Hands-on Help for Arthritis in Horses

Arthritis in your horse is not a death sentence. Don't despair because you can do a lot to manage arthritis in your horse, giving arthritic horses many more years of comfortable, active and rideable life.

Arthritis in your horse is not a death sentence. But when you think of arthritis in your horse, all you can think of are words like “incurable,” “degenerative” and “painful.” But don’t despair because you can do a lot to manage arthritis in your horse, giving arthritic horses many more years of comfortable, active and rideable life. All you need is time and commitment to your arthritic horse.

Don’t limit your efforts to the feed tub. By paying attention to foot care and exercise plus a few other available arthritic therapies, you can make a tremendous difference in your horse’s life.

Foot Care
Arthritis in your horse is a degeneration of joint tissues caused by constant stress. The mechanics of the feet in large part determine the forces your horse’s joints experience. If the feet do not contact the ground properly, and distribute the impact evenly, uneven loading will occur.

There’s only one thing to remember about trimming and shoeing a horse with arthritis. It’s imperative to keep the foot correctly trimmed, balanced and landing flat. Forget about special shoes, wedges and padding to begin with and look at the bare hoof – the horse’s natural “shoe.”

From the side, the angle of the hoof wall should be the same as the angle of the pastern when the horse stands with his legs correctly positioned underneath him. The foot should have a gentle, continuous downward slope to the coronary band from the center of the toe to the heel, with no plateaus or upward bumps. From behind, the bulbs of the heels should be at the same height/distance from the ground. On the sole surface, the horse should have an equal amount of foot on either side of an imaginary line drawn through the middle of the frog, and the point of the frog should be pointing at the center of the toe.

Watch the horse walk directly at you and also from the side. The foot should land heel first and perfectly flat, not to one side or the other. It doesn’t matter if the horse swings the leg to the inside or outside before putting it down. It’s whether or not the landing is even and flat that’s important.

If your horse’s feet don’t meet these criteria, your first step is to correct that. Although there are exceptions, which should be determined in consultation with both your vet and your farrier, most arthritic horses do best barefoot. This is because barefoot allows the hoof to function normally, as it was designed to do, and that is something that cannot be accomplished with a shoe. Being barefoot also allows the horse’s foot to break over and wear in the way that is most comfortable for him – which isn’t always something we can predict, especially if more than one area in the leg is causing him discomfort. A horse also has no better traction device, without risking too much “grab,” than a bare hoof.

When Your Horse is Arthritic.

  • Keep the foot correctly trimmed, balanced and landing flat.
  • Put the horse on a regular, formal exercise plan.
  • Use cooling therapy for acute flareups and after formal exercise.
  • Use heat therapy for chronic stiffness and before formal exercise.

Because people assume exercise will be painful with arthritis, and heavy exercise is believed to be a risk factor for developing it in the first place, they often think that the best thing to do is to stop formal exercise and retire the horse. It’s not.

Left to his own devices, a horse with a sore joint is likely to become protective of it and use it less. Over time, this leads to weakness of the muscles and connective tissues in the involved leg, overstressing of the other legs, tendon stiffness and weakening, even loss of mobility in the joint that can be difficult or impossible to reverse. The calcium deposits (osteophytes) that form around the edges of inflamed, arthritic joints can fuse together to permanently make the joint less flexible.

Reasonable exercise, on the other hand, can prevent all of these things. It is also important to the health of the joint cartilage and its ability to repair itself, because joint cartilage has no direct blood supply and it must receive all the nutrients it needs from the joint fluid. Joint cartilage is like a sponge. It compresses when the leg lands, forcing the trapped fluid in its spaces out, and expands again when weight is lifted, allowing fresh fluid in.

This doesn’t mean you should hop on an arthritic horse to take him out to run or jump. You need to use some common sense here too. Some do’s and don’ts are:

Sample Exercise Program

Check the do’s and don’ts for exercise, and use all the other available tools for support (therapy, heat/cold and massage). If your horse was recently diagnosed, or had a recent flareup of an old problem, check with your vet to be sure the horse is ready for light exercise.

  • Days 1 – 3: Hand walk for 5 minutes.
  • Days 4 – 6: Hand walk for 5 minutes twice a day.
  • Days 7 – 9: Hand walk for 10 minutes twice a day.
  • Days 10 – 13: Hand walk for 20 minutes a day.
  • Days 14 – 21: Lunge or round pen 20 minutes a day, both directions. Let the horse walk. Do not ask for a trot. If he wants to trot, limit it to no more than a minute or two.
  • Days 22 – 28: Same as above, but increase to 30 minutes, either all at once or in two 15-minute sessions.

At this point, if the horse is doing well, you can begin riding under saddle, no more than 15 minutes a day to start and only at the walk. Increase by five minutes every three days. When the horse is walking for 30 minutes comfortably, you can try short trots, a minute or two at a time.

Eventually, 30 minutes of riding per day, 15 to 20 minutes trotting and the rest at a walk will do wonders for keeping the horse more comfortable. Days you can’t ride, you should at least try to make sure he gets round pen or lunge time. Daily formal exercise is definitely best. The horse should be exercised at a minimum of every other day if you expect to see any benefit.

If the horse is doing very well with this light exercise plan and you want to try to make him more active, consult with your vet for specific advice on devising a plan to increase the work safely.

