After decades of work, it’s the rare horse who reaches his elder years without some degree of osteoarthritis. This joint inflammation causes stiffness and soreness most often in the hips, knees or hocks. Left unchecked, the cartilage in the joint may begin to break down, leading to permanent damage. But you can manage older horses to keep their joints healthy.
Earliest signs of arthritis can include heat and swelling in a joint, reduced activity when the horse is at liberty, stiffness or mild lameness that disappears with exercise, and an unusual reluctance to jump, turn around a barrel or perform other athletic activities.
The good news is that an array of treatment strategies can help control the pain and inflammation and even encourage some healing of weakened joint cartilage. Many horses can continue in light work long into their 20s. been forced into retirement. Several treatments and therapies that can help an arthritic horse remain active longer.
Joint support tips and treatments for older horses
1. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medications, which include the barn staple phenyl-butazone (bute), ease both the pain and inflammation of arthritis. However, long-term use of bute can cause gastric ulcers, so it’s best reserved for acute flare-ups. Another type of NSAID, called a COX-2 inhibitor, offers horses the same level of relief for the pain and inflammation, and it may potentially have fewer side effects. Most NSAIDs are administered orally, via pills, powders or pastes, and one topical product is also available.
2. Feed supplements. Many nutraceuticals formulated to protect or promote joint health are available. Because they are not regulated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration, however, their efficacy has not been studied extensively. Nonetheless, research suggests that some of these products can help reduce joint pain and inflammation; look for products incorporating such ingredients as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronan or hyaluronic acid (HA), polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), avocado-soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), resveratrol and vitamin C.
3. Turnout and exercise. ≈ He may be a little creaky and stiff when he first comes out of his stall in the morning, but his joints will loosen as he begins to move out. For many horses, other types of gentle exercise, such as hand-walking or light work under saddle, are also beneficial.
4. Alternative therapies. Little research is available, but some people have reported good results with therapies such as chiropractic care and acupuncture. Talk to your veterinarian about options that may be suitable for your horse.