Arthritis doesn’t just affect your horse’s joints. Because he compensates in other areas of his body as well, pain and discomfort can occur there too. Here’s how massage therapy can help.
Arthritis is a fairly common condition in the horse world. After all, horses are large animals and many of us ask a lot of them. There are plenty of injections, supplements, products, lotions and potions on the market to help with arthritis. But did you know that massage therapy could also be beneficial for this condition?
What is arthritis?
Most of us hear the term “arthritis” and understand that it means inflammation and deterioration of a joint. To fully comprehend how this affects a horse, however, we must first investigate more thoroughly what the disease is, and how it affects the body.
Arthritis is a general term encompassing dozens of inflammatory joint diseases. The most common type of arthritis we see in the equine industry is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a progressive degeneration of the articular cartilage within the joint. Articular cartilage exists between the bones in a joint to provide shock absorption, cushioning, and a smooth gliding surface when the joint is in motion. The breakdown of this cartilage and the underlying bone creates a rough and abrasive surface, which causes significant pain, inflammation, swelling, and decreased range of motion.
In addition, consider that the movement of a joint is controlled by the surrounding muscle and tendon structure. As the body acts to guard against the pain associated with arthritis within the joint, the muscle and supporting soft tissue shorten, further reducing range of motion and leading to disuse atrophy, restriction of circulation and blood flow, and muscle pain and weakness.
We most commonly see arthritis in the hock joint, knee and fetlock joints, though it can develop in other joints throughout the body, such as the shoulder, elbow and stifle.
Causes of equine arthritis
Many internal and external factors lead to a horse developing arthritis. Some common causes and contributing factors are:
- Conformational predisposition
- General “wear and tear”
- Repetitive overexertion at a young age
- Improper fitness training throughout a horse’s career, leading to increased stress on joints and soft tissue
- Type of activity/discipline performed throughout the horse’s life
- Trauma or infection
Your horse does not have to be considered “aged” or “senior” to develop arthritis. Careful monitoring throughout his life and career will allow you to identify and treat arthritis as early as possible, prolonging your horse’s active lifestyle and improving performance.
Signs your horse may be developing arthritis
The early onset of arthritis can be easily overlooked in our equine athletes, so we often don’t have them assessed or diagnosed by a veterinarian until more significant lameness symptoms appear. Some subtle signs that your horse may be developing arthritis include:
- Shortening of the stride.
- Slight hollowing of the back.
- Mild “stiffness” when you first begin to warm up your horse.
- Reluctance to perform tasks that were once considered easy, such as canter transitions, backing up, jumping, etc.
- Mild fluid accumulation within a joint. Note that fluid may accumulate in the lower limb in joints not specifically affected by arthritis, as a result of excess swelling higher up in the limb. Fluid stasis also occurs as a result of decreased range of motion and circulation.
What can massage therapy do to help my arthritic horse?
Using massage therapy and bodywork, a certified therapist can improve your arthritic horse’s athletic ability and quality of life. Through careful, specific manipulation of the soft tissue, a qualified equine massage therapist works to reduce or eliminate pain, improve circulation, decrease muscular tension, improve joint mobility, and increase lymphatic drainage.
By targeting the existing tension that develops in supporting soft tissue as a result of arthritis pain, we’re not just addressing the discomfort of muscle tension. This relaxation and elongation of the muscle reduces the compression of blood and lymph channels, thereby increasing circulation and delivery of necessary nutrients and oxygen, and removing fluid waste within the joint capsule. It also frees up the body, increasing range of motion of the arthritic joint, as well as other joints in the body that are affected by pain.
The development of restriction and pain elsewhere in the body as a result of specific injury is referred to as “compensatory change”. For example, say you injured your right knee. After several days of favoring it, you begin to develop fatigue in your left leg and hip, as well as pain in your lower and middle back as your body tries to adjust your movement and compensate for that right knee. By addressing these compensatory changes in the body through massage therapy, we are able to stabilize and correct asymmetry in the muscle tone (minimizing or eliminating imbalanced movement), reduce pain, and prevent the horse from developing other injuries as a result of these imbalances.
A Registered Equine Massage Therapist will work with your veterinarian to determine the extent of your horse’s condition, as well as identify any external factors contributing to the condition. He or she will create a treatment plan that may include bodywork, stretches, hydrotherapy, supplementation, dietary changes, or under-saddle exercises, and will help you find a workload balance that can help improve your horse’s well-being and athletic ability, despite the challenges of arthritis.