Joint-friendly training for your horse

Here's how five top trainers keep their horses in top condition while protecting joint health and soundness.

It’s a constant concern with horses in sport: how to shield those all-important fetlocks, knees, elbows, hocks, stifles, shoulders and hips (the list goes on!) from wear and tear. Even the spine consists of a series of joints that are subject to injury. That’s a lot of working parts, and working parts need regular maintenance to continue working.

One day, you might notice that your horse isn’t jogging as fluidly as usual, or that he’s less flexible when working cattle, jumping a course, performing a shoulder-in or ambling down the trail. He might even start pulling up lame. Whether a horse is a “greenie” or a veteran, stiffness, heat, swelling and lameness speak to the pernicious process of degenerative joint disease known as osteoarthritis.

So how to preserve these precious parts? Each type of horse sport carries with it different risks to the joints. It’s a good idea to take stock of these risks and initiate steps to minimize them as much as possible. Here, noted equestrians in different disciplines share some of their strategies for joint protection.

Suppleness and stability

One of the most elegant equestrian disciplines to watch, dressage is training in the purest sense and a building block for other horse sports.

But at the upper levels in particular, dressage horses can be vulnerable in the hocks and stifles due to the increased demand on those joints during movements that call for collection. So says Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel of Woodsboro, Maryland, who has trained horses to Grand Prix level: “In the front legs, the joints from the ankle down can be affected from horses landing too hard on their front feet if they are not working in balance.”

To protect joints from injury, von Neumann-Cosel believes a careful conditioning program is essential. She recommends including a warm-up phase in the walk—particularly with older horses. A change of scenery doesn’t hurt, either. “I do like walking the horses outside when possible on trail, believing that a change of surface and terrain can be helpful for conditioning as well as for proprioception,” she says.


Balance is important, too, she maintains. “In the actual work, I believe that a horse evenly balanced on four feet, ridden in the right tempo with cadence so the feet hit the ground with springs, help to preserve all joints. This work, ridden with the horse reaching to the bit with an arched neck [and] lifting its sternum, will give enough positive tension in the nucal ligament to protect the back,” she says.

It makes sense that a strong joint is probably less prone to injury. But how to develop that strength? In her experience, von Neumann-Cosel says, the movements required in dressage up to Grand Prix—when “training mindfully, with a horse in self carriage—is actually the perfect strengthening exercises for the equine athlete to stay sound and happy.”

She adds that things to avoid include too many big trot extensions and staying in a collected movement for too long—not to mention working a tired horse. “The harder the work gets, I reward with a walk break often; that also keeps the horse from getting too fatigued,” she says. “A tired horse will get injured.”

Leg protection, shoeing and more

Leg protection, appropriate shoeing and regular turnout are other considerations. “For external protection, we use fleece-lined boots on all four legs,” von Neumann-Cosel says. In addition, “I have a fantastic farrier who keeps the horse’s feet balanced and short enough to hit the ground level and to be able to push off the ground easily,” she explains. “Our horses have a regular turnout routine of three hours or more if possible.” She adds that some supplements, including those containing chondroitin and glucosamine, are helpful.

Ali Calkins, a United States Dressage Federation bronze medalist in Mount Airy, Maryland, is also especially mindful of the hocks. “In any equine athlete, hock arthritis is very common—but especially in dressage, being that we ask for significant loading on the hind end,” she says. The suspensory ligament can become another concern, she adds, if horses are pushed to move “too big, too fast.”


For this reason, Calkins takes a conservative approach when training young horses, especially the late-maturing warmbloods that dominate the sport. “I don’t introduce the saddle and bridle until they are 3, add a rider when they are 3 1/2, and lightly start getting them more broke under saddle when they are coming closer to 4,” she explains. “I am also a big advocate of in-hand work in the horse’s younger years. When they are young, their bodies are looser and more elastic, an essential quality to a dressage horse and also for arthritis prevention. In-hand work can help build strength and education without the stress or weight of a rider.”

When youngsters reach age 4, Calkins puts them in light work two to three days a week to help them become more connected and balanced. “Teaching horses how to be supple and equally use both sides of their bodies is another key to long-term soundness,” she says. “Every horse has a stiff side, and it is the rider’s job to help build muscling as symmetrically as possible to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on a single side.”

