What it is: 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.
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.
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.