Whether a foal, a broodmare, or a mature or aging horse, supporting joint health is a common concern for many horse owners.

Being proactive can help to prevent joint problems from affecting your horse, robbing them of performance, comfort and well-being.

Nutrition plays an important role in keeping your horse’s joints in good shape, but this is not the only way to support and maintain your horse’s joint function.

The joint itself is where two bones meet, connected and padded by connective tissue and cartilage. Synovial fluid within the joint acts as a lubricant and is important for joint function. [1] Together these work to absorb load and allow for mechanical movement.

Horses build and develop joints in the womb and during growth. Ensuring healthy growth in the foal can be a major component in preventing joint disease, although it does not guarantee that injuries or diseases will not occur.

With age, cartilage turnover decreases. When combined with wear-and-tear and/or high-intensity exercise and overload, joints can become susceptible to injury. [1]

When the joint degenerates, it can lead to osteoarthritis. This can result in inflammation induced by pro-inflammatory mediators such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF- α). The joint can also experience oxidative stress which is identified by oxidative markers like prostaglandins. [2]

Supporting joint health can be accomplished at all ages. Here are Mad Barn’s 8 principles for supporting healthy joints in horses.

Top 8 Principles for Joint Health in Horses

1) Ensure Sound and Proper Nutrition

Providing your horse with a complete and balanced diet[3] is one of the key strategies to growing and maintaining healthy joints.

The maintenance of bone, cartilage, and synovial fluid require that a horse’s energy requirements are met, with adequate protein and appropriate vitamins and minerals.

Not providing enough energy, or calories, could result in slowed or reduced growth. In mature horses, this could result in weight loss specifically of muscle tissue which could increase the risk of injury.

Dangers of Excess Energy

Too much energy can result in developmental issues during growth and excess body weight in growing and mature horses.

When feeding foals a diet of mostly roughage at 129% of their daily energy requirements for 16 weeks, they exhibited signs of dyschondroplasia (based on the National Research Council 1989 – Nutrient Requirements for Horses). [3]

Dyschondroplasia is defined as abnormal cartilage growth that can affect bone and joints. Ensuring adequate energy, but not over-feeding, is important to the development and maintenance of healthy joints.

Amino Acids

For proteins, ensuring a complete amino acid profile[3] is a must, with special attention to lysine, methionine, and threonine.

These are the most common limiting amino acids in a horse’s diet, and are integral to overall health. Even if overall protein requirements are met, if your horse does not get adequate amounts of these essential amino acids, protein synthesis will be inhibited.

Vitamins and Minerals

There are a variety of vitamins and minerals that are important for your horse’s joint health, including calcium, phosphorous, zinc and copper.

Calcium and phosphorous are the major minerals in bone and joints, and these are especially important to provide at an adequate level during growth.

In mature horses, inadequate calcium intake will result in taking calcium from the bone, and thereby weakening its composition and integrity.

A ratio of 1.5:1 of calcium to phosphorus3 is considered ideal, although in foals the ratio can be as high as 3:1.

Copper and zinc are important for collagen development and maintenance. However, too much of these mineral can impact or compete against other minerals for absorption. These trace minerals can be difficult to provide at an adequate level if there is little variation in the diet.

The best way to ensure that your horse is receiving a complete and balanced diet is to submit your horse’s diet for analysis. Our equine nutritionists are on hand to discuss horse’s specific needs and recommend the right feeding program.

 

2) Exercise your Horse

Exercising your horse with low-impact exercise can build and improve bone development, and cartilage and synovial fluid content and composition. In children, it has been established that exercise leads to improved cartilage thickness and composition compared to children with no physical activity. [5]

Thirteen weeks of training in 2-year-old horses on sand and grass tracks resulted in thickening of articular cartilage at different joints. [6]

Compared to untrained 2-year-old horses, hyaline cartilage thickness was greater in the trained horses from the study by Firth et al. [7]

Furthermore, horses confined to box stalls had significantly less proteoglycan synthesis than horses exercised for 6-weeks. [8]

From these results, it is clear that there is a benefit to regular, low-impact exercise in horses on bone and cartilage development and supporting joint health.