About flashy movement

And forget the flashy movement displayed by some youngsters, Calkins says. “As appealing as this is to watch, letting a horse push bigger than their body is really ready for under saddle at too young of an age puts the suspensory and other tendons and ligaments at risk for injury,” she explains. “My conservative approach to protect growing joints is also to protect soft-tissue structures. I teach my horses to be forward, not rushed, and save the ‘big and flashy’ for later, and mostly for the show ring.” 

Good nutrition is an important component in joint health, Calkins says, noting that the weightlifting aspect of a dressage horse’s job requires support. To that end, she works with equine nutrition specialists to develop feed regimens for each individual from an early age. “It’s common to wait until the age that you think your horse may be developing arthritis to begin supplementing, but the sooner you begin when they start working, the better,” she says.

Regarding equipment, Calkins says that all of her equine athletes work in front or front and hind brush boots. She also uses quick wraps and hock boots.

Strength and stamina

Ask Western performance legend Al Dunning about how reining and cutting affect equine joints, and he’ll start by explaining that horses in these sports are bred to be great—even extreme—athletes.

 “These horses must stop hard, which is stressful on both hind and front joints,” says Dunning, who trains out of Scottsdale, Arizona. “The reining horse turns around in his spins in an abnormal motion that horses don’t do naturally. Also, the low-down, right-and-left movement of a cutting horse taxes joints to the maximum.”

Not surprisingly, the hocks and stifles bear the brunt of this stress. The risk, says Dunning, is that tendon and ligaments subjected to this kind of exertion—especially with a lot of stopping—can sustain injury, which can contribute to arthritis down the road. To guard against this, Dunning relies on a consistent exercise regimen and never works a horse hard unless he’s in top condition, with an emphasis on strength and stamina.

Warmup and shoeing

“We look at our horses as we do a human athlete and know that proper exercise, nutrition, supplements and enough rest are key. Proper warm-up exercises and stretching to warm up before working [are] also necessary,” he notes.

Then there’s the issue of shoeing. “Making sure our horses are shod properly and at correct intervals is important to be sure the upper columns of joints are not tweaked by foot fall problems,” Dunning says . The bottom line: Good technical shoeing can help protect the joints of a reining or cutting horse. In reining horses, Dunning explains that performance shoeing will allow both the front and back feet to move properly without interference or adverse traction in a deep slide. If a cutting horse is shod, he says that balanced feet, backed-up front toes and tight shoes with no overhang should enable quick movement with less chance of injury.

In addition, he uses front and hind boots on reining and cutting horses but stresses that they must be applied properly, conform well to the leg and guard against concussion issues. “Depending on the exact activity, we [also] use splint boots, skid boots, bell boots and knee boots,” he adds. 

Doing enough without overdoing

The show hunters, jumpers and equitation horses that are Scott Lico’s stock in trade have one thing in common—jumping. Visualize the hind legs acting as springs with every gravity-defying leap. While a well-executed jump looks effortless, it is also can take a toll on joints.

A United States Hunter Jumper Association certified trainer, Lico—who works out of Lake View Terrace, California—has studied under many of the sport’s masters and specializes in high-performance show jumpers. The stress of jumping most affects the coffin joint, fetlock, hock and stifle, he says. “In my experience, navicular disease is also a common cause of lameness in the jumping horse,” Lico notes.

Only so many jumps

He repeats a familiar refrain among hunter/jumper veterans: “A horse only has so many jumps in its lifetime, and we must take care to not over-jump and to preserve the horse’s soundness.

“Proper management is extremely important when it comes to the show jumper,” Lico continued. “My horses actually do not jump very often or very big at home. In fact, they spend more time working hard on their flatwork and only jump twice per week. At the shows, which [are] a special occasion, we will jump three times per week.” He also keeps longeing and tight turns or circles to a minimum while under saddle.

Lico is a big believer in joint supplements containing gluco- samine to aid in cartilage repair. However, his overall strategies, whether the horse is a hunter, a jumper or an equitation mount, vary depending on the individual, its age and its workload. Once a horse is around 7 years old and starting to jump bigger fences, he says, they may start receiving intramuscular injections of polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs), systemic therapy designed to manage arthritis or joint pain.

