Keeping a horse’s joints healthy and strong ideally starts soon after a foal is born and continues all the way through the growing period and beyond. In horses that are working or competing, knowledge of how to feed properly, what supplements to give and how to manage activity is essential for every horse owner. Here we discuss how to optimise and maintain good joint health.
The Horse’s Leg
The horse’s lower limb is made up of bone, muscle, tendon, ligament and the joints which bear most of the stress when a horse stands and when it moves. Joints are comprised of two bones the ends of which are protected by tough cartilage and the whole thing is protected within a capsule structure which produces synovial fluid to lubricate and further protect the joint. The joints have to contend with the stresses and strains put on them when moving over different kinds of terrain and as such, they are the parts of the horse most vulnerable to damage.
It is true that the muscles and joints of the legs do benefit from a certain amount of stress as this helps to build strength and promote healing following minor damage however as the horse matures this benefit can reverse through over-stressing and over-working the joints. So although a steady form of exercise is essential for horses which are re-building fitness after time out of work, you have to be aware that a maturing horse needs a different approach. It is thought that as a horse matures they are subject to higher levels of inflammation due to raised cytokine activity (the proteins within cells which affect the immune system response). In obese animals, this response can be heightened still further which is why attention must be paid to the horse’s diet and weight.
Chronic inflammation due to joint stress when the synovial fluid no longer protects the joint, or injury has damaged the cartilage which protects the bone, can lead to arthritis, a condition no horse owner wants to see. Not only can this be expensive to treat, but it can also only ever be managed and a horse with severe arthritis will be unable to continue working. In some cases, it can, unfortunately, lead to euthanasia.
The key elements of managing joint health are good feeds and correct exercise although many owners are finding that feeding a good quality joint supplement can be of enormous benefit. However, the quality levels of joint supplements can vary widely so here you will find advice on what to look for.
Ingredients in Joint Supplements
The best joint supplements generally contain varying amounts of the same ingredients:
Anyone who takes a joint supplement themselves will be familiar with this ingredient. Glucosamine is one of the main building blocks of joint tissue including cartilage and is often derived from shellfish or other organic materials. It is usually either in sulphate or hydrochloride form and experts agree that the sulphate form is best for horses. It can be effective as a pain reliever but it is mainly of benefit in the slowing down of cartilage breakdown.
Chondroitin Sulphate and Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is frequently found in skin products for humans due to its cell renewal and moisture-retentive properties so it’s not surprising that when combined with chondroitin sulphate it is effective in protecting cartilage and joint tissue.
This is a natural organic, sulphur-rich product which is found in low levels in plants and which, in combination with glucosamine and chondroitin has been shown to help relieve pain and inflammation. Some studies have shown that it can be useful in helping sore muscles to relax after exercise. MSM levels can deteriorate in processed or stored feed so it is advisable to add it to a horse’s winter feed when there is limited opportunity to access fresh forage.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids to humans have long been acknowledged and now the benefits to horses have also been widely accepted. Omega 3 essential fatty acids cannot be made by the body so have to be added to the diet. They are proven to be especially helpful as an anti-inflammatory aid to joint health. Omega 3 fatty acids are also said to lift the mood and provide energy and focus. They have traditionally been derived from fish oil however as more people become aware of the need for greater environmental sustainability, and because fat is not a traditional or natural part of a horse’s diet, it is better to consider those derived from plant sources like marine algae or chia seeds.
The benefits of herbal medicine have been known for centuries and even today many swear by using herbs for all kinds of reasons. Herbs can be used in conjunction with other supplements to support joint health and sometimes as a general aid to health and well-being. The ones most often used for joint health, particularly in older or retired horses are devil’s claw, turmeric and ginger. However, they are less effective in young, active and working horses because they will not provide long-term help in building healthy joints. Devil’s claw is a plant which originated in the south and south-east Africa and has been subjected to many scientific trials for many decades. It’s efficacy as an anti-inflammatory painkiller is said to be fairly effective albeit slow. It is recommended that it should not be given to pregnant mares but, as with all supplements, it is always advisable to consult your vet about whether they are right for your horse. The Federation for Equestrian Sports added devil’s claw to its list of prohibited substances in 2016 on the basis that the active constituent, harpagoside, is a natural anti-inflammatory which is also said to have sedative and diuretic properties. It is listed as a controlled medication as it has the potential to affect performance or be a welfare risk to the horse. For this reason, it’s advisable to keep devil’s claw supplements well away from feed given to performance and competition horses.
How to Give Supplements
When it comes to glucosamine sulphate the general advice is to feed approximately 5,000-10,000mg per day but variables to consider are the weight, age and activity level of the horse as well as the horse’s regular diet. When combined with MSM, antioxidants and chondroitin it can be of great benefit to competition horses however different combinations of all or just some of them will affect how much you can feed and what benefits they will have in terms of pain relief and/or anti-inflammatory properties. Before you give any supplement, natural or otherwise to your horse it is always wise to learn as much about it as you can; if possible get the advice of a vet or other suitably qualified person.
Read The Label
This simple act will tell you everything you need to know about the supplement you’re about to feed. For example, it will tell you not only what the main ingredients are but also what else is in there which may affect the health and condition of your horse such as whether it contains cereal as a base component. Check what ingredient is listed first as that will be the majority ingredient in higher levels than the one you want to be the main aid to health. In short, a product which lists alfalfa as the main (first on the list) ingredient may not provide either the benefit you’re expecting or value for money.
Above all make sure the label contains the BETA NOPS logo. This is the standard which means that the product has been tested and controlled to reduce the risk of any naturally occurring prohibited substances that could be harmful or otherwise disadvantageous to competing horses.
In conclusion, the overall way to protect the health of your horse’s joints can be summed up thus:
- Always buy any supplements from a reputable source and follow advice where necessary.
- Feed good quality nutrition at all times.
- Try not to overwork or over-train your horse.
- Allow plenty of time for reconditioning and recuperation after time out of work.
- After work or other activity allow plenty of cool-down time to reduce the risk of post-exercise injury.
By following these simple rules you will be doing everything you can to avoid the risk of injury and early deterioration of your horse’s joints.