Why do arthritic horses have more trouble during the winter?

In both horses and people, joints can get stiff during colder weather but there’s also another factor at play.

Question: I have an 18-year-old Quarter Horse with mild arthritis in his hocks. Through most of the year he does well on just a joint supplement. But during colder weather he gets “creaky.” It takes him a long time to warm up when I ride him. And when he walks out of the stall some mornings, he seems extremely stiff. What is it about the colder months that makes his joints hurt? Is there anything I can do to help him? My husband jokes about retiring to some place warmer, but that’s not an option right now.

It’s not just the cold that can make arthritic joints stiff and sore during the winter. (Getty Images)

Answer: I think many of us dream of retiring to warmer climes because it’s not only equine joints that get stiff and sore during colder weather! However, one cause of winter joint pain has nothing to do with the ambient temperature of the season. Instead, it’s associated with barometric pressure, a measure of the weight exerted by air molecules in earth’s atmosphere.

When barometric pressure drops, our bodies are subject to less pressure from the surrounding air. That, in turn, means that the tendons, ligaments and muscles that support joints can expand. The resulting micro-changes in joint stability can lead to pain, particularly where even minor osteoarthritis is present. That’s why the joint-support supplements or other supportive care you provide your horse may not be working as well as they do during the warmer months.

A contributing factor

Compounding the situation is the fact that horses tend to be less interested in moving around during cold weather. Depending on where a horse is stabled, he will typically hang out most of the day in the least windy corner of his pasture or the warmest part of his stall.

So, in the winter horses move around less, they’re not grazing, and they are not being ridden as much. Add to that the drops in barometric pressure often associated with winter weather systems and you have multiple factors that can contribute to stiffer muscles and joints, especially in horses that already have osteoarthritis.

What you can do

You can help your horse overcome cold-weather joint issues by keeping him moving, making sure he has good shelter and taking your time when warming him up for a ride. I’d also recommend asking your veterinarian about anything additional that can be done for your horse during periods when he seems to be especially struggling with lameness.

Your veterinarian may recommend a variety of treatments, including admin-istering a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication or a systemic dose of hyal-uronic acid, to relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis.

Julie Settlage, DVM, CCFP, CBC,

MSc VetEd, DACVS-LA

Professional Services Veterinarian Boehringer Ingelheim

Our expert: Julie Settlage, DVM, is an Equine Professional Services Veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. She finds joy in teaching veterinary students, veterinarians, and horse owners.

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