Just what do people mean when they talk about a horse being sound or unsound? And what is a blemish? A sound horse is one that has no condition that interferes with its use or intended use. Unsoundness is a condition that interferes with the serviceability of the horse. He will not be able to perform properly because of the problem. A horse is also considered unsound if he has a progressive condition that will worsen to the extent that he will be unable to perform. A blemish is an injury or condition that, while cosmetically detracting, does not interfere with performance. Some unsoundness and blemishes can be corrected, but some become a permanent part of the horse. For barrel racers, knowing how to recognize the various unsoundness and blemishes will help you select a barrel horse. There are barrel horses who run and win in spite of all sorts of problems, but when you are selecting a prospect, try to find a horse whose body is sound and will allow him to perform at his very best. Now, from head to tail, here are some of the things that can be wrong with a horse. Remember, though, the best idea, if you suspect something is wrong, is to get the horse thoroughly examined by a competent veterinarian. He or she is the best qualified person to help you know what the problem is, and what course to take. This general list will give you an idea of the range of unsoundness and blemishes. A horse’s eyes are so important, any cataract, impaired vision or blindness is considered unsoundness. Because they interfere with his ability to eat, a parrot mouthed (horse with an overbite) or an undershot jawed horse is considered unsound from these conformation faults. Fistula wither is an inflammation of the withers, where the area erupts and drains. This can be caused by pressure (as when a calf roper ropes with inadequate padding) or by disease. It is an unsoundness that often recurs after it is treated and healed. Sweeny is the atrophy of decrease in size of a single muscle or group of muscles, usually in the shoulder of hip. It is an unsoundness. Capped elbow is a soft swelling at the point of the elbow. It is a blemish that can be caused by inadequate bedding for the horse. Splints are blemishes that consist of calcium enlargements usually found on the inside of the front cannon bones.Wind puffs, like splints, are common blemishes on barrel horses, and are puffy swellings above the fetlock on either side. A serious unsoundness is caused by
tendons, which are enlarged, stretched flexor tendons behind the cannon bones. Ringbones are bony growths on either or both sides of the pastern and sidebones are bony growths above and toward the rear quarter of the hoof. They are both considered unsoundness, although many experts fell that sidebones are the less severe of the two. Navicular disease is a type of degenerative, crippling arthritis of the navicular bone. This is a progressive disease that results in a lame, unsound horse. Often, the first symptoms are stumbling occasionally, and over a period of time the horse becomes more and more consistently sore. Navicular disease does not cause a discernable digital pulse. Treatments vary, with extreme being “nerving” the horse to relieve the pain. Stifle is a displaced patella in the stifle joint causing severe lameness and unsoundness. The patella catches under one of the ligaments. Surgery is sometimes used to treat this condition. Stringhalt, another type of unsoundness, is a nerve disorder characterized by excessive jerking of the affected hind leg. Capped hock is an enlargement on the point of the hock, caused by injury or strain. It's generally a blemish unless quite extreme. Curb is a type of unsoundness that is a hard swelling on the back surface of the rear cannon three to four inches below the point of the hock. Spavins are a type of unsoundness that affect the hock area, and can be soft swelling on the inner front part of the hock (bog spavin)-or a bony growth on the inside (usually lower) part of the hock (bone spavin)-or blood spavin, which is the swelling of the vein that sometimes appears below a bog spavin.
Watch your horse. Know what is normal for him, so you can tell immediately if there is something wrong with him. A normal horse will move freely, with even distribution of weight on all four legs. There are some definite signs of lameness. Lameness’ show up best at a trot, so if you suspect something is wrong, have someone ride or lead the horse at a trot, so you can watch from the side as the horse travels.
Limping – when a horse is sore in a foot or leg, he will often try to avoid putting weight on that leg, stepping quickly to avoid the pain caused by taking a step.
Short stepping – sometimes a horse does not visibly limp, but takes a shorter step on the affected side.
Head bobbing – a horse will often bob his head up as the affected limb hits the ground.
Pointing- when a standing horse does not put all his weight on a front foot, but rests it ‘pointing’ at the ground, ahead of the other foot, there is something wrong. Horses rest their hind legs periodically, by shifting their weight from one side to the other, but do not do so with their front legs.
Refusing to move-a horse that refuses to move (that is not prone to balk) is telling the handler that something is wrong. Check him carefully to determine the problem.
Digital pulse-Digital pulse is only detectable in a horse when a hoof is inflamed. To check for this pulse, place your fingers in the indentation above the bulb of the hoof. If you can feel a strong, throbbing pulse in the hoof, there is inflammation there. When the pounding pulse is in both front feet, suspect founder. Navicular disease does not cause this pulse. When the pulse is in one foot only, suspect a stone bruise, hoof puncture or abscessed hoof. Severe cases of thrush can also cause enough inflammation to result in a digital pulse.
Stiffness- (front feet) evident when the horse shows reluctance to move out fully when asked to trot. If both front feet are painful, he’ll stand with hind legs well up under him, with the front feet far out front. That is the classic laminitus (founder) stance.
Causes of Lameness
Lameness is a difference in the normal stance or gait of the horse, caused by injury or disease. Just why do horses get lame? There are a variety of reasons, but the most common seem to be:
Hard work for too young a horse. A young horse is like a young child, not fully developed structurally, and often unable to withstand vigorous exercise. Besides that, a young horse is usually not able to “take care of himself” like an older horse. The youngster may be a little off balance or out of position when he is asked to perform a particular exercise. Inexperience can cause him to go ahead and attempt the maneuver from an awkward position, and injury can result.
Poor conformation. Some horses are anatomically prone to develop certain conditions. Choose a horse whose body is built to perform as a barrel horse. For example, a horse that’s too straight in the back legs will be more prone to stifle; one with too thick a neck be less flexible.
