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Feeding to Beat Arthritis in Your Horse

Older horses are prone to arthritis, but if you pay attention to their feed tub, they can live happy, relatively comfortable lives.

Arthritis used to be a common reason for horses being euthanized, even in their early teens. Arthritis is a degeneration of joint tissues, making it painful for the horse to move. All the horse's body tissues, including the joints, are constantly being stressed and used, undergoing minor injuries, being called on to strengthen so they can withstand different activities.

The only way your horse's body can keep up with these demands, and keep repairing and rebuilding successfully, is if he has the raw materials on hand to do it.

"You are what you eat" is more than just a catchy phrase. The horse has to have a good supply of the horse feed needed to protect his joints from being excessively damaged from wear and tear before his body can get a chance to repair them.

Living with Arthritis

  • Avoid letting the horse get overweight; build the diet on generous amounts of hay.
  • Make sure the horse is getting adequate amounts and correct proportions of key vitamins and minerals.
  • Feed a joint nutraceutical at a "loading dose," a dosage high enough to get pain relief. Start with glucosamine.
  • Add chondroitin or a combination product, if you don't get adequate results from glucosamine. Try a product with HA (hyaluronic acid) or an herbal, like devil's claw, for pain and inflammation control, if needed.

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Basic Nutrients
Fortunately, the raw materials the horse's body needs to assemble joint cartilage and produce joint fluid are readily abundant from the diet. He needs glucose, which comes from the digestion of sugars and starches and can be manufactured as needed by the liver, and the small building blocks of protein called amino acids. Unless the horse is severely malnourished, he's not going to run into any shortages of these.

What does become more important, though, is the supply of key minerals needed to make things happen, to piece together the glucose and amino acid molecules. Some vitamins also play a vital role in bone and joint health. See the chart on page 27 for details and some guidelines for basic diet supplementation.

Hay should be the cornerstone of any horse's diet, but especially one with arthritis. Too much grain only leads to excess weight, which further stresses the joints.

Choose hays that are of a good green color, an indicator of good vitamin A content, and have a fresh smell. Mixing types of hays increases the chances that the horse will get the balance of minerals that he needs.

Oat hay is a good companion to alfalfa or peanut hay. Feed one-fourth to one-third as alfalfa or peanut, three-fourths to two-thirds as oat hay. When feeding other types of grass hay, try to give the horse a mix of as many different types as possible. Very coarse hays or stemmy alfalfas often have lower mineral levels than hays cut at an early stage of their growth.

Joint Supplements
Once you have your horse's basic diet squared away, you can help him further by using a joint nutraceutical. Joint nutraceuticals are ingredients that directly "feed" the joint. These supplements contain one or more of the following: glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, Perna mussel.

What they do is help the horse repair his joints by bypassing some of the steps in forming the components of joint cartilage and/or joint fluid. In other words, instead of having to start from glucose and amino acids to assemble molecules of glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid, you feed them to the horse already preformed. Some of this is absorbed intact; some will be broken down by digestive enzymes into smaller components, which can then be reassembled after they are absorbed.

Another way these substances can help is by tying up the destructive enzymes inside the horse's joint. Instead of attacking the joint tissue or fluid, the enzymes become bound to supplement ingredients. This inactivates the enzymes and allows the joint to get ahead with the job of healing.

Although scientific studies proving these supplements work, especially in horses, are scant, those that do exist are positive. Several million doses of joint supplements are given to horses every year, and they definitely help.

In addition to directly improving arthritis symptoms, use of these supplements decreases or eliminates the need for corticosteroids, pain medications and joint injections. If joint injections are still needed, it's common to find that the interval between injections is significantly prolonged in horses receiving oral joint supplements.

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