Arthritis In Horses: How Do You Exercise An Arthritic Horse?

Many horses, especially older horses, develop arthritis (aka: degenerative joint disease or DJD), one of the most common equine ailments. Just as with people, arthritis in horses is a painful condition and can make moving about difficult. There is no cure for arthritis, but with proper diet and care and a regular routine of light-to-moderate exercise, the symptoms can be managed. So how do you exercise an arthritic horse?

In this article, we examine the types and causes of arthritis in horses and provide sound advice on how to manage it. Read on to learn more.

Is There More Than One Kind Of Arthritis?

  1. Osteoarthritis is most common and typically comes on gradually as the cartilage between joints wears down. This can cause pain and lameness.
  2. Rheumatoid arthritis (autoimmune reactive arthritis) is common in people but is not often seen in horses.
  3. Septic arthritis is a different type of arthritis that comes on suddenly. It is caused by bacterial infection and affects the immune system. This form of arthritis is very hard to treat because it is caused by infection in the joint and an excessive response from the immune system. Young foals often develop this type of arthritis. It can also be caused by a serious injury near a joint.

What Are The Symptoms Of Arthritis?

  • Swollen joints are common. Typically, a horse will begin developing arthritis in the knees, hocks and pasterns.
  • Lameness is the result of swollen and painful joints.
  • Difficulty flexing the affected joints.
  • Heat and tenderness around the joints.

How Can You Be Sure Your Horse Has Arthritis

symptoms of arthritis

If your horse is experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you must call on your vet for a complete exam and diagnosis. Your vet may want to take x-rays to determine whether or not your horse has arthritis and (if so) how severe the condition is.

How Can You Treat Arthritis In Horse?

Discuss management options with your vet. While you cannot cure arthritis, you can slow down its progress and ease the pain caused by the condition. Here are some of the treatments and home care you may wish to use:

  1. Your vet may prescribe a course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) to reduce inflammation and swelling and manage pain.
  2. Joint supplements, such as glucosamine, may be added to feed.
  3. Discuss an anti-inflammatory feeding plan with your vet.
  4. Corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid may be injected directly into the affected joints to provide relief.
  5. Recently some work has been done involving injecting stem cells into arthritic joints. This option may soon be available to vets.
  6. Light-to-moderate exercise.

How do you exercise an arthritic horse?

How do you exercise an arthritic horse

With arthritis, it’s important to keep moving. A horse with arthritis should have the ability to move about freely at all times. Being on open pasture is best, but if your horse must live in a smaller paddock and/or stall, be sure to provide ample turnout time.

Take your arthritic horse for walks, just as you would a dog. Going for a stroll and interacting is good for your horse’s health and frame of mind (and yours!)

Another way to walk your arthritic horse is to pony him or her along when you go on gentle rides on another mount.

Many horses with arthritis do well with a bit of light riding. Just go on pleasant ambles in areas that have well-maintained trails with soft ground, few rocks and little or no incline.

Travel at a walk or (if your horse is comfortable with it) a trot. Don’t ride with horses who will outpace your horse or make him or her struggle to keep up.

Avoid challenging ground work, lunging, tight circles and the like. All this is unnecessary and may cause pain and injury. Just enjoy spending some quiet strolling time with your horse.

Is Exercise Really A Good Idea For A Horse With Arthritis?

treatment for arthritis

Stall rest is actually the worst treatment for arthritis as immobility only makes pain and stiffness worse. Maintaining a regular course of light-to-moderate exercise is very helpful.

Naturally, if your horse is lame or in pain you should not ride, but do take him on walks and allow him plenty of turnout time to move around naturally.

Continue riding if you can. You should not overdo exercise for a horse with arthritis, but light riding and driving can be very beneficial. Light-to-moderate exercise helps the joints produce synovial fluid, which is the lubricant between the parts of the joints.

This helps keep the joints healthy. Additionally, regular exercise keeps the muscles around the joints strong and this helps support the joints and keeps them stable.

Keep your horse at the right weight. Just as with people, excess weight causes stress on the joints, bones and feet. Keep a close eye on your horse’s weight, and adjust his feeding and activity level to prevent obesity. Talk with your vet about the best types of feed and hay for your horse.

We do not say we put old horses “out to pasture” for no reason. Being out to pasture is the best thing for an older, arthritic horse. Being able to move around freely provides natural exercise at the horse’s own pace.

