Arthritis remains the single most common problem among performance horses. Veterinary researchers are continually working to understand arthritis. But our investigation of this destructive process has yielded a number of ideas and practical methods of decreasing inflammation when it occurs, which can slow the damage and prolong the functional life of our horses’ joints.
The questions now become what specific techniques, products or medications should be used and when should treatment be started? The simple answer is that no one knows. No one can tell you if your horse will develop arthritis (though it is a good bet that he will eventually) or when. Variables such as conformation, trimming and shoeing practices, degree and type of exercise, quality of riding, footing and terrain, post-exercise care, diet and numerous other factors will combine to influence the wear and tear on your horse’s joints.
To ensure that he stays sound for as long as possible, focus on the variables within your control: Keep his feet well-trimmed and balanced. Radiographs are encouraged to ensure that your horse’s foot angles and balance are as correct as possible. Keep him at an appropriate weight and maintain good muscling and condition. Keeping your horse fit allows him to protect his joints throughout exercise and competition. Do not overwork a young horse and make sure to incorporate rest and repair in your program. Provide a good nutritional program that delivers adequate vitamins and minerals required for optimal joint health.
This brings us to the subject of the numerous products that are used to protect and repair joint cartilage. These nutraceuticals and chondroprotective agents are believed to work by sustaining or promoting the metabolic activity of chondrocytes—those cells that make up cartilage—by decreasing inflammation within joint surfaces and by stimulating the cells that produce joint fluid.
This entire group of products is classified as disease-modifying osteoarthritic drugs or DMOADs, and they have been shown, with differing degrees of success depending on the particular research study, to prevent, retard or reverse lesions of cartilage arthritis. Research has shown that these drugs, which include various forms of hyaluronic acid, polysulfated glycosaminoglycan and chondroitin sulfate, have a profound effect on damaged joints but do not consistently show a major influence on normal joints. It therefore remains unclear whether using these products in the young, healthy, sound horse has a desired protective effect. Many researchers comment, however, that anecdotal reports of efficacy abound despite the lack of clinical data.
To monitor your horse’s athletic progress and the potential progression of arthritis, clinicians recommend regular performance evaluations of a young working horse, including flexion exams of all major joints and an examination of his motion.
The results of your evaluations will let you know when low-level wear and tear is starting and when it is appropriate to escalate your treatment to include DMOADs. Would you be wrong to begin some of these joint-protecting drugs and/or nutriceuticals now? No, but it may be unnecessary.
Until the evaluations tell you otherwise, your money might be better spent on the simple things that we know will have a positive effect on your horse’s joints: proper nutrition and footing, correct riding and utilizing the best farrier you can find.
Kenneth L. Marcella, DVM, graduated from Cornell University’s veterinary college and served as an FEI veterinary judge for the endurance competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG). He is board certified in veterinary thermography by the American Academy of Thermography and was on the selection committee for the U.S. endurance team for the 2014 WEG. He practices in Canton, Georgia, at Chattahoochee Equine.