Winter Arthritis Care for Horses

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Like all athletes, few horses completely escape the scourge of arthritis in their lifetimes. Even horses that have been sound usually develop arthritis in their later years, when age-related declines occur in the number of cartilage-producing cells. Some chronic conditions also influence bone and joint health. Cold weather is particularly difficult, making stiff joints stiffer, so get ready to fight back.

Exercise. One of your most potent weapons for keeping joints moving well despite arthritis is exercise. Turnout is not enough. Standing in the field with butts turned to the wind is not exercise. Exercise causes the release of cytokines, like heat-shock protein, which are cellular messengers that encourage the production of cartilage and joint fluid. Exercise also refreshes the joint fluid surrounding the cells within the cartilage.

It doesn’t have to be tiring, just enough to get the heart rate up a bit for 30 minutes or so, preferably daily. Longeing or walking — either under saddle, ponied or by line driving — at a brisk pace is fine.

Nutrition. Diet will neither cause nor cure arthritis, but it can influence how prone to inflammation your horse’s immune system is. Highly processed feeds with excessive iron and elevated omega-6 fatty acid intakes from grain and vegetable oils combine with common deficiencies to tip the immune system in favor of inflammation.

To combat this, you can switch to a combination of 75% oats and 25% alfalfa pellets, by weight, for concentrate if your horse truly needs grain. Each pound of this combination provides just under 10% of an 1,100-pound horse’s daily maintenance calcium, phosphorus and magnesium and works well with many grass hays.

Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids can be provided with 4 to 6 oz./day of ground stabilized flaxseed, such as Horseshine(www.omegafields.com, 877-663-4203) or Nutraflax (www.horsetech.com, 800-831-3309).

For trace-mineral support, we like Kaufmann’s Animal Health’s Integrity Hoof (www.ka-hi.com, 717-274-3676) .

A vitamin E and selenium supplement, if your area is low in selenium, tops off the diet. A good choice there is Med-Vet Pharmaceutical’s E-Se-Mag, which also gives you the added the benefit of magnesium for muscle support (www.unitedvetequine.com, 800-328-6652).

You need to continue your joint supplement in the cold weather, even if the horse’s activity level is not as high. If it doesn’t seem to be controlling the pain as well, and we all know how joints get more painful and stiff in cold or wet weather, consider adding a devil’s claw supplement such as B-L Solution (www.equineamerica.com, 800-628-9653) or Devil’s Claw Plus (www.uckele.com, 800-248-0330).

You could also switch to the combination supplement Arthroxigen, (www.uckele.com, 800-248-0330), which contains both joint nutraceuticals and anti-inflammatory/antioxidant ingredients. We also recommend considering Grand Flex (www.grandmeadows.com, 800-255-2962) or Cosequin (www.nutramaxlabs.com, 888-886-6442) as a starting point if you haven’t used a nutracetical before, if you don’t need to pay for a heavy gun like Arthroxigen.

For a burst of anti-inflammatory relief in acute flare-ups, consider hyaluronic acid (HA). Our top choice there is Conquer Gel (www.kinetictech.net, 877-736-9882), which has performed consistently for us in field trials. It can be used to boost the effects of your regular joint product when needed.

Creature Comforts. Stretching and warmth have been proven to relax and lengthen tight tissues. Before exercise or turn out, take a few minutes to briskly massage your horse’s problem areas with a warming liniment, such as Absorbine or Bigeloil (www.absorbine.com, 800-628-9653).

After that, gently flex and extend the involved joint a few times, or as far as it will go easily and without the horse trying to pull it back from you. Next, grasp the leg at mid cannon-bone level, lift it a few inches off the floor (not too high) and gently stretch the entire leg forward and then back. Do those stretches for all four legs. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make in how smoothly the horse starts out.

Keeping the joints warm around the clock in cold weather is also beneficial in improving comfort and the horse’s ability to move around safely, including getting up and down easily. If the ankle or pastern is your horse’s problem area, standing stall wraps at least when your horse is inside will get the job done.

The warmest option is a neoprene wrap. Sports ankle boots made of neoprene run from around $25 to $50 and have the added advantage of support. You can also get neoprene hock and knee boots for around $23 for the no-frills models. Note: Never use liniments under neoprene and be sure to remove all traces from any earlier applications.

Other Disorders. Aging has also been found to cause changes in the bone. It’s not exactly the same as human osteoporosis and needs more study, but there definitely are changes. This means that if your arthritic horse is a senior you need to be alert to the possibility of pain from bone, including microfractures and rib fractures. Don’t automatically assume it’s the arthritis acting up.

Cushing’s disease also has a negative impact on proteins in skeletal muscle and also connective tissue, including tendons, ligaments, cartilage and the connective tissue framework of bones. Protein is broken down and metabolized, while tissue repair and maintenance is inhibited. It’s important to make sure the disease is well-controlled by an adequate dose of pergolide. This is especially true since ACTH rises naturally occur in the fall and can be dramatic in Cushing’s horses. It may persist through part or even all of the winter.

Bottom Line. It’s simple. Be sure your gets horse gentle, regular exercise to keep his joints active (turnout isn’t enough). Keep feeding a joint supplement, add herbal pain relievers if necessary. Use neoprene and liniments to warm joints.