prior to coming to Texas A&M: 2 months
75% were examined because of lameness complaints
25% were examined because of change in performance
82% of head horses were examined because of lameness
64% of heel horses were examined because of lameness
Average weight: 1,166 pounds
Average head horse weight: 1,200 pounds
Average heel horse weight: 1,078 pounds
51% wore flat steel keg shoes on front feet
24% wore steel rim shoes on front feet
8% wore wedged heel shoes
Other shoes worn included: natural balance, eggbar and half-round

32% of head horses wore rim shoes on the front feet
14% of heel horses wore rim shoes on the front feet
76% of horses had increased joint fluid in the fetlocks or tendon sheaths (windpuffs)
42% of all horses had a painful response to hoof testers

Lameness examination findings –
Lameness was graded on a 0 to 5 scale with 0 = not lame and 5 = non-weight bearing lameness.
Average lameness grade: 2
Limb affected by lameness:
61% were lame on right front
40% were lame on left front
27% were lame on left hind
20% were lame on right hind
72% of head horses were lame in right front
43% of heel horses lame were in right front
58% were lame in only one limb
38% were lame in more than one limb
4% had no lameness
25% of heel horses had left front only lameness
3% of head horses had left front only lameness
40% of head horses had right front only lameness
16% of heel horses had right front only lameness
24% of head horses had bilateral forelimb lameness
9% of heel horses had bilateral forelimb lameness
*All horses had nerve blocks done to localize the source of pain

Final Diagnosis –
31% Navicular pain
10% Navicular pain and bone spavin

1. Navicular pain in front feet (32% of all heading horses)
2. Navicular plus bone spavin (arthritis of lower hock joints) – 14%
3. Suspensory ligament injury – 7%
4. Arthritis of the front knee – 5%

1. Navicular pain – 27%
2. Arthritis of the hindlimb fetlock joints – 14%
3. Bone spavin – 9%
4. Ringbone (arthritis of the pastern joints)

Treatment –
78% received treatment at the Texas A&M hospital
44% were prescribed for reshoeing
24% were reshod by hospital farrier
44% of those 24% received a wedged heel horseshoe
14% received a natural balance shoe
8% received some type of bar shoe
6% received a half-round shoe
6% received a steel rim shoe
32% were prescribed extended periods of stall confinement
82% were prescribed Phenylbutazone at varying levels
13% were prescribed Adequan
7% were prescribed IV Legend
77% received treatment with IA medication in the affected joints
77% had joints medicated with Hyaluronic acid and an antibiotic
43% were treated in the coffin joint

What we did
Information obtained from medical records of each team roping horse that presented for lameness or poor performance at the Texas A&M vet hospital was compiled in a computer program. Data obtained from each medical record included the horse’s age, sex, weight, primary use (heading or heeling); duration of clinical signs, owner complaint, type of horseshoe worn, history of performance changes; previous medical treatments administered, physical examination findings (including hoof conformation, hoof tester examination findings, lameness examination findings, limb(s) affected, response to flexion tests, diagnostics utilized to examine each horse (nerve blocks used to find the source of pain, radiology, ultrasound, nuclear scintigraphy)); final diagnosis and treatment recommended. After determining the frequency of specific musculoskeletal injuries causing lameness in all team roping horses, comparisons were made between horses used primarily for heading versus heeling. Then the computer analyzed the information.

All horses in this study were Quarter Horses, which is not surprising since this breed is known for its athletic ability, cow-sense and quick acceleration over short distances. Geldings are preferred, manifested by the 93 percent of horses in this study that were geldings. The average age of the team roping horses was 11 years. This is most likely due to the repetitive training needed to prepare these horses and years of hauling to different arenas to “season” the roping horse. This is most likely the reason so many horses in this report had “wear and tear” type injuries like arthritis.

