In one sense, arthritis is inevitable. Virtually any horse who lives long enough will develop a bit of creakiness in at least one joint. This type of arthritis is simply the byproduct of an active, long life, and it’s fairly easy to manage, perhaps with a dietary supplement and/or the occasional dose of medication.
But other cases of arthritis pose more of a challenge. Joint deterioration that develops early in a horse’s life or progresses to the point where his day-to-day activities are adversely affected can be career-ending and even life- threatening. In those cases, significant intervention, including cutting-edge therapies, may be necessary to keep the condition in check and the horse comfortable.
Which type of arthritis a horse is likely to develop is impossible to know for sure, but you can prepare for the likeliest by looking for specific risk factors in his past as well as his current situation. Some of these can’t be mitigated—what’s done is done —but knowing they happened can put you on alert for the earliest signs of arthritis, allowing you to get an early diagnosis and a jump start on managing the condition. Other risk factors may be ongoing, which means you can still take steps to eliminate or reduce their effects.
Here’s a rundown of events and conditions that put your horse in a higher risk category for the eventual development of arthritis.
RISK FACTOR: Developmental orthopedic disease (dod)
The term “developmental orthopedic disease” (DOD) applies to a collection of bone and joint abnormalities that arise when the conversion of cartilage to bone is disrupted in a young, growing foal. Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), for instance, occurs when cartilage is too thick to be sufficiently permeated by blood vessels and the bone beneath it develops weak, empty spots referred to as “lesions.” In epiphysitis, areas of growing cartilage at the end of bones cannot support the youngster’s weight, leading to inflammation in areas under stress.
Particular breeds and bloodlines are genetically prone to DOD, but a high-protein diet greatly increases any youngster’s risk, as does lack of turnout and/or forced exercise, such as excessive longeing or ponying. DOD is managed with dietary changes and, in advanced cases, surgery to remove damaged cartilage and bone.
With early intervention and care, many foals with DOD can grow up to be sound, useful horses, but some studies suggest that the damage done to an immature joint, particularly scoring by small osteochondral fragments, can lead to arthritis later in life.
Making sure a young foal has a proper diet and a sensible activity level not only will help prevent DOD in the short term but can pay off in soundness years down the road. If your horse is now grown, but you know he had DOD as a youngster, keep an eye out for early signs of arthritis so you can begin intervention as soon as possible.
RISK FACTOR: Significant musculoskeletal injury
Bone or soft tissue injuries can contribute to arthritis in several ways. The first is obvious: Sudden, massive inflammation in the wake of a severe injury can lead to the destruction of cartilage and set the stage for the development of arthritis. Likewise, penetrating injuries, such a puncture wounds, are particularly devastating to joints because they can introduce infectious organisms to the joint space.
Musculoskeletal trauma can increase the likelihood of arthritis in less direct ways as well. The inactivity and loss of conditioning resulting from the stall rest needed for recovery can play a role, for instance. Also, any compensatory postures and movement that the horse uses to spare a sore limb, even for a short period of time, can stress other joints.
If your horse sustains an injury you will, of course, initially focus on helping him recover and heal. But as you do, keep the potential long-term consequences in mind. Ask your veterinarian if there are measures you can take to minimize the risk of arthritis down the line. These may involve feed supplements and/or specific rehabilitation and reconditioning techniques.
RISK FACTOR: Hard training before physical maturity
One of the smartest moves you can make early in your horse’s athletic career is going slow. An immature horse’s cartilage is still forming and not able to withstand hard or repetitive work. It is more likely to be damaged and less likely to be able to heal itself, leading to the development of early, and possibly severe, arthritis.
How soon a young horse can handle training depends largely on his breed: Warmbloods need more time to mature, while Quarter Horses may be ready sooner. There is also individual variation, so a youngster who doesn’t look as physically mature as his peers probably isn’t. When you do put a young horse into work, take it slowly. Keep in mind that torque (twisting force) is particularly tough on joints, so limit the amount of work done in small circles or with tight turns and resist the urge to drill new skills repetitively. Also, be sure to incorporate plenty of rest days.
Finally, set aside competitive goals if your young horse doesn’t seem to be adapting well to the work. Putting off a show or two now is a small price to pay for soundness in the years to come.
RISK FACTOR: Poor or inconsistent farriery care
Hoof imbalances place stress on all the joints above them. Whether it’s chronic long toes and low heels or overgrowth resulting from inconsistently scheduled trims, slipshod farriery care contributes directly to the development of arthritis.
