10 ways to support your senior horse’s joints

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Photo courtesy of Doug Burlock.

Aging horses are more susceptible to arthritis and other mobility issues. Here are 10 ways you can maintain his joints well into his senior years.

Domesticated horses are living longer than ever before – well into their late 20s and early 30s in some cases. This increase in life expectancy can be attributed to advances in veterinary medicine and nutrition, as well as a rise in alternative healthcare options being used by more informed and proactive owners. But with increased age comes additional wear and tear in the joints, which can lead to the development of arthritis, a common obstacle faced by those with senior horses. While existing arthritis cannot be reversed, the simple strategies outlined here will help ease symptoms and delay progression in your aging equine partner.

1. Routine veterinary care

Ensure your senior horse has routine veterinary care to monitor organ function and identify any treatable health concerns before they escalate. Older horses tend to require more consistent dental care and may need modifications to their diet based on dentition and changes in energy expenditure. Maintaining an optimal body weight is crucial for joint health. Excess weight gain places undue stress on joints, which perpetuates the symptoms of arthritis.

 2. Chiropractic care

Chiropractic care is not just for the young equine athlete. It can keep your senior horse comfortable in his old age, and lengthen his athletic career. Chiropractic adjustments help maintain joint and intervertebral disc health and ensure the nervous system functions optimally. Animal chiropractors deliver gentle yet specific adjustments to the joints of your horse’s spine and/or extremities that are not moving optimally. These adjustments maintain proper spinal/joint motion, allowing for optimal functioning of the nerves, muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints; this results in pain relief and improved movement, stance and flexibility.

When choosing an equine chiropractor, ensure he/she is fully certified through The College of Animal Chiropractors and/or The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.

 3. Joint support supplements

There are hundreds of supplements on the market for geriatric horses, designed to promote joint health and reduce inflammation. Research on the clinical efficacy of these joint supplements varies, although the general consensus is that the benefits outweigh the risks. While these supplements cannot reverse existing joint damage, they may help slow the progression of arthritis by optimizing the production of fluid within the joint, and nourishing articular cartilage.

Two of the most commonly-used ingredients in joint support supplements are:glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate. Glucosamine is one of the building blocks of cartilage and a component of synovial fluid – the lubricating “oil” within the joint. Chondroitin sulphate is an important structural component of cartilage that attracts and holds water and helps the cartilage resist compression. When shopping for a well-rounded joint support supplement, look for one that also contains hyaluronic acid and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM); these compounds are also important for joint lubrication and for protecting intra-articular cartilage.

 4. Pelvic tucks

When it comes to equine back health and mobility, a pelvic tuck (“bum tuck”) is a simple exercise with several benefits. This reflex-like movement mobilizes the spine and stretches the paraspinal muscles of the back, while also strengthening the abdominal muscles and topline.

Starting about 3” on either side of your horse’s dock, press your fingers into his rump and run them up towards the croup – he will tuck his pelvis and round through the back as you do this. Those who are comfortable standing behind their horses can do two or three pelvic tucks prior to tacking him up. This will warm up his back and mobilize his spine prior to riding.

5. Reverse walking

Backing up is a safe and easy exercise with plenty of benefits. Not only does it enhance hind-end awareness/proprioception, but it also strengthens the muscles of the topline/core while simultaneously mobilizing the spine and sacropelvic joints. Pay attention to your horse’s topline as he backs up. You will notice that he actually rounds through the spine as he engages the hindquarters to step back. If he drifts to one side, place that side against the long-side of the ring to ensure he tracks straight through the hind end.

 6. Slow and steady warm-ups

Much like senior humans, older horses tend to be stiff at the onset of activity. Joint stiffness and short-striding that improves with exercise is typically indicative of stiffness caused by arthritis. Allowing your older horse to warm up slowly with plenty of time at the walk will help decrease joint stiffness, prevent injury, and allow the cardiovascular system to gear up for exercise. Senior horses who are retired from under-saddle work can still benefit from a structured hand-walking exercise regime to maintain joint health and overall well-being.

7. Cavaletti/pole work

If your horse is sound, walking and trotting over ground poles, and/or raised cavaletti once he is thoroughly warmed up, is a fabulous way to increase muscular strength and endurance. Additionally, this exercise promotes full range of motion for the joints in the extremities.

8. Stretch it out

Stretching your horse’s limbs can help ease muscular tightness, maintain or even enhance range of motion, assist with exercise recovery, and keep him supple. Three common extremity stretches involve:

  • Bringing the forelimb forward in front of the body
  • Bringing the hind limb forward towards the back of the front leg
  • Bringing the hind leg back behind the horse.

These stretching exercises are not recommended prior to activity as it can actually increase the risk of injury. Instead, opt for slow and steady warm-ups while under saddle, and follow up with a stretching session after the ride is done.

9. Heat and cold therapies

Applying heat to arthritic joints prior to exercise can help ease chronic stiffness associated with arthritis. Leg wraps and quarter-sheets with ceramic textiles woven into the fabric are an easy strategy for applying heat to arthritic joints. Cold therapy such as cold hosing or ice wrap application can be beneficial during acute episodes of joint pain and inflammation, or after strenuous exercise.

 joints10. Turnout

Horses are genetically programmed to move and forage up to 17 hours a day. Not only is turnout important for mental health, social interaction, and a healthy respiratory system, but the movement it provides is paramount for maintaining optimal synovial fluid lubrication inside the joints.

Motion is lotion; joints are self-lubricating and require fluctuations in the mechanical pressure caused by movement to facilitate the production of synovial fluid and the subsequent nourishment of articular cartilage. Active movement helps promote joint health while optimizing the extensibility of supportive soft tissues (see sidebar above).

While arthritis tends to be an ominous diagnosis, plenty of strategies and treatment options — in addition the ones outlined in this article – can keep your equine partner comfortable and productive throughout his golden years.