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Joint health in horses

Equine osteoarthritis can be the outcome of a one-time event or of repeated impact through athletic activity; it results in inflammation and, eventually, cartilage damage. Equine osteoarthritis is a progressive, chronic disease that causes the degeneration of joints, resulting in pain, stiffness, and lameness in horses.

Equine osteoarthritis and joint pain in horses

Equine osteoarthritis is a progressive, chronic disease that causes the degeneration of joints, which results in pain, stiffness, and lameness in horses.

Osteoarthritis mainly affects the leg joints or the synovial joints—hock, fetlock, pastern, coffin, stifle, and knee—but can also involve the back and neck.

Equine osteoarthritis and joint pain in horses

Equine osteoarthritis is the result of the breakdown of a joint’s cartilage; the cartilage is the connective tissue that allows the joint to move smoothly as it distributes weight throughout the joint, acting as a shock absorber.

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, can develop in any horse. Although primarily seen in mature horses, it can occur in young, competitive horses, and often begins as inflammation in the joint (also called synovitis).

The cycle of osteoarthritis

Inflammation of the joint from everyday wear and tear related to conditioning, training, and competing can happen at any age and in any discipline. These micro-injuries can result in joint pain and stiffness, poor performance, the initiation of synovitis, and the inflammatory process. If inflammation is not controlled, it can result in cartilage breakdown and eventually, the irreversible damage associated with osteoarthritis.

The Cycle of osteoarthritis

Although your horse may not show obvious symptoms early on, it is important to pay attention to stiffness, which may fade once your horse warms up. There are other signs to look out for, such as:

  • Lameness (mild to severe, depending on cause and location)
  • An onset that varies from slowly worsening lameness to acute lameness
  • Heat and swelling around the joint
  • Possible decreased range of motion

Early detection, accurate diagnosis, and aggressive treatment of synovitis are key in stopping this cascade of events.

Equine osteoarthritis is the leading cause of lameness

About 60% of equine lameness is due to osteoarthritis.

Lameness often appears as an alteration of your horse’s gait that can change its attitude or performance.

Lameness is usually caused by pain in different areas of your horse’s body.

Early diagnosis is critical, and if there’s one person who knows your horse best, it’s you. If ever you notice your horse seems off, it might be good to check for lameness.

Lameness signs to look for include:

Your horse feels unbalanced when ridden
Behavioural changes or reduced performance
(e.g. refusing a jump, unwillingness to move forward)
Swelling in the limb(s)
A head bob
(indicating a possible forelimb lameness)
A hip hike
(indicating a possible hindlimb lameness)
A difference in the stride length between HINDLIMBS
(when you’re viewing the horse from the side)

If you notice any signs of lameness, contact your veterinarian for an evaluation. This may help prevent further joint damage in the future.

Recognizing pain in your horse

Horses will often suffer in silence and may be labelled “stubborn” or “lazy” before it’s clear that they are in pain. A horse’s face can indicate it is suffering from injured or damaged joints. To help you recognize and relieve their pain earlier, here are some tell-tale signs to watch out for.

A HORSE’S FACE CAN INDICATE ITS SUFFERING FROM INJURED OR DAMAGED JOINTS. Any signs of pain should prompt a conversation with your veterinarian.

Recognizing pain in your horse

A HORSE’S FACE CAN INDICATE ITS SUFFERING FROM INJURED OR DAMAGED JOINTS. Any signs of pain should prompt a conversation with your veterinarian.

Equine osteoarthritis treatments

Beginning treatment for joint issues as soon as you see the signs can help with performance, maintain soundness, and overall longevity. It can also help support your horse’s quality of life by minimizing pain and lameness, as well as helping to slow down the cycle of osteoarthritis.

Although osteoarthritis is not curable, there are ways to manage your horse’s pain and discomfort, control swelling, prolong athletic function, and maximize its lifespan. There are different ways to manage and treat equine osteoarthritis.

Systemic (whole body) therapy

Intravenous (IV) hyaluronic acid (HA)

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is naturally already present in the joints and cartilage. Injecting HA directly into the vein (IV) treats all of your horse’s joints with a single treatment, increasing joint lubrication, reduces inflammation, and even stimulates your horse to increase natural HA production.

Polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs) injections

PSGAGs are generally given in the muscle but are proven to be effective injected in the joint. PSGAGs are used when the cartilage has already been damaged.

Systemic (whole body) therapy

Joint injections

Corticosteroid injections to affected joints

These injections primarily help reduce inflammation.

HA injections to the affected joint(s)

HA injections help to reduce pain, improve joint movement by increasing joint lubrication, reduce joint friction and inflammation, and slow osteoarthritis progression. HA injections also help to stimulate natural HA production in the joint.

Stem cells, IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein), and PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections

These are examples of products that are derived from your horse’s body and then injected into its joint(s). Research on these treatment options is ongoing, but it is believed they help to prevent further inflammation and disease progression.

Pain management

Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

These are medications that help relieve pain and reduce inflammation and its related symptoms, including stiffness and swelling. They are one of the main medical pain-management treatments for osteoarthritis.

Nutritional supplements offer a way to add joint- and ligament-supporting substances—such as glycosaminoglycans, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and glycogens—to your horse’s diet. Nutritional supplements can act as a complement to other medical joint therapies your veterinarian may recommend.

Although osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that will get worse over time, there are viable options for slowing the progression. Discuss treatment options with your veterinarian to develop an individual treatment plan for your horse.

Learn more about the

osteoarthritis treatment options available.

More about joint supplements More about oral NSAIDs More about injectable HA