Injections that can help

Intra-articular injections are another matter, however. “Joint injections [are] something that can greatly help to decrease inflammation and improve the joint environment, but [they are] something that I’m not very quick to do,” Lico says, referring to the injection of cortisteroids, hyaluronic acid (HA) or PSGAGS directly into the joint. “I save this treatment for the horse that is usually 12 years old or older and could use the added assistance when recommended by my veterinarian.”

As for equipment, Lico uses protective boots and bandages when riding, longeing, turning out and shipping. He opts for polo wraps in front when working a horse on the flat, he says, while he uses ankle boots on the hind legs to protect the fetlock joints while schooling dressage movements.

“Bell boots, when fitted properly, do well to protect the heel of the horse,” he commented. “When training or showing over fences, my preference is a breathable open front boot that fits well in front and an ankle boot behind. I’ll also use a quarter bell boot to protect the heel.”

Lico’s favorite joint-related thera-pies include icing a horse’s legs for 20 minutes after jumping or working hard on the flat to reduce swelling and inflammation. He says he also likes to standing-wrap his horses after a hard workout.

Tip top trail work

Even if your horse never sets foot in the show ring, you’ll want to do what you can to protect his joint health. Following trails, for example, can stress a horse’s joints, given the hills and un- even terrain you might encounter. Just ask Julie Goodnight, a well- known multidisciplinary trainer and clinician based in Poncha S prings, Colorado.

“Like with any riding sport, the more arduous the effort, the more wear and tear it has on a horse’s joints,” she says. “I live in the high mountains of Colorado, where trail riding can be very steep, rocky and with unstable footing. It’s widely believed that horses should not be ridden in the moun-tains until they are 4 years old, to avoid injury and joint damage.”

The risks multiply when casual treks become long-distance rides. “It’s about the hours/days and miles you put on the horse,” Goodnight explains. “Just as with humans, your body can only take so much physical abuse before you start seeing physical effects. Not all trails are created equally, either. Light riding on soft, flat footing with an 80-pound kid won’t cause much joint damage in a horse. But arduous, steep, rocky trails, all day long and over distances of 20 miles or more, will take its toll on your horse’s joints.”

Joint support options

Joint support needs to start well before you take to the trails, Goodnight says. “To avoid joint injuries, I make sure my horses are in excellent physical condition to be enduring the trails I take them on and the number of miles I expect to ride,” she says. “Joint injuries are much more likely to occur on a tired horse or one that is in poor shape.”

In addition, she notes, “The horse’s strength and balance has everything to do with how well he negotiates difficult terrain and the weight of the rider, and whether or not he avoids injury. I know it takes at least 90 days of steady riding, excellent nutrition and supplements to make an impact on the horse’s fitness. This is why it’s important to set your goals well in advance, to make sure your horse is ready for the ride.”

Speaking of supplements, Goodnight says she starts her horses on joint- health supplements containing glucosamine “at a very young age.” Though such supplements can be expensive, Goodnight says she’s found that you get what you pay for: “I only feed my horses supplements that have pure ingredients, a high level of quality control.”

What young horses need

In addition, Goodnight says, “If I have a young and/or green horse that might spook at times or may not be surefooted yet, protective boots could help prevent injury.” But, she adds that boots can pose certain challenges on the trail, if they become loose, get wet, heat up a leg or even comes off while riding in company. “For recreational trail riding on an experienced, surefooted horse, I would not use protective boots—the wear and tear on their joints is happening on the inside,” she says.

When all is said and done, the methods might vary according to the types of exertion involved, the preferences of trainers and the needs of individual horses, but certain commonalities can be found among the joint-protection strategies implemented in most equine sports. These include the early use of joint support measures; tailoring a horse’s workload to his age and conditioning level; and feeding, shoeing and resting him properly throughout his competitive career.

Finally, of course, it’s always wise to to consult a veterinarian early and often during the development of any joint protection program.




Related Posts

Gray horse head in profile on EQ Extra 89 cover
What we’ve learned about PPID
Do right by your retired horse
Tame your horse’s anxiety
COVER EQ_EXTRA-VOL86 Winter Care_fnl_Page_1
Get ready for winter!


"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.