The median duration of either lameness or poor performance was approximately 2 months prior to presentation for a lameness examination. This could have been attributed to the roper’s competition schedule or perhaps lack of early recognition by the rider, but most likely was attributed to the type of musculoskeletal problems seen (such as osteoarthritis), which often cause subtle lameness initially then progress over time and with increased use.

Twenty-five percent of the horses were brought to Texas A&M because of an owner complaint that the horse was exhibiting behavioral problems rather than lameness. Of these horses, all but four showed a lameness at the time of examination. This may be because the roping activity usually takes place in a dirt or sandy arena, where a subtle lameness may not be visible, compared to the hard surface used to examine the horses at our hospital. The most common behavioral change for horses used for heading was that the horse quit pulling or lunged across the arena while pulling the steer and/or quit rating. Heeling horses began to bounce out of their stop or did not stop straight. These behavior changes may indicate that the horse is hurting and it may be beneficial to have a vet look for lameness issues when your horse begins showing a change in performance.

We saw more lameness problems with heading horses than heeling horses. This could relate to differences in horse conformation and size or variations in job performed. Heading horses tend to be larger and are typically heavily muscled to be able to tow the steer across the arena. They also must run faster than a heel horse to catch the steer at the beginning of the run. The typical heel horse is small and quick and needs to stop quickly after the steer’s feet are roped. Perhaps the activity performed by the heading horse causes more strain on the lower limbs compared to horses used for heeling. Alternatively, increased body weight of head horses relative to heel horses may predispose to lower limb lameness problems.

There was a significant increase in the number of horses used for heading that had the right front limb affected by lameness (whether considered as single or multi-limb involvement), compared to heeling horses, which has been observed by other veterinarians working on team roping horses.

As the heading horse sets the steer and initiates the 90 degree turn to the left, the right front limb is placed cranially and laterally to decelerate and brace against it’s forward motion and the weight of the steer, placing a tremendous amount of weight and strain on the structures of the right forelimb. These actions and forces may explain the frequency of right forelimb problems in horses used for heading. Horses used for heeling had more left forelimb involvement compared to the right forelimb and had a significant increase in hind limb lameness compared to horses used for heading. As the heading horse turns the steer to the left, the heel horse changes directions and makes a quick left turn to get to the inside of the steer’s left hip to position the roper to throw his rope. This may account for the left forelimb involvement. Then the horse stops abruptly, which could place stresses on the hind limbs. Bilateral forelimb lameness was more common in heading horses compared to heeling horses, and bilateral hind limb lameness was more common in heeling horses versus heading horses. Thus, the limbs of team roping horses affected by lameness appear to be associated with the horse’s activity.

It was not surprising that navicular area pain was the most frequent musculoskeletal problem observed in both heading and heeling horses in this study. All horses were Quarter Horses, a breed that commonly experiences navicular problems. Osteoarthritis of the distal tarsal joints (bone spavin) was also seen frequently in both heading and heeling horses. This was not unexpected, because this is the most common hindlimb musculoskeletal problem seen in middle-aged horses who engage in English or Western performance activities. Heeling horses had an increased frequency of osteoarthritis of the fetlock joint in the hindlimbs compared to heading horses, which may be associated with their stopping activity.

Intra-articular medication of the affected joint(s) was performed in 77 percent of horses in this study. This was not surprising, given the frequency of osteoarthritis seen in horses used for team roping. Many ropers make their living rodeoing and maintain a heavy competition schedule, which often doesn’t allow for extended periods of rest. Since navicular area pain was the most frequent diagnosis, it wasn’t surprising that the coffin joint was most frequently medicated. This also accounts for the corrective shoeing performed on 44 percent of the horses on the day of examination.

The present study identified the prevalence of specific musculoskeletal injuries sustained by horses used for team roping and showed that differences existed for horses used specifically for heading versus heeling. Further observational or experimental epidemiologic studies are needed to provide information to determine risk factors for specific lameness problems in team roping horses. The ultimate goal of such research would be to document management practices for musculoskeletal injuries in these horses.

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