 

3) Don’t Skip Conditioning and Jump into High-Intensity Exercise

As described above, exercise is an important component for maintaining strong and healthy joints. However, starting your horse on high intensity exercise without allowing the body time to adapt can be a major cause of joint injuries and the development of joint diseases such as osteoarthritis.

Light exercise should be incorporated early in life. Foals that were confined in box stalls for the first 5 months of life had abnormal bone development, whereas foals that were exercised daily with gallop sprints had overstimulated bone development. [9]

The results of this study found that in the first 5 months of age, foals with free access to pasture had optimal bone development. [9]

Consider easing your horse into high-intensity exercise regimes. Start with low-intensity exercise such as walking and build up duration times and the intensity of exercise over weeks to months.

Your horse’s body will adapt to the higher demands and will aid in preventing joint injuries.

Also consider the type of exercise and any repetitive movements that could induce stress on your horse’s joints. Repetitive excess stress on a joint will likely result in a joint injury.

 

4) Consider Providing Supplements for Joint Support

Supporting joint health with a nutritious diet and moderate exercise are key. But using nutraceutical supplements in combination with a complete and balanced diet can be a great way to promote joint comfort and function.

There are many supplements available to support different aspects of joint health. Many of these supplements have good research data supporting their use.

Some of these ingredient may already be included in your horse’s diet but can provide additional benefits if fed at a higher level. And some of the available supplements may be new ingredients to the diet.

Here is a brief summary of some of the common supplements available. More information can be found in our article on the Top 8 Joint Supplements for Horses.

 

  1. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) found in fruits, alfalfa, and corn works as an antioxidant to inhibit oxidative stress caused by nitric oxide, prostaglandins, and reducing pro-inflammatory mediators: IL-6 and TNF-α. There is strong research data supporting its efficacy in horses.
  2. Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate are commonly paired together in equine supplements and are thought to improve composition of the synovial fluid and cartilage, although this is only seen in in vitro studies.
  3. Hyaluronic Acid is part of tissues in the joint. When supplemented orally, it can improve the concentration of hyaluronic acid in synovial fluid to support cartilage and connective tissue integrity. Hyaluronic acid is also commonly injected into the joint to exert similar effects.
  4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids have long been considered for their potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are only derived from marine sources, like algae or fish oil, are thought to have some of the highest efficacy of joint support supplements.
  5. Avocado/Soybean Unsaponifiables contain a variety of vitamins, sterols, and triterpene alcohols that are thought to provide an anti-inflammatory effect and inhibit collagen and cartilage degradation from enzymes such as collagenase.
  6. Vitamins C, E, and A are known for their antioxidant effects and may be beneficial to supplement in the diet for joint support.
  7. Herbs such as Boswellia, Devil’s Claw, and Rose Hip are used in traditional medicines for their anti-inflammatory properties and may provide support in horses for healthy joints

 

This is not considered an exhaustive list as there many supplements available. Every horse is different and so it is difficult to determine a “best” joint supplement.

Consider discussing your horse’s current diet and the potential for supplements to support your specific horse’s nutrition and joint health needs with one of our equine nutritionists.

 

5) Don’t Ignore your Horse’s Hoof Health

Unsurprisingly, hoof care can directly impact a horse’s joints.

The hoof is the primary location of impact when a horse is moving. Ensuring that the hoof capsule is trimmed appropriately can aid in the absorption of impact and limiting the impact transferred to the joints.

The onset of osteoarthritis may be accelerated in horses when there is increased pressure on the joint. [10]

In one study, it was observed that increasing the elevation of heels by 5 degrees, resulted in significantly increased pressure to the articular joint. [11]

Lowering the elevation through trimming and shoeing resulted in lowered pressure to the joint. Furthermore, imbalanced shoeing caused imbalanced load to the joints.

Hoof caulks have been shown to alter the angle of the joint when added to the horseshoe. [12] Changes in joint angle can alter the pressure on the joint and may be implicated in development of injuries and osteoarthritis.

Hoof health is important to maintain, as the hoof supports the weight of the body and acts as the first point of contact for the horse.

 

6) Maintain a healthy body weight and body condition

Unfortunately, it is estimated that 40 – 50% of horses globally are overweight or obese. [13]

Obesity, as in other species such as humans, dogs, and cats, comes with many health consequences, one of which is the potential to increase the risk of joint disease.