Furthermore, a diet made up mostly of fresh grass is the healthiest, most anti-inflammatory diet a horse could have.

Be sure to keep an eye on pasture-mates, though. Horses are always vying to adjust the pecking order. If younger horses realize that your old horse is not as quick and strong as he once was, he could be bullied or chased.

If this happens, establish a smaller turnout area with better matched companions, if possible. Alternately, adjust turnout times so that your older horse does not have to share his turnout space with bullies.

Keep your horse as active as you can because regular exercise stimulates good blood circulation. This is a natural way to reduce inflammation.

Remember that, as with every aspect of horse care, your horse is an individual. Watch him closely and adjust your plans as necessary to accommodate his needs.

Pay Attention To Your Horse’s Hooves

horse’s hooves

Keep your horse’s hooves properly trimmed. Regular hoof care is always a good idea, but it is especially important for horses who have arthritis because properly trimmed hooves produce less stress on the joints. Long hooves can cause twist and torque. This is especially true of cracked or broken hooves.

Make sure your arthritic horse has secure footing. Avoid hard surfaces and uneven or gravelly terrain. These surfaces jar the joints and may harm the hooves. For riding or going for walks, you may wish to purchase a set of hoof boots to provide cushioning and support.

Early, Vigilant Arthritis Care Is Key

Proper feeding and care throughout your horse’s life can help prevent the development of arthritis. If arthritis does develop, early, consistent intervention helps ensure successful management of symptoms.

By keeping a close eye on your horse and responding correctly to his symptoms when you perceive them, you can get a jump on the disease and prevent a great deal of discomfort.

Taking regular steps to decrease inflammation, increase joint mobility and improve the strength of the muscles surrounding the joints can go far toward mitigating the damage and pain caused by the disease.

If you catch arthritis problems early on, develop a proper care routine and follow it vigilantly, you should be able to keep arthritis problems under control.

With a regular course of exercise, supplements, joint therapy and/or medications, your horse can stay relatively comfortable and you may be able to continue to enjoy light riding for many years.

Arthritis In Horses: Arthritis Treatment For Horses

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Does Bute help arthritis in horses?

Phenylbutazone (Equipalazone) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which helps with arthritis pain in horses in much the same way Advil or Tylenol helps with arthritis pain in people. It modifies the inflammatory response of the body a bit less effectively than steroids, and it has fewer side effects than steroids. Even so, long term use can lead to problems such as:
– Kidney damage
– Liver damage
– Gastric ulcers
– Colitis

For this reason, it’s best to rely more on diet, exercise and supplements to keep arthritis pain at bay and only use Bute to help deal with flare-ups of arthritis pain. Talk with your veterinarian about the best way to use Bute in your situation with your horse.

2. Do shoes help horses with arthritis?

Horse shoes that provide correct support to the joints can be helpful in relieving arthritis pain in horses. Every case is different, so it’s important to consult with your veterinarian and your farrier to determine whether your horse needs shoes and, if so, what sort will work best.

3. Do magnetic boots help horses with arthritis?

In general, wearing well-fitted hoof boots can provide support and padding for horses with arthritis. Hoof boots are a smart alternative to metal shoes.

Regarding magnets, the theory is that magnets in hoof boots, turnout blankets, leg wraps, etc., will help increase blood circulation to the affected areas. While magnets embedded in these items will certainly not hurt your horse, according to the Arthritis Foundation of Atlanta, Georgia, magnetic therapy is ineffective in humans, so there is really no reason to think it would be effective in horses.

4. When is it time to euthanize a horse with arthritis?

The time to euthanize any animal is when it can no longer enjoy life. A horse who has trouble eating, can’t maintain body weight and has more bad days than good days is not having a happy life. If your horse is in uncontrollable pain, it is kinder to have him or her euthanized than to allow the suffering to continue.

It is also important to note that an unreasonable financial burden on you, in terms of pain care, is also a valid consideration. If your horse is in a great deal of pain that could be dulled by pain medications that would bankrupt you, it is kinder and wiser to have the animal euthanized.

When this is the case, sooner or later, you will run out of resources, but your horse will not recover from arthritis. The animal’s condition will continue to deteriorate, even with costly care. It’s best to say your goodbyes before this happens and stay solvent so that you can give another horse the opportunity of having a happy home.

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