With the onset of summer and the ground hardening up, thoughts turn to our horse’s joints. Athletes depend on healthy joints yet lameness due to joint problems is common in riding horses. Medical treatment of osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) in horses is one of the most common veterinary interventions, which reflects the high rate of this condition.

Three things you can do to help maintain the health of your horse’s joints and keep them mobile are:

  1. Avoid too much concussive exercise (trotting and cantering on hard ground)
  2. Maintain strong, healthy muscles and connective tissue to help stabilise joints and keep them functioning correctly
  3. Feed a supplement supplying ingredients that support joint health

Some exercise on hard ground – especially fast exercise – has a healthy effect on the bones, but too much causes excessive and unhealthy concussion, which could be harmful for the bones and joints. Avoid excessive exercise on hard ground, especially cantering, galloping and jumping, to help keep your horse’s joints healthy. Steel shoes increase concussive forces so be especially careful with shod horses. Good foot balance in both shod and unshod horses is imperative to ensure normal forces on the joints, and foot imbalances significantly increase the risk of joint problems.

Joints are intricate structures that are prone to inflammation and dysfunction.
Joints are intricate structures that are prone to inflammation and dysfunction.

The body has many tiny postural muscles especially along the spine, which fire into action moments before the big limb-moving muscles activate, thus stabilising the body. These core muscles need to be exercised in order to remain healthy and the lack of stability that results if they are weak or injured predisposes to large muscle problems and joint problems (especially in the spine). Ensuring good biomechanics in movement and using stretches and strengthening exercises are two ways of helping to maintain strong healthy postural muscles in your horse. Ensuring your horse is on a progressive conditioning programme to gradually increase their fitness, and never exercising or competing them at a level above their current fitness will also help ensure healthy musculoskeletal function and reduce the risk of injury.

X-rays (radiographs) show the fascinating structure of the horse’s joints. This is the hock.
X-rays (radiographs) show the fascinating structure of the horse’s joints. This is the hock.

Joint-supporting products are the biggest selling supplements, and many owners report good results. Recent research is encouraging. Researchers at Texas A&M University have found that supplementary glucosamine (15 g for a 500 kg horse) tended to ‘increase new cartilage production’ and ‘decrease the breakdown of existing cartilage’ in damaged joints of young horses. Researchers at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, UK recently presented a study showing that adult horses with slight lameness (1/10 to 4/10 lame) fed a joint supplement (containing a variety of ingredients including glucosamine and MSM) had a lower lameness grade than those on a placebo or before supplementation.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.