Recent estimates show that approximately 60 per cent of lameness problems in horses are related to arthritis. As a result the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis in horses has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Since arthritis is rarely curable and at best manageable, it is worthwhile to consider the contributing factors that place horses at risk for arthritis.
Arthritis is a broad term that describes inflammation of one or more joints. The joint is a highly evolved partnership of many specialized tissues. Limping is not necessarily the first sign of arthritis. Initially the horse’s gait will appear asymmetrical and “off” as the horse attempts to find a way of going that feels best.
A slight stiffness, which resolves when the horse warms up, or a reluctance or resistance to perform manoeuvres that were previously unchallenging are further telltale signs of arthritis. As the arthritis advances and the horse attempts to spare the painful joint(s) a cascade of compensating patterns in movement occurs. Limping, tenderness over the joint, and pain with joint flexion becomes more obvious over time.
Decisions regarding nutrition, environment, movement, and foot balance influence joint health in every stage of a horse’s life. However, it is the young horse that is especially vulnerable to factors which contribute to arthritis.
The developing bones and joints of a youngster’s frame require the appropriate balance of macro- and micronutrients found in a proper diet. Rich diets, over nutrition, or poorly balanced nutrition results in bones and joints that are structurally weak and vulnerable to damage.
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Although sensible exercise is advisable for all ages of horses, it is the young horses that are least forgiving when placed under unreasonable expectations and demands. The practice of starting two-year-old horses into competition and performance has many unfortunate consequences for the horse with arthritis being a common career-ending malady. The hock joint is particularly sensitive to arthritis, as it is a complex joint requiring four years to fully develop and become stable.
Proper conditioning and good training practices are key to developing a horse’s body to effectively carry a rider. Proper biomechanics of the equine frame is an essential component of sound movement and thus joint health.
Riders have a major influence on the way a horse carries and moves its body. Joints are designed to function optimally around a specific angle. Incorrect postures and poor biomechanics of the horse’s frame places the joints in a disadvantaged position, subjecting them to unreasonable stressors.
Chronic repetitive stress injuries and fatigue further compound the cascade of ill effects. Joint therapies address the painful symptoms that arise from the wear and tear to the joint structures, yet do little to address and correct the ongoing poor biomechanics that initiated the damage to the joint.
Standing in stalls for prolonged periods of time followed by the intensive exercise asked of many performance horses, places unreasonable stressors on joints and denies them of their means to maintain optimal health.
Routine warm-up and cool-down are of immense value to the performance horse. Horses are large animals with large muscles that require effective warming up to optimally engage muscles, ligaments and tendons, which are instrumental in protecting and supporting efficient joint mechanics.
Proper hoof care is instrumental to reducing strain on joints. Hoof angles and aligned break-over points allow joints to move freely without interference. Ideally, the hoof itself is designed to absorb the forces of impact. This design spares the joints, which are ill equipped to absorb reverberations of impact. The healthier the hoof, the better able it is to absorb the forces of impact, thus protecting the joints from harm.
Moderate body condition is important for all age of horses. Weight greater than the healthy range creates, compounds and accelerates arthritis as it chronically overloads and stresses joints and bones. Weight loss is as appropriate for the treatment of arthritis as it is for prevention.
Arthritis is an unnecessary outcome. Awareness of the factors which contribute to arthritic joints provides the opportunity to create changes that favour sound healthy joints in horses.