Arthritis in Horses
By: Karen E.N. Hayes, DVM
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 3-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. (For how to start or maintain your senior on an
exercise program, see "Age-Adjusted Exercise," page 340.) 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
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
of the joint-friendly supplements in the chart at right for your
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
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 for horses
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.
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.
Apply a standing bandage. If the joint is wrappable, apply a
standing banding to help reduce swelling and inflammation.
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.
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
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
This article is an excerpt from HANDS-ON SENIOR HORSE CARE, The Complete Book of Senior Equine Management & First Aid, published
by Primedia Enthusiast Publications. To order online go to the Equine Collection.