We started field trials of joint-supplement products in the late 1990s. At the time the major players were chondroitin and glucosamine. Since then, the market has grown tremendously with many different agents and various combinations now available.
Another change since that original trial is that the use of joint nutraceuticals has gained acceptance with human arthritis, with multiple trials showing relief equivalent to that from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as inhibition of inflammation and even arrested progression of arthritis.
Figuring out what product is best to try for your horse can be difficult. What works well for one horse may not for another. Several factors should be taken into consideration when trying to decide if you should use a joint supplement at all, and then, which is most likely to help.
• Stage of disease: A horse with advanced arthritis, including loss of cartilage and poor fluid production (seen on X-rays as a narrowed joint space and denser bone around the joint) and/or one with extensive build-up of bone around the joint, isn’t going to respond as well or as quickly as one with early arthritic changes.
However, joint nutraceuticals may be able to help halt progression of the disease and improve joint fluid production. A horse like this may also benefit from an anti-inflammatory/analgesic herbal product or a joint supplement that contains these ingredients.
• Cause of the problem: When joint problems are caused, or aggravated, by conformation defects, when there is poor hoof trimming causing uneven loading of the joints, or if there is soft-tissue damage to stabilizing ligaments or other internal joint structures, joint supplements may provide a bit of relief, but it’s not realistic to expect much effect from joint-specific nutraceuticals alone.
• Use of the horse: This can be a significant factor when it comes to both types of products and dosages. Lower-dosage ranges for glucosamine and chondroitin may provide enough effect for horses not in work, but those being used regularly and heavily usually need more. Horses in no or light work are also more likely to respond well to a simple glucosamine, while a multi-ingredient product may be the best choice for a working horse.
• Active inflammation: If the condition is acute, or the horse is prone to flare-ups with heat and swelling, a product with high-dose MSM, hyaluronic acid or anti-inflammatory herbs (boswellia is excellent) will probably work best.
One of the most recent additions to joint choices is hyaluronic acid, also known simply as “HA.” There is much to be learned about exactly what HA does in an arthritic joint and how it interacts with other joint nutraceuticals. In this field trial, we observed a clear benefit for liquid or gel forms of HA vs. powders in controlling acutely inflamed joints. The liquids or gels are effective at 1/2 to 1/4 the amount required for powdered HA. However, even relatively small amounts of HA used in combination with glucosamine/chondroitin can make a significant difference.
The question always comes up regarding whether any joint nutraceutical can even survive digestion and be absorbed into the body. While there are no studies available on the extent of absorption of hyaluronic acid, it’s known that HA makes a good carrier for the delivery of medications through the skin.
For this trial we used horses of a variety of ages and uses. Acutely inflamed joints, either new conditions or flare-ups of old ones, were examined daily for five days to check for any effects.
Horses with chronic conditions had to be affected enough that they were consistently lame. Lameness was graded according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) grading scale. Horses were graded by a veterinarian before starting the supplements, at 2 weeks and at 4 weeks. Trainers and owners were instructed to keep a log of changes observed between examinations. Note: Results may vary with different horses. As always, if your current product is working, there’s no reason to switch.
Although pain relief is slower to occur with glucosamine than the newer combination products, it remains an excellent economical option. Glucosamine doesn’t have a significant effect on active inflammatory processes, so this must be dealt with separately in acutely inflamed joints. However, regular continued use can inhibit future inflammation.
Added ingredients like antioxidant vitamins and yucca typically take longer to reach full effect than plain glucosamine, so further improvement may be noted beyond the four-week mark in products that include these ingredients. However, we expect to see improvement within 14 days of starting a product. If you don’t, consider changing products.
When trying your horse on joint supplements for the first time, go with a no-frills, basic glucosamine or glucosamine/chondroitin combination. Uckele’s plain glucosamine products are the least expensive we saw, followed by Joint Renew, a pure glucosamine sulfate, from Peak Performance. Grand Flex, from Grand Meadows, remains a top economical choice, given the addition of important trace minerals and antioxidants.
For a combination glucosamine/chondroitin product, Foxden Flex gets the nod at $1.38/day, high-dose treatment. Corta-Flx, now with added HA, remains an excellent choice.
Another option is to move up to a combination product that offers more in terms of antioxidant protection, such as the high potency but well-priced Senior Flex, $1.78 day at high dose.
For the really tough problems, or to keep control in regularly working horses, you want a stronger performer. After narrowing down the best products, we looked at price, and Lube All Plus is most the economical.
When more direct pain relief from herbals is needed, our pick is Arthrigen, with a full spectrum of cartilage-specific nutraceuticals, as well as devil’s claw and antioxidants. Finally, for complex problems involving soft tissue other than joint lining or cartilage, Artri Matrix and Rapid Response are worth a try.
Acutely inflamed joints are a special problem, where HA excels. Results with liquids and gels were clearly superior to the powders in quieting down hot, swollen joints. Lube All or its multi-ingredient companion product, Lube All Plus, are the most economical options, but all the HA gels performed well, as did the high-potency powder HA, Celadrin.