Stiff and painful arthritic joints can afflict horses of all ages and keeping your horse as comfortable as possible is imperative. Wearing hoof boots is an effective aid to ease the stress on the affected joint and will also encourage your horse to remain active, which will help eliminate some of the stiffness.
By Helle Maigaard Erhardsen
Everyone knows how important exercise is to keep fit and healthy. This goes for your horse too. Although excessive exercise can do more harm than good, and years of strenuous athletic activity is likely to take its toll on your horse’s joints and biomechanics.
Arthritis in horses is basically joint pain caused by inflammation. Sadly, arthritis is not only a consequence of old age, but can afflict horses of all ages. According to Kentucky Equine Research, there are three stages of equine arthritis. The first stage is called Synovitis, which is recognised particularly by the swelling of the affected joint due to an increase in joint fluid production.
The second stage is chronic arthritis, also known as DJD – Degenerative Joint Disease. This is characterized by chronic, progressive degeneration of the joint cartilage and is commonly found in the fetlock, knee or in the pastern and hock.
The third is Osteoarthritis, which involves progressive degeneration of the joint cartilage, enlargement of the bone margins, and changes in the membrane surrounding the joint capsule. This condition is marked by pain and stiffness during activity and is more common in older horses.
Years of strenuous exercise is likely to take its toll on your horse’s joints. Arthritis is one of the most common reasons horses are retired prematurely.
Causes of Equine Arthritis
As a horse owner, acting promptly to any signs of pain, swelling and lameness in your horse is utmost important. In cooperation with your equine veterinarian, most horses can recover from the first stage of arthritis, but not if the inflammation is ignored and degeneration of the joint cartilage has begun.
The first stage, which is inflammation of the synovial membrane, is typically found in horses that are worked strenuously day after day. DJD is usually the result of recurring incidents of Synovitis, perhaps in combination with stress from landing after a jump, working at speed or doing prompt stops, as this causes the once smooth cartilage to become rough and flattened, losing all ability to withstand compression.
However, there are other factors than demanding exercise, that are known to either make matters worse or cause arthritis in itself. These include old injuries, joint infections, genetic predisposition, poor conformation and poor trimming and shoeing.
The latter is mainly problematic due to the fact that horseshoes significantly reduces the hooves’ ability to absorb shock, which allows greater concussive force to pass into the bones and soft tissue of the distal limb, according to Nic Barker & Sarah Braithwaite in “Feet First: Barefoot Performance and Hoof Rehabilitation”.
In addition, farriers often trim the horse’s hooves to fit the shoes, rather than fitting the shoe to the shape of the hooves. As hooves are highly dynamic, they will grow to compensate for issues in other parts of the body such as imbalances from old injuries or joint pain. Then if the hooves are trimmed back to fit a certain shape of shoe, it is likely to put more stress on the affected joint, if the underlying cause of the issue is not resolved.
Shod hooves lose more than fifty percent of their natural ability to absorb shock, which affects the joints throughout the limb.
Management of Joint Pain for Horses with Arthritis
At acute arthritis, which is recognised by swelling, lameness, stiffness and usually excessive heat in the joint, it should be possible for your horse to recover with rest and veterinary assistance. At this stage, it is crucial to rest your horse for a sufficient amount of time and slowly increase the workload afterwards to avoid a relapse, which could lead to more chronic joint damage.
At the second and third stage of equine arthritis, you will not only need to rest your horse. Now the most important thing is to help him be as comfortable as possible. Hoof boots are a great help through all three stages of equine arthritis, as they provide cushioning and shock absorption, which will relieve the stress on the aching joints.
Hoof boots from Scoot Boots are an excellent choice, not only because you can add extra shock absorption from Scoot Pads but also because they are unsurpassed in their level of ventilation. The supreme ventilation means that your horse can keep them on 24/7 without the risk of bacteria build-up that could then cause additional issues.
Being able to turn your horse out comfortably rather than keeping him contained in a stall, is essential to maintain joint mobility and keep stiffness in check. If he’s comfortable enough, you can even keep riding your arthritic horse. If wearing hoof boots, these will also lessen the impact on your arthritic horse, if he should happen to step on a sharp object, as his reaction to this could otherwise cause a painful shock up through the limb.
Scoot Boots used to increase shock absorption and keep woolen socks in place to warm up sore arthritic fetlock joints.
Treatment of Arthritis in Horses and Joint Supplements
Depending on which stage of arthritis your horse is at, your veterinarian might choose to inject anti-inflammatory agents directly into the affected joint or supply him with a daily pain relief such as Butazone, especially if he’s got arthritis in multiple joints. Although supporting the treatment with a joint supplement is often recommended.
Equine joint supplements are big business and deciding which brand to choose can be a challenge in itself. However, a good place to start is asking your veterinarian for advice. Most joint supplements, for humans as well, are based on Glucosamine combined with Chondroitin, which has many years of research behind its effectiveness.
Hyaluronic acid has also proven effective in some horses for controlling heat, pain and swelling. MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is another popular supplement for horses with arthritis, which has excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Although you need to keep an eye out for the levels of active ingredients in your supplement, whether that be Glucosamine or MSM, as levels are often too low to be effective.
Joint supplements are not only effective in relieving pain and inflammation but can also be a way to help prevent arthritis by keeping your horse’s joints healthy. However, adding a supplement to your horse’s feed is not a one-stop-fix. You need to keep the rest of his body fit as well, as we will explore in the following.
Joint effusions, which are pockets of fluid around the ankles, are commonly found on racing Thoroughbreds. This 15yo ex-racehorse has started daily preventative joint supplements.
How to prevent Arthritis and Joint Pain in Horses
You might need to adjust to the fact that your horse is likely to develop arthritis at some stage, as he gets older. That is why it can be really useful to learn how to keep him as comfortable as possible. Although there are few factors that have proven to increase the likeliness of developing arthritis and as such, should be avoided.
First, you should avoid your horse getting overweight. Excessive weight can cause laminitis, but is also overloading the joints and as a result, the joints are likely to wear down before time. Similarly, you should be careful about riding your horse too young. The extra weight of a rider will put unnecessary stress on his joints, if he hasn’t matured enough.
Keeping your horse fit and active has proven crucial to keeping arthritis at bay. Appropriate exercise will strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the joints and keep the structure stable. Although this refers to unforced exercise such as paddock turnout and light ridden work. Keep in mind that the horse wasn’t built to carry a rider or to do hours upon hours of work in an arena or on a racetrack.
The last and perhaps most important thing to be aware of, is that unbalanced hooves will inevitably lead to arthritis. It is imperative that your hoof care provider understands how your horse is built to be in balance to avoid merely trimming him to the perceived perfect hoof look, as this could potentially bring the entire limb out of balance and force the horse to put too much stress on his joints.
As such, whether your horse is shod or barefoot, make sure your horse is always up to date with trimming and that be done by a qualified hoof professional.
About the author
Helle Maigaard Erhardsen is an investigative journalist specialising in environmental issues. Her devotion to the outdoors includes a life long passion for horses of which she has two: Pannigan, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and Audrey, a Shetland pony, who are both bitless and barefoot. Helle is born in Denmark, where she graduated from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2015. Her work is characterised by comprehensive research and she was nominated for the special media award Bording Prisen for her investigative reporting with the newspaper Ing.dk. She later obtained a Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Communication from UTAS, when she relocated to Tasmania.