Poor conditioning and fatigue. A horse that is not fit is much more likely to be injured than one that is in shape. Just like human athletes, an out-of-shape or tired individual is accident-prone. Think about your local high school football team. Most of the team’s injuries will occur early in the season, because the players are poorly conditioned from a summer of inactivity. Horses are the same way, likely to develop strains, sprains, bruises and breaks, when they are out of shape.
Nutrition deficiency or imbalance. What you put into a horse is so important to grow strong bone, muscle, hooves, etc.
Bad shoeing or lack of attention to feet. Soreness, bruises, abscesses, interfering, tendon injury can all be caused by bad shoeing or lack of attention to the feet.
Illness or local leg lacerations or injury. Illness and disease can result in a lame animal, as can a cut or laceration. As if that weren’t enough, often, when the injured leg heals wonderfully, the off leg is permanently damaged structurally, because of the increased strain on it while the injured leg was healing.
Sonny Bit O'Both
1980 AQHA World Champion
1980 WPRA World Champion
Sonny had sore hocks and stifles but he loved running barrels and I loved taking care of him. I learned how to rub, wrap, ice him and keep him as comfortable as I could. Some horses start the year good but don’t last. As the year got longer, he got better and excelled to win both the AQHA and WPRA
in the same year, which is still a record to this day.
One thing that seems to be fairly common to barrel horses is hoof injury. Bruises, punctures, and abscesses can really mess up your competition plans.
Stone bruises- are bruises to the sole of the foot. The degree of lameness depends on the severity of the bruise. Horses get these bruises from rocks, uneven hard surfaces, and they especially show up in winter on frozen ground. Usually the lameness appears suddenly; a strong digital pulse is common. Normally there is no swelling of the leg. If the condition is severe, consult a vet. He will advise the use of anti-inflammatory drugs which will shorten the recovery period and result in less damage to the foot. Soaking the foot in ice water is a first aid treatment of choice, some people advise standing a horse in mud, but you should be absolutely sure there is no puncture involved if you do this; ice treatment is safe in either case.
Hoof puncture wounds often appear in the same way as the bruise, Sometimes the nail or object is still in the hoof. If not, the hole where it entered can sometimes be found. (Except on the frog, which seems to seal over rapidly.) If the injury is old, an abscess can form and pus will
be present, but this will often be too deep in the hoof for you to reach. Your vet can trim the hoof and drain the abscess. He will provide tetanus protection for your horse, and antibiotics to prevent or treat the infection and will instruct you as to how to treat the wound.
Figuring Out Founder
Laminitis is a frightening ailment and the foundering horse is extremely lame, usually in the two front feet, although all four may be affected. In this condition, circulatory congestion in the feet causes swelling. This swelling causes separation of the outer and inner layers of the hooves. The pressure of this and the detachment of the tissues can cause the coffin bone to rotate and break through the sole of the hoof. Like colic, laminitis can be the result of a shock to the digestive system and some colic instances are followed by a case of founder. A common cause is when a horse eats too much rich grass (usually in the spring). It may also strike a mare that retains the placenta after the birth of a foal. These are all indirect causes, but founder can also be caused directly by too much pressure on the feet. Running a horse on a hard surface, hauling him too long in the trailer without proper rest, can both cause this condition. A horse suffering from founder is in tremendous pain (imagine your foot swelling inside your shoe. The horse’s hoof allows no space for swelling and it can’t stretch; thus the intense discomfort as he still must support his weight with his throbbing foot.) He will not want to walk and will be in obvious pain. He will have a strong digital pulse in each affected foot. When the problem is in the front feet only, he will stand with his rear legs way up under him in an attempt to take pressure off his front feet. If you suspect your horse is foundering, call the vet immediately. He will treat him to reduce the inflammation and congestion in the hooves. Anti-inflammatory injections will be given, along with diuretics. The severity of the case will determine the treatment, as well as the degree of recovery that can be expected. This is a most serious illness. Some horses are permanently crippled and unsound from an attack of laminitis. Others recover, but can only stand limited use. Normally, the horse has better chance of recovery if the coffin bone doesn’t rotate. Your vet can x-ray the horse’s hoof to determine whether or not this has happened and give you a clue as to the prognosis.
Your Horse’s Vision
The vision of the horse evolved from the necessity of seeing all around him in a way that alerted him the
quickest to danger in any direction. Horses’ eyes are set wide apart, and each eye has it’s own field of vision, sending a different picture signal to the brain, Only when the horse is looking straight ahead to a small area in front of him do both eyes focus together. This setup allows the horse to see almost completely around himself by only shifting his eyes slightly. The only two blind spots are right in front of his eyes and right behind his rear. Although people’s eyes focus automatically, the horse focuses by raising and lowering his head. To see objects that are close to his nose, he raises his head so that light strikes the upper part of the retina. When his head is in a normal position, the light rays hit the middle of the retina, clearly focusing on objects a little further away. As he lowers his head, the lower part of the retina receives the light and he can see the farthest distance. Consider how this effects your barrel run.
Another factor in considering the horse’s vision is
understanding that it
takes longer for his eyes to adjust from light to dark or
vice-versa, than yours do. If you bring him into a dark
barn out of the
sunlight, it takes a couple of moments for him to be able
to see. Remember this when you are running indoors.
Q: I am always
looking for a good Equine Vet. Can you suggest someone?
A: There are
several good Equine Vets. You may want to ask a top
trainer that is winning who they use.
Dr. Larry Findley has a brand new facility, Delta Equine
Center, in Vinton, Louisiana.
Dr. Findley loves working with barrel horses. You can
contact him at his new facility at
He has the latest in all equipment, such as the MRI.