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Hands-on Help for Arthritis in Horses

Left to their own devices, arthritic horses won't move around enough to keep their joints working smoothly. They need help to get adequate exercise.

Arthritis in your horse is not a death sentence. But when you think of arthritis in your horse, all you can think of are words like "incurable," "degenerative" and "painful." But don't despair because you can do a lot to manage arthritis in your horse, giving arthritic horses many more years of comfortable, active and rideable life. All you need is time and commitment to your arthritic horse.

Don't limit your efforts to the feed tub. By paying attention to foot care and exercise plus a few other available arthritic therapies, you can make a tremendous difference in your horse's life.

Foot Care
Arthritis in your horse is a degeneration of joint tissues caused by constant stress. The mechanics of the feet in large part determine the forces your horse's joints experience. If the feet do not contact the ground properly, and distribute the impact evenly, uneven loading will occur.

There's only one thing to remember about trimming and shoeing a horse with arthritis. It's imperative to keep the foot correctly trimmed, balanced and landing flat. Forget about special shoes, wedges and padding to begin with and look at the bare hoof - the horse's natural "shoe."

Be sure to have your farrier trim the hoof in keeping with the horse's conformation.

From the side, the angle of the hoof wall should be the same as the angle of the pastern when the horse stands with his legs correctly positioned underneath him. The foot should have a gentle, continuous downward slope to the coronary band from the center of the toe to the heel, with no plateaus or upward bumps. From behind, the bulbs of the heels should be at the same height/distance from the ground. On the sole surface, the horse should have an equal amount of foot on either side of an imaginary line drawn through the middle of the frog, and the point of the frog should be pointing at the center of the toe.

Watch the horse walk directly at you and also from the side. The foot should land heel first and perfectly flat, not to one side or the other. It doesn't matter if the horse swings the leg to the inside or outside before putting it down. It's whether or not the landing is even and flat that's important.

If your horse's feet don't meet these criteria, your first step is to correct that. Although there are exceptions, which should be determined in consultation with both your vet and your farrier, most arthritic horses do best barefoot. This is because barefoot allows the hoof to function normally, as it was designed to do, and that is something that cannot be accomplished with a shoe. Being barefoot also allows the horse's foot to break over and wear in the way that is most comfortable for him - which isn't always something we can predict, especially if more than one area in the leg is causing him discomfort. A horse also has no better traction device, without risking too much "grab," than a bare hoof.

When Your Horse is Arthritic.

  • Keep the foot correctly trimmed, balanced and landing flat.
  • Put the horse on a regular, formal exercise plan.
  • Use cooling therapy for acute flareups and after formal exercise.
  • Use heat therapy for chronic stiffness and before formal exercise.

Exercise
Because people assume exercise will be painful with arthritis, and heavy exercise is believed to be a risk factor for developing it in the first place, they often think that the best thing to do is to stop formal exercise and retire the horse. It's not.

Left to his own devices, a horse with a sore joint is likely to become protective of it and use it less. Over time, this leads to weakness of the muscles and connective tissues in the involved leg, overstressing of the other legs, tendon stiffness and weakening, even loss of mobility in the joint that can be difficult or impossible to reverse. The calcium deposits (osteophytes) that form around the edges of inflamed, arthritic joints can fuse together to permanently make the joint less flexible.

Reasonable exercise, on the other hand, can prevent all of these things. It is also important to the health of the joint cartilage and its ability to repair itself, because joint cartilage has no direct blood supply and it must receive all the nutrients it needs from the joint fluid. Joint cartilage is like a sponge. It compresses when the leg lands, forcing the trapped fluid in its spaces out, and expands again when weight is lifted, allowing fresh fluid in.

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