A bad or inappropriate trim won’t necessarily lead to immediate lameness—horses are good at compensating in the short term—which can make poor farriery work hard to detect. But the subclinical damage done by hoof imbalances takes a toll on joints, leading to arthritis years down the line.
Selecting the right farrier, then, is key to preventing arthritis. One smart approach is to seek recommendations from other owners who participate in the same sports or activities that you do: If you compete in reining, for instance, look for the shoeing professional who cares for the soundest rein horses in the area. Also ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
Once you’ve chosen a farrier, stick to a regular schedule for trimming and shoeing. Don’t wait until hooves are overgrown to call for an appointment. Schedule visits at regular intervals, then stick to those dates.
RISK FACTOR: Long layoffs
Healthy joints rely on the health of nearby structures. The tendons, ligaments and muscles around a joint help to support it as the horse moves. If these structures are weak, the joint may become unstable, leading to arthritis over time. An out-of-shape horse may not be lame or seem otherwise biomechanically compromised, but his lack of fitness is silently stressing his joints. Movement also helps keep joints lubricated by pushing synovial fluid through their spaces. Consider how stiff your own knees may feel after a long period of sitting.
Of course, a few weeks of relative rest between competition seasons won’t cause a horse to lose enough condition to threaten joint health. But prolonged periods of inactivity can. And it’s not just the lack of movement during these periods that’s problematic, but also the risk of stress and injury when your horse’s work resumes. The older a horse is, the harder it is to bring him back to fitness. Add a touch of normal, age-related arthritis to that equation and an older horse may have an especially hard time coming back from a long period of inactivity.
So do all you can do keep your horse active and fit year-round. Keep him on a regular exercise schedule and turn him out with an active herd as much as possible. Try to maintain this schedule as he ages, even (and especially) if he does develop arthritis.
Although your first instinct may be to leave a stiff horse in his stall, physical activity is critical to keeping the condition in check, both by encouraging movement of fluid within the joint and keeping the structures around it healthy and strong. Regular turnout in a large space with a friendly herd is an important part of managing arthritis, as is sensible riding.
RISK FACTOR: Too much work without enough rest
While inactivity can be a risk factor for arthritis, so too, can excessive exercise. Without periodic days of rest, a horse’s body can’t keep up with managing the minor inflammatory processes that can be a natural consequence of any activity. Staying in continual work escalates the inflammatory cascade, leading to arthritis.
For pleasure horses, downtime isn’t too hard to schedule. A day off after a longer-than-usual trail ride or a weekend of heavy showing usually coincides with the average rider’s work schedule anyway. But for horses in a serious competitive campaign or those who work for a living, such as lesson or ranch horses, scheduling days off can take some planning and compromise. But it’s critical to do so. During those “off” days, turnout in a large space with a friendly companion is ideal for allowing the horse to rest while still encouraging enough activity to avoid stiffness and keep joint fluid moving.
RISK FACTOR: Obesity
Obesity often comes with a lack of fitness, but it also counts as its own arthritis risk factor. The extra weight that the joints of an overweight horse must bear with each step multiplies the stresses related to any activity. Consider the tendency of draft horses to develop the arthritic conditions sidebone and ringbone; the sheer size of these horses makes them susceptible, even if they are not overweight. And the more years a horse spends carrying excess weight, the more damage is done; it’s never too late in life to try to reduce a horse’s weight.
An easy-keeper might be ridden regularly but still carry extra weight. In that case, you need to cut back on the calories he takes in each day. Don’t give in to the feeling you “need” to feed an active horse a high-calorie feed. Good-quality hay alone can provide enough nutrition for many horses. If you can’t find good-quality hay, or can’t overcome the feeling you must provide something in your horse’s feed tub each evening, look for a “balancer” pellet that provides nutrition without the unneeded calories. Also, consider fitting your horse with a grazing muzzle when pastures are lush. As you cut back on calories, keep him active and monitor his weight. If he loses too much, you’ll want to tweak the formula.
An out-of-shape, obese horse poses a particular challenge. In addition to dietary changes, you’ll also need to increase his activity to reduce his weight, but too much work too soon can lead to stresses or injury that increase the risk of arthritis. Consult with a trusted trainer and/or your veterinarian to devise a progressive conditioning program and diet plan that makes sense given your horse’s situation and limitations. Then, as you watch for changes in his weight, also keep an eye out for signs that you’re pushing the exercise program too hard.
A touch of arthritis isn’t going to ruin your horse’s golden years, but early-onset or debilitating changes in joint health can be devastating. Looking to your horse’s past and current experiences can help you determine if you’re likely to be facing that challenge as well as provide some clues as to how you might be able manage or even alter what the future holds for his joints.