Feeding to Beat Arthritis in Your Horse

Your horse's feed tub is one of the most important parts in the successful treatment of arthritis. Explore different supplements and feeds that'll help your horse deal with arthritis.

Arthritis used to be a common reason for horses being euthanized, even in their early teens. Arthritis is a degeneration of joint tissues, making it painful for the horse to move. All the horse’s body tissues, including the joints, are constantly being stressed and used, undergoing minor injuries, being called on to strengthen so they can withstand different activities.

The only way your horse’s body can keep up with these demands, and keep repairing and rebuilding successfully, is if he has the raw materials on hand to do it.

“You are what you eat” is more than just a catchy phrase. The horse has to have a good supply of the horse feed needed to protect his joints from being excessively damaged from wear and tear before his body can get a chance to repair them.

Living with Arthritis

  • Avoid letting the horse get overweight; build the diet on generous amounts of hay.
  • Make sure the horse is getting adequate amounts and correct proportions of key vitamins and minerals.
  • Feed a joint nutraceutical at a “loading dose,” a dosage high enough to get pain relief. Start with glucosamine.
  • Add chondroitin or a combination product, if you don’t get adequate results from glucosamine. Try a product with HA (hyaluronic acid) or an herbal, like devil’s claw, for pain and inflammation control, if needed.

Basic Nutrients
Fortunately, the raw materials the horse’s body needs to assemble joint cartilage and produce joint fluid are readily abundant from the diet. He needs glucose, which comes from the digestion of sugars and starches and can be manufactured as needed by the liver, and the small building blocks of protein called amino acids. Unless the horse is severely malnourished, he’s not going to run into any shortages of these.

What does become more important, though, is the supply of key minerals needed to make things happen, to piece together the glucose and amino acid molecules. Some vitamins also play a vital role in bone and joint health. See the chart on page 27 for details and some guidelines for basic diet supplementation.

Hay should be the cornerstone of any horse’s diet, but especially one with arthritis. Too much grain only leads to excess weight, which further stresses the joints.

Choose hays that are of a good green color, an indicator of good vitamin A content, and have a fresh smell. Mixing types of hays increases the chances that the horse will get the balance of minerals that he needs.

Oat hay is a good companion to alfalfa or peanut hay. Feed one-fourth to one-third as alfalfa or peanut, three-fourths to two-thirds as oat hay. When feeding other types of grass hay, try to give the horse a mix of as many different types as possible. Very coarse hays or stemmy alfalfas often have lower mineral levels than hays cut at an early stage of their growth.

Joint Supplements
Once you have your horse’s basic diet squared away, you can help him further by using a joint nutraceutical. Joint nutraceuticals are ingredients that directly “feed” the joint. These supplements contain one or more of the following: glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, Perna mussel.

What they do is help the horse repair his joints by bypassing some of the steps in forming the components of joint cartilage and/or joint fluid. In other words, instead of having to start from glucose and amino acids to assemble molecules of glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid, you feed them to the horse already preformed. Some of this is absorbed intact; some will be broken down by digestive enzymes into smaller components, which can then be reassembled after they are absorbed.

Another way these substances can help is by tying up the destructive enzymes inside the horse’s joint. Instead of attacking the joint tissue or fluid, the enzymes become bound to supplement ingredients. This inactivates the enzymes and allows the joint to get ahead with the job of healing.

Although scientific studies proving these supplements work, especially in horses, are scant, those that do exist are positive. Several million doses of joint supplements are given to horses every year, and they definitely help.

In addition to directly improving arthritis symptoms, use of these supplements decreases or eliminates the need for corticosteroids, pain medications and joint injections. If joint injections are still needed, it’s common to find that the interval between injections is significantly prolonged in horses receiving oral joint supplements.

Herbs for Arthritis
Another category of supplements is herbal alternatives to corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like phenylbutazone. The chart on page 30 lists some of the more commonly included ingredients.

These supplements may be found either as single-ingredient products or combinations. Some products also offer a combination of joint nutraceuticals and herbals.

The herbals actually act in similar ways to drugs, but without the same high risk of side effects. Consider adding an herbal, or using a combination product containing them, if your horse is recently diagnosed, is having a flareup of arthritis pain, or if pain is not controlled with joint nutraceuticals alone.

Selecting a Joint Supplement
Joint supplements are a big business, a reflection of how well they work. Millions of doses are sold every year. Because they’re such a good seller, every company wants to get in on the action. This means you’re likely to find at least five different joint supplements even in a small tack or farm supply store, with 50 or more available overall.

Factors that should not influence your choice include high prices, fancy packaging and a long ingredients list. You can expect to spend $0.50 to $1.00 or so a day to supplement your horse at an effective level. Cutting corners means a sacrifice in either dosage or quality of ingredients. Fancy packaging and splashy ads don’t make the product work any better, either.

