Joint health for performance horses

Performance horses endure stress that can affect their minds, gastrointestinal systems — and their joints. Here’s how it’s all connected, and how you can protect your equine both mentally and physically.

The first piece of advice I give about joint health is to step back and look at the overall health and balance of the whole horse. The equine body contains approximately 400 trillion cells that are in constant communication. From their first breath to their last, their bodies do everything they can to achieve and maintain homoeostasis, a relatively stable equilibrium between all parts. This constant cell-to-cell information exchange is essential for good health.

From a whole-body view of the performance horse, the biggest dilemma is stress. My practice is 90% high level performance horses – I have an equine wellness clinic outside Calgary, and I still travel regularly to South California and Florida. These amazing horses are flying, being trucked across the continent, moving from show to show, drinking different water, being cared for by different people, and undergoing changes in humidity, atmosphere and feed. Horses are hardwired to always take in new surroundings, since they are and always will be prey animals, so all these changes place enormous stress on them even before they’re asked to perform.

How stress affects a horse’s joints

The gastrointestinal or GI system is the primary place in which horses show their stress. In fact, 75% of the performance horses I see are suffering from stomach ulcers, hind gut dysbiosis (leaky gut syndrome) or both.

Approximately 80% of a horse’s immune system resides in the GI tract. Clusters of lymph nodes called Peyer’s patches exist in the mucosal lining of the large intestine. If this lining is healthy, the horse has a balanced intestinal microbiome, which is made up of trillions of fungi, bacteria and other microbes that regulate his digestion. His GI tract will also have strong tight junctions (these link the epithelial cells of the gut and allow passage of nutrients while blocking undesirable substances), strong healthy intestinal villi, and low levels of inflammatory cytokines.

Horses with hind gut dysbiosis or stomach ulcers will have systemic inflammation. This means inflammation throughout the body – in the joints, connective tissue, feet, intestines, viscera, etc. It’s a viscous cycle with the GI tract, because as the inflammation continues, increased gut permeability occurs, diminishing nutrient absorption. In other words, the joint supplements (or any supplements) you’re feeding your horse might not be getting absorbed optimally, if at all.

Note: I would also caution you to check the metabolic status of your horse before giving him joint supplements. In cases of insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, you don’t want to be feeding him glucosamine. Talk to your veterinarian if this is the case, as he or she will be able to recommend an alternative.

Injectables offer an alternative solution

I am a strong believer in injectable chondroprotectives. They take the question of GI absorption off the table.

Adequan is a polysulfated glycosaminoglycan – an injectable remedy that gets used by the cartilage matrix of the joint, increasing joint viscosity. It has been shown to help heal and aid in the long term health of articular cartilage. A product called Legend is pure HA (hyaluronic acid), which is used by the synovial cells that line the joint capsule. Synovial cells produce the fluid that lubricates and supports joint structures. The two are very different products, but I give my performance horses both. They are used by the body in different ways, so some horses may respond better to one or the other. Some do best with both.

There are some other injectables out there, like Pentosan and Cartrophen (pentosan polysulphate), that I have not used personally, but many FEI horses are getting them and they seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the joints.

Additional preventative steps

A healthy and balanced horse will have the healthiest joints. If his feet and jaw (both dense with proprioceptors) are balanced, his nervous system will direct proper movement. If he has reasonable conformation, he will move correctly with good structural composition and alignment, muscular tension and angles.

To achieve this, put your horse on a good diet and workload appropriate for his size, age and development, and take steps to prevent joint disease. Be sure his saddle and other equipment fits in order to prevent any asymmetric movement. A horse’s joints go through mild to moderate repetitive trauma in most sports, so some wear and tear will occur throughout his career – but there’s also a lot you can do to keep him at his best.

Younger athletes – It is important to understand that the skeletal system of a young warmblood athlete doesn’t stop growing and developing until he is six years old. Growth plates, or cartilaginous ends on the vertebrae, don’t ossify until six years of age or even later, so younger horses depend on the connective tissues, fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints in their lower extremities to hold them – and their riders – up! It astounds me how many trainers do not know this. These athletes need extra joint protection, and it’s important that owners and trainers take more time with them, focusing on balanced muscling to ensure they can stay sound and perform well for as long as possible.

Older athletes Older equine athletes have more wear and tear, and may have compensatory postures or ways of moving that affect their entire musculoskeletal systems. Under my care, mature horses get regular chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, and many or all of the other therapeutics we offer.

I love the Vitafloor for moving lymph and loosening muscles, and am also a strong believer in Bemer microcurrent technology as well as the Leg Saver microcurrent unit. I use the Activet Pro Laser from Multiradiance for so many situations, and the RRT (rapid release technique) device to break down scar tissue and adhesions.

I also prescribe homeopathy when appropriate, and while I try to minimize supplementation, I am very impressed with Immubiome products as they include pre and probiotics, colostrum, medicinal mushrooms and nucleotides. These are very supportive of the GI tract, so horses’ immune systems stay stronger. I also use Silver Lining herbs and Chinese herbs according to a horse’s nature and constitution.

At the end of the day, the more balanced your horse is, the less wear and tear on his joints. Also, the less compromised his GI system, liver and kidneys are, the stronger his immune system, and oral or injectable joint supplements will be most effective.

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Dr. Heather Mack has been practicing Holistic Veterinary medicine for 15 years. She was one of the first women admitted to Columbia University where she finished her undergraduate degree. She received her VMD at the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. She was certified by IVA S (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society) and AV CA (American Veterinary Chiropractic Association) in the early ‘90s. She maintains a very busy practice with sport horses on the west coast. When she’s not practicing, you can find her refining her riding and horsemanship skills with her horses in Idaho, or exploring the wilderness on horseback. She has devoted her life to the conscious practice of holistic horse care and medicine with animals. She is also a co-instructor of Balanced Equine Wellness.