The Age Event: Arthritis in Horses

A brief look at arthritis in horses, excerpted from the book Hands-On Senior Horse Care.
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A brief look at arthritis in horses, excerpted from the book Hands-On Senior Horse Care.

Also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), it's progressive joint inflammation due to trauma or wear and tear, leading to erosion of articular joint cartilage, which becomes frayed and thinned, causing pain and loss of function. Arthritis mainly affects your horse's weight-bearing joints.

Copyright Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

Why your senior horse is at risk: Regardless of how good his conformation is, his risk of arthritis increases with every passing year. That's because the longer he lives, the bigger a target he becomes for injuries and wear and tear that lead to joint degeneration. His joints almost never get a break. Even standing at rest they're bearing his weight on tiny patches of cartilage.

Plus, there's a metabolic shift that occurs around age 15, leading to an escalation of cell death within bone, cartilage, and fibrous tissue. Tendons and ligaments become less elastic, more easily torn. Cartilage thins, absorbing less shock. Its shape changes, too, due to a lifetime of pressure and torque, causing joint bones to be less aligned and the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons more susceptible to strain. And, your horse's reactions slow down with age-especially if he's retired to an inactive life- style-making him more prone to a misstep.

The faster you identify arthritis in your horse, the quicker you can attack it. There are two kinds of equine arthritis: the sneaky kind and the obvious kind. In the obvious kind, the joint's been traumatized or infected, so is sore enough to cause lameness. Your horse is lame-you call the vet. In the sneaky kind, the joint isn't sore at first, so there's little or no lameness. But that doesn't mean that arthritis isn't marching forward. The first signpost will be a little joint puffiness. If you don't look for it, you'll likely miss it-and miss out on your chance to help minimize future joint damage. Watch for these subtle but telltale signposts:

  • Slight puffiness in lower-leg joints.
  • Stiff, choppy gait when you first begin work, which improves when he warms up.
  • Reluctance and/or resistance to perform maneuvers that previously came easily for him, such as stops and collection. He may raise his head and hollow his back.

How To Identify The Signposts
1. Inspect your senior horse's joints every day: Visually inspect and feel each leg joint, preferably an hour after mild exercise (such as hand-walking or at-liberty grazing), which will minimize any puffiness (such as stocking up) resulting from inactivity. Press your fingers gently over each joint, feeling for smooth, well-defined "peaks" (bones) and fluid-free "valleys" (soft-tissue areas). As a joint becomes puffy, you'll feel bone edges become obscured, and valleys begin to fill, like a springy water balloon. If you're unsure, look for asymmetry. Compare the left leg to the right leg, or compare a suspicious joint to the same joint on a young, sound horse.

Find a puffy joint? Then do the soundness check, below. If the lower joints of all four legs are swollen, and the cannon bone (shin) areas are swollen too, the swelling is more likely to be edema due to an underlying health problem, such as poor circulation or hypoproteinemia. Call your vet today.

2. Perform a soundness check. Use the guidelines below. If your horse is lame, call your veterinarian today--synovitis in that affected joint may be escalating, resulting in joint degeneration.

  • If he's not obviously limping, check his soundness. If you find he's unsound, or if you're just not sure, call your vet today.
  • If there's no hint of lameness, gently probe the joint with your fingers, including the puffy part, while watching your senior horse for signs of pain, such as a wringing tail, flinch, or snatching the leg away from you. If you find any sign of tenderness, call your veterinarian today--your horse's synovitis is on the move. While you wait, apply "Arthritis Home Treatment" (see below).
  • If there's no sign of lameness or tenderness, start "Arthritis Home Treatment" as your primary treatment-you won't need to call your veterinarian unless you want to. If the swelling fails to improve within an hour after your home treatment, the synovitis is not responding. Call your veterinarian.

Use these steps to help battle degenerative joint disease in your senior horse.

Arthritis Artillery
Step 1: Take Him Out of Retirement.
Why it helps. Regular exercise, tailored to your senior horse's condition, increases circulation of nutrients into, and wastes out of, his joints while strengthening muscles that protect them from stress. A well-conditioned horse generally has significantly thicker and healthier cartilage than does an unfit horse of any age. Plus, fitness enhances stamina and athletic ability, which helps protect your horse from the most common three-part cause of joint injury: FATIGUE, which leads to POOR FORM, which leads to a MISSTEP. Finally, regular exercise works wonders for a horse's attitude, appetite, digestion, and overall sense of well-being.

