How to Identify and Fix Bridle Lameness


If your horse seems totally sound in the paddock or even on the longe line but doesn’t feel right when he’s tacked up or ridden, you might be dealing with bridle lameness. Although it isn’t (usually!) the actual bridle causing the problem, it’s referred to as bridle lameness because the horse only looks unsound or sore when he is tacked up in a bridle and saddle. 

This is why it’s important to always assess the horse in more than one way if you feel they are sore or unsound. Try having the horse trotted up in hand or on the longe as well as ridden to determine where the issue lies. If your horse is only unsound when tacked up, it’s time to narrow down what the issue could be. 

Is Bridle Lameness the Same as Regular Lameness?

Well, yes and no. Your horse could be suffering from something which is made worse by tack. Or, it could be that your horse isn’t truly lame in the sense that they are hurt, but are just lacking strength and balance.

It’s always frustrating when your horse only looks sore when tacked up or ridden. Is it because of your balance in the saddle? Maybe because there’s something wrong with your tack? Or is your horse just trying to fool you and get out of work? 

Girl riding chestnut horse

How Do You Find Out What the Problem is?

There are two main possibilities around the cause of bridle lameness. The first is that it isn’t a true lameness but is caused by a problem under saddle and an issue with the connection of the horse to the aids. The second is that bridle lameness is in fact lameness, which is exacerbated or highlighted by ridden/tacked up situations. 

It is not always possible to know if the cause is the saddle, the rider or a genuine physical problem that appears with added weight to the horse’s back. 

Bridle Lameness as a Schooling Problem

Firstly, consider whether the lameness issue could be balance, fitness, or strength related. This can be the case with young horses, senior horses, or recently backed horses. Often, the ‘unsoundness’ you see under saddle is actually the horse compensating for his lack of balance and strength. 

Why wouldn’t this also happen without tack? In the paddock, horses usually have plenty of space and only have to carry themselves – not a rider, saddle, or anything else in addition. 

When they’re ridden or longed, they could be unbalanced, lacking strength, or even just physically tired by the exertion if they’re unfit. This can make their stride uneven, especially during transitions or when they have to turn tight corners or circles. 

You can also have a more experienced rider try the horse. Sometimes, their uneven stride is caused by a rider unbalancing them in the saddle. Some horses are more sensitive to this than others, and a novice rider might unsettle one horse more than another, especially if they’re already lacking strength or balance. Finding a long and flat place to ride for this test might be easier as the horse can trot or canter without having to turn or slow down and upsetting their balance.

Additionally, you might see a horse displaying bridle lameness if they’re asked for more contact and collection than they’re ready for, or if the horse is evading the contact by going behind the vertical. For this reason, you sometimes see it if a horse is ridden in gadgets like draw reins or if the rider is very heavy handed. In these cases, the horse simply can’t work through his body to the contact and may compensate elsewhere, causing lameness. 

What About Sourness? 

Finally, there are also some instances in which horses become arena sour. A horse who really isn’t enjoying their work might associate tacking up with doing something they don’t enjoy – like a kid putting on their school uniform when they don’t like school. If this is the case, your horse will probably display some other problems like napping or lack of forwardness. However, changing up your routine by giving your horse some fun rides or a holiday in the field can make a difference. If you think this might be the problem, our advice on managing an arena sour horse could help.

However, bridle lameness can also be caused by pain or physical restrictions. 

Bridle Lameness as a Physical Problem 

If your horse is already going well under saddle and is balanced and well-schooled, it probably isn’t a simple case of being green or weak. Unless, of course, you are introducing much harder work and the horse only displays problems then,

However, if the bridle lameness is a new problem and is present during work which he has previously been capable of without problems, it may be something physical rather than mental or schooling related. In this case, the best way to approach the problem is by systematic elimination of possible issues. You’ll need to do this with the help of some experts. Usually, the first few steps are to check the teeth and back, and then have a vet assess the horse for problems. 

Bay horse looking straight ahead at camera in front of herd in paddock

Checking the Teeth and Back

An equine dentist can examine your horse’s mouth and teeth to see if the bit or bridle might be causing problems. In addition, you can also try longeing the horse with a bitless bridle or similar to see if the lameness is present even without any bit or anything in the mouth.

If this doesn’t pinpoint the issue, consult your saddle fitter. Often, a horse with a pinching saddle will look uneven or sore when tacked up. It’s a little like trying to run with shoes that pinch or rub. And remember, your horse’s saddle fit can change a lot as they grow and develop different muscles. 

Changing the saddle, girth, or bridle can often make a huge difference to a horse’s comfort level. However, it isn’t always that simple – although all horse owners wish it were! After these basic checks, you’ll want to move on to veterinary assessments. 

Calling Your Vet for Cases of Bridle Lameness

If none of the above investigations have discovered the problem, it’s time to call the vet. Because bridle lameness can be rooted in all sorts of things, you’ll want to ask for a lameness evaluation. 

The vet will probably run through a variety of diagnostic tests, eliminating causes until they find the problem. Depending on the vet or where they think the issue could be, this might include flexion tests, nerve blocks, longeing or ridden evaluation, x-rays or scans. Lameness could be caused by something as small as a tiny bone chip or as big as a torn suspensory ligament. When it’s exacerbated by a rider, many vets will also check for problems like kissing spines or arthritis in the joints. The causes of lameness are varied, and treatment could range from conservative (e.g. no ridden work for six weeks) to aggressive (surgery and/or prolonged box rest) depending on the problem and prognosis.  

Treating or Managing Bridle Lameness

It’s easy to dismiss bridle lameness as a horse being naughty or tricking you, but remember that horses don’t think that way. So instead, try to problem solve! 

The first step is to try and diagnose what is causing your horse to be lame under saddle. Once you know the root cause, you’ll have a better chance of getting your horse happy and sound. 

Of course, it could be very straightforward. A simple change of tack, a different routine to prevent boredom, or some more schooling might be all your horse needs. If not, you’ll need to work closely with your vet to manage and treat the issue with their guidance. 

It’s also important to ensure you keep up to date on your horse’s routine care and maintenance. Basic things like saddle checks and teeth filing should be scheduled every six to twelve months so you can address any problems before they become worse. 

Have you ever had a bridle lame horse? If so, what ended up being the problem? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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