Don’t exercise formally if:

  • The joint is hot and swollen
  • The horse’s trim and hoof mechanics are not correct
  • The horse is on anti-inflammatory drugs, which can mask pain and lead you to do too much
  • Your vet has specifically told you no exercise at all
  • The horse gets obviously more painful during exercise or the next day, even with light work
    Do exercise if:
  • The horse is not in an acute phase (no heat, swelling; not on anti-inflammatory drugs)
  • The horse has morning stiffness, or stiffness after being in a stall, that gets better as he keeps moving
  • The conditions under which you exercise, and how you exercise, are also important:
  • Never do more than a walk on surfaces that are very hard or footing that is very loose and deep.
  • Avoid ice or deep, “sucking” mud entirely.
  • Gently rolling terrain is OK, but no steep up or down inclines, and no long inclines.
  • Walk, walk, walk. The forces put onto joint cartilage simply from the horse’s weight are sufficient to get good movement of fluid in and out of the cartilage, and to put the joints through a sufficient range of flexion and extension to encourage flexibility.

While turnout, preferably 24/7, is much better than keeping a horse in a stall or tiny paddock, it’s not the same thing as formal exercise. Even horses that have had no formal exercise for months or years can benefit from restarting it. You’ll just have to proceed cautiously. (See page 21 for accompanying sample exercise program.)

Hot and Cold Therapy
One of the least expensive, easiest, but also most effective treatments for arthritis discomfort is hot and cold therapy. Our chart on page 24 lists some high-tech therapy options, but our recommendation is to try hot or cold therapy first.

Cold Therapy
Use cold therapy during acute flareups of pain, heat and swelling. Also use it routinely after formal exercise to minimize the chances of any inflammatory response.

Methods of cold therapy include:

  • Hosing
  • Bucket soaking
  • Whirlpool
  • Ice wraps
  • Chilled poultice
  • Liniments
  • Simple hosing of the joint is the easiest method, though time-consuming. You can use a bucket or trash can for soaking, but be sure they extend well above the joint you need to treat. Combine those two in a whirlpool method by constantly running the hose at high pressure while the horse stands in the bucket or trash can.

There are a variety of cold wraps on the market, from gel/ice cell implant boots to the kind you wet and freeze. You can make your own cooling wraps by soaking cotton stall bandages with alcohol or witch hazel and chilling them in the freezer for a minimum of 60 minutes. These do not freeze but become superchilled. Apply them to the horse’s leg, cover it with a layer of aluminum foil to minimize loss of cold to the air and wrap it with outer polo or cotton wraps.

You can make a chilled poultice simply by putting the amount of poultice you will be needing into a plastic bag and chilling it in the refrigerator for two to three hours or in the freezer for 30 minutes before using. Do not wrap over the poultice. Though poultices are messier than other methods, they provide prolonged cooling as the water in the poultice evaporates. They are particularly good for coffin joint/navicular problems.

For flare-ups, avoid using liniments with menthol, thymol, eucalyptus and peppermint that produce a cool/icy sensation on the skin but do not actually cool. The cool sensation is fleeting, followed by warming. The only topical that actually has a cooling and anti-inflammatory effect is the herbal Arnica, found in liniments such as Sore No More, Hilton Leg-Aids and in pure Arnica tinctures.

When treating acute flareups, keep the cooling in place for as long as you can every day, until the heat and swelling subside. Commercial ice wraps have the advantage of no mess and lasting longer than the homemade cooling wraps. The chilled alcohol or witch hazel wraps work fine, but they warm up in about 20 minutes, so you need to keep several in the freezer ready to go.

Cooling immediately after work is a good habit to get into. Keep the cooling in place for 30 to 60 minutes after formal work.

Heat Therapy
Use heat therapy for chronic stiffness and before work to relax local tendons and ligaments for better flexibility.

Methods of heat therapy include:

  • Warm water hosing
  • Warm water soaking
  • Whirlpool
  • Heating and Neoprene wraps
  • Sweating
  • Heated poultices
  • Liniments
  • Massage
  • Warm water, whether from hosing, soaking or the combination as a whirlpool, often give some relief and comfort.

Some ice wrap products, such as EZ Ice, MacKinnon First Ice and Fabri-Tech wraps, can do double duty for heating by either soaking the inserts in hot water or warming them in the microwave. Velcro closure wraps made of Neoprene, a rubber-like material, are available for knees, hocks and fetlocks. These trap the horse’s own body heat very effectively.

Sweating involves regular standing bandages, but with a layer of plastic wrap, like Saran Wrap, applied between the cotton and the outer wrap. This also traps the horse’s own body heat. Light liniments, such as a 50:50 mix of witch hazel and Listerine, or witch hazel and Absorbine or Vetrolin or glycerin-based rubs, such as Farrier’s Magic Same-As-Sweat can be used with these, but aren’t really necessary for the warming effect. Use caution, though, as even diluted liniments can irritate sensitive horses.

Heated poultices are a real treat, especially in winter. Heat the poultice in the microwave before applying. Cover it with a layer of plastic wrap, then a regular standing bandage for prolonged effect.

Before work or turnout, a brisk massage of stiff joints for five minutes or so works wonders in improving flexibility. Using a warming liniment such as Absorbine, Nutricare Mint, Aloe Advantage Sports Rub or Hawthorne’s Choate’s enhances this effect.

When using heat therapy to loosen stiff, sore areas prior to work, massage for five minutes immediately before working or use heated wraps. Otherwise, you can use heat therapy methods as needed. Neoprene wraps or sweats should not be left on the horse for more than 12 hours at a time.

Comprehensive care of the arthritic horse means more than drugs or supplements. Start by making sure his feet are correctly trimmed and balanced so that joints are being loaded evenly. Add regular gentle exercise to encourage healthy cartilage and minimize stiffness.

Cool down problem joints immediately after exercise to stop any inflammatory reactions in their tracks. Use heat and massage before exercise to increase flexibility and overnight to reduce morning stiffness.

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