Longevity counts in the supplements market. The oldest player, and still a very effective product, is Cosequin (Nutramax Laboratories). Cosequin combines an effective dose of glucosamine with a low molecular weight chondroitin sulfate for better absorption. It’s one of the very few equine joint supplements actually backed by formal research. Cosequin is a powder with no fillers, so only a small amount needs to be added to the feed.

Running neck and neck with Cosequin, also documented to be effective by scientific studies, is Corta-Flx (Nature’s Own). Corta-Flx is available as a liquid, powder or pellet, all of which are highly palatable. Corta-Flx provides the same essentials as chondroitin and glucosamine, but has them broken down into more easily assimilated forms. There is a money-back guarantee on this product offering you a full refund if effects are not seen in five days with the liquid or 10 days with powder or pellets.

Also highly effective and the first glucosamine product on the market is Grand Flex (Grand Meadows). The loading dose provides a full 10 grams of glucosamine, and this product is an especially good choice if your horse’s diet may be short in trace minerals copper, zinc and manganese. Also includes generous levels of vitamin C and bioflavonoids.

Cosequin, Corta-Flx and Grand Flex are widely available and a good place to start.

However, this doesn’t mean another product is necessarily inferior. Many high-quality and effective products are on the market now. To begin to sort through what might be available to you for your best choice, first check the ingredients list. Most products list a “loading dose” and a maintenance dose. The loading dose doesn’t really “load” the body. It is a dose used to gain initial control over the pain and cartilage destruction.

Glucosamine is less expensive than chondroitin, and also more reliably effective. The highest dosage we’ve seen is in Peak Performance Nutrients’ Joint Renew. Farnam’s Max-Flex Maximum Relief is an example of a reasonably priced supplement with a generous level of glucosamine. Nu-Flex Maximizer with Ester C from Select the Best/Richdel is also a good choice.

If your horse is already well mineral supplemented and you don’t mind ordering in, can go with something like pure glucosamine hydrochloride from Uckele Health & Nutrition. A full 10-gram serving of the pure glucosamine will only cost $0.75/day.

Although solid evidence for it is lacking, some horses may respond better to a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin, or to a supplement that is heavier on the chondroitin than most. As with glucosamine, you want to get as close to the full effective loading dose as possible in the recommended feeding. However, since chondroitin is a more expensive ingredient, most supplements come up light on the amounts.

If you want to see if your horse will benefit from chondroitin, your best bet is to buy a pure chondroitin supplement to supplement either a glucosamine-based product or a glucosamine/chondroitin product that falls short on chondroitin. If you only need to bring your levels up a little more, Farnam’s Max-Flex Chondroitin pellets may do it (1,750 mg/oz). Pro-Formula’s Equi-Flex powder has 3000 mg/oz.

The latest addition to the joint nutraceutical family is hyaluronic acid (HA). HA is found both in cartilage and in the thick, slippery joint fluid that allows joints to move smoothly. This is the same material sometimes injected into joints, and the ingredient in the popular intravenous drug Legend. Kinetic Technologies Conquer was the first HA supplement to appear and remains at the top of the list for effectiveness and a competitive price.

While too expensive for daily use at full dose, these supplements are excellent for getting control of acute arthritis or flareups of chronic problems.

Most supplements on the market now offer combinations of ingredients, many of which are successful.

Corta-Flx now offers its original formula in combination with hyaluronic acid. As with the original Corta-Flx, there’s a money-back guarantee. You can buy a combo of a pint of Corta-Flx HA with a quart, and the guarantee states you will see results with the product within 24 hours or you can return the quart for a refund. Like full-dose HA products, Corta-Flx HA is designed to be used for rapid control of acute or flare-up problems.

The makers of Conquer gel also produce a combo called Chondrogen EQ, which is highly effective. Also good is Sure Nutrition’s Next Level, and some people find that when they go to a liquid multi-ingredient supplement, their horse responds better even if the dosage is lower – e.g., Farnam’s Fluid Flex or Vita-Flex’s liquid Equinyl.

The extra something in many combination products is actually an anti-inflammatory herbal ingredient. Bromelain works extremely well for long-term control of inflammation. Equinyl, Fluid Flex and Peak Performance Nutrients’ Joint Renew II contain generous levels of bromelain.

Highly effective for actual pain relief is the herbal devil’s claw, found in Joint Renew II. It can also be added separately from products like Nature’s Own B-L Solution (combination of yucca and devil’s claw) or Uckele’s Devil’s Claw Plus, with devil’s claw, yucca, bromelain and other anti-inflammatory herbs. An especially effective combination product is Uckele’s Arthrigen, a mix of glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid at higher dose than other combo products, devil’s claw, bromelain and other antioxidants vitamins and minerals.

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