How to do it. Turn your horse out, and/or put him to work-carefully. Pasture living is ideal; paddock turnout is better than a stall. Your senior horse evolved to graze and step-with each step, he gently compresses and releases the spongelike cartilage in his joints, promoting joint-fluid circulation that helps keep his cartilage as healthy as possible. Grazing on pasture also is best for his mental outlook and digestion.

Avoid stall confinement unless advised by your vet for a specific condition. Horses weren't designed to stand still in a "cave." Doing so freezes up joints already compromised by years of weight-bearing and wear and tear. You'll be doing your senior a big favor if you allow him, and encourage him, to move within his capabilities.

Step 2: Make His Diet Joint-Friendly.
Why it helps. Specific nutrients can have a significant impact on joint health. There's evidence that adding the dietary supplements at right can help your senior horse avoid serious arthritis and/or live more comfortably with it. They're rated according to how well they've been studied and supported by well-designed research. Don't assume, though, that a 2-star rating means there's no risk-always consult with your veterinarian before changing your senior horse's diet or medications.

How to do it. Work with your veterinarian to select one or more joint-friendly supplements.

Step 3: Work the Affected Joint Passively.
Why it helps. Passive range-of-motion exercises are well documented to en-courage cartilage and soft-tissue healing in inflamed joints while decreasing scar-tissue formation (which causes a loss of range of motion).

How to do it. Pick up the affected leg. Gently bend and straighten the affected joint(s), repeating about 10 times per joint. Perform the exercise 3 or 4 times a day, if possible-the more you do it, the better.

Step 4: Improve Your Senior Horse's Flexibility.
Why it helps. Stretching breaks down adhesions, improves circulation, warms and limbers muscles and ligaments, improves range of motion, and helps prevent injury

How to do it: Perform prework stretching exercises with your horse, along with a warm-up session before each day's exercise.

Step 5: Keep Him Comfortable--Safely.
Why it helps. Breaking the pain cycle can help break the inflammation cycle and speed healing.

How to do it. Talk to your veterinarian about a treatment that not only relieves your senior horse's joint pain but also is in his best interest as an individual. There are side effects to consider, which can become more of a problem with increasing dosage and duration. In many cases, your senior may benefit from a combination of conventional medications with alternative therapies. The most common conventional pain-relieving options are explained below.

Arthritis Home Treatment
1.Confine your horse to a box stall or small paddock for 24 hours (or longer, as prescribed by your veterinarian). If necessary, place a familiar companion nearby, to keep your horse from fretting and pacing.

2. Ice the swollen joint. Using a flexible ice pack (such as a bag of frozen corn or peas) inserted between the folds of a clean cloth (a hand towel works great), hold ICE ON for 5 minutes; ICE OFF 15 minutes. Repeat 3 times in a row.

3. Apply a standing bandage. If the joint is wrappable, apply a standing banding to help reduce swelling and inflammation. (Consult your veterinarian if you are unsure about how to wrap your horse's legs.)

4. Hand-walk your horse. Twice a day remove your senior horse's bandage, hand-walk him for 15 minutes, then rewrap and return him to his stall. Gradually increase his exercise. After the prescribed period of confinement, leave the bandage off but keep your senior horse confined for half the original length of time. (If he was to be confined for 24 hours, confine him now for 12 more.) Provide 15 minutes of mild controlled exercise 4 times a day. Examples of controlled exercise: hand-walking, ponying at the walk and/or trot, or riding at the walk and trot, depending on your senior horse's condition before the problem appeared, and on how he's responded to treatment. If swelling, tenderness, and/or pain persist or return, you're going too fast.

5. Follow up. Check for return of swelling 1 hour after final exercise session. If it hasn't returned, go to Step 6. If it has, call your veterinarian for a re-evaluation, and keep your horse confined.

6. Turn him out. If he's symptom free, he can be turned out and resume a gradual return to work, if applicable. If not, call your vet. There may be a more severe problem than was originally thought.

To order Hands-On Senior Horse Care visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com or call 1-800-952-5813.