Obesity is the result of excessive fat accumulation. It is defined as when fat exceeds 30% of the body’s composition.

Body Condition Score

In horses, a 9-point body condition score is used. A score of 5 indicates an ideal, or moderate body condition.

Body condition scores of 8 identify the horse as ‘fat’ and a score of 9 is considered ‘extremely fat’. [14]

Excess weight can be considered as an excess load on the horse and their joints. This could cause strain and wear-and-tear to the joints, resulting in increased risks for joint injuries.

Inflammation

At the molecular level, obesity is also associated with hypoxia, oxidative stress, and inflammation. [15] Unsurprisingly, the rise in oxidative stress and inflammation may impact the environment at the joint.

Inflamed cartilage is susceptible to damage, which could increase the horse’s risk for injury or joint disease.

Obesity May Increase Risk of Joint Disease

In 40 young Mangalarga Marchador horses, an exercise regime of 15-minute gallop sprints did not appear to impact joint health status. However, the researchers noted that there was a positive association of body weight and osteoarthritis development in the horses. [16]

A similar finding was identified in another equine research trial. Fifty-four horses were grouped by body condition: thin, moderate, overweight, and obese. [17]

The researchers then evaluated concentrations of prostaglandin E2 and glycosaminoglycan as markers for joint disease in each group.

Horses under the ‘obese’ category ultimately had higher body fat percentages, and higher concentrations of prostaglandin E2. Due to the pro-inflammatory effects of prostaglandin E2 on synovial fluid and cartilage, this could indicate a relationship between obesity and the development of osteoarthritis. [17]

While more research in horses is required to determine the direct relationship between obesity and joint health, it is clear that obesity increases biomarkers for joint disease in horses.

Preventing obesity and maintaining a healthy weight and body condition in your horse will improve their well-being and may support healthy joints.

 

7) Don’t Ignore Signs of a Joint Injury or Joint Disease

If you believe that there is a concern with the health and/or function of your horse’s joints do NOT ignore the signs.

Possible signs of a joint injury or disease can present in symptoms such as:

  1. Joint stiffness – You may notice stiffness when bringing your horse out of their stall or prior to an exercise bout. In some cases, the stiffness may disappear as your horse begins to stretch and move around. However, persistent stiffness can be concerning, and could indicate cartilage degradation or pain at the joint.
  2. Swelling/Inflammation and heat around the joint(s) – If you see swelling around the joints this could be a sign of acute arthritis or infection. Heat is a normal response to swelling or inflammation, and so the joint may be warm to touch.
  3. Lameness – A joint injury may be indicated by lameness in your horse. Lameness is one of the most common symptoms in joint injuries and osteoarthritis.
  4. Signs of pain – Every horse is different and may exhibit different responses to pain. Be aware of the possible signs your horse may show if they are in pain.

Importantly, every horse, and every case, is different and will present symptoms differently. If you notice these signs or symptoms in your horse contact your veterinarian.

By seeking medical attention and treatment early, you can prevent the progression of more serious conditions such as osteoarthritis. Giving your horse time to heal will support their joint health and can prevent further injury.

8) Start supporting healthy joints NOW!

Supporting healthy joints starts in the womb and continues throughout the lifespan of your horse.

Proper nutrition during gestation ensures a healthy and well-developed fetus. This means when the foal enters the world and takes their first steps, they have a strong foundation to work with.

In horses, growth and development occur quickly. Within the first 6 months, their cartilage has reached its adult thickness. [18]

While cartilage reaches its full thickness early in life, bones continue to grow for up to 4.5 years of age. [19] Providing a complete and balanced diet as described above is paramount in ensuring optimal growth and development.

The aim is to support healthy growth, which will lead to greater cartilage thickness and composition. As horses mature, the rate of collagen turnover and composition of cartilage decline. [19]

Supporting healthy joints means starting BEFORE there is a problem. We recommend discussing joint support options for your horse with our equine nutritionists.

Submit your horse’s diet for analysis online and our nutritionists can make recommendations to your feeding program to help prevent joint problems from occurring in the future.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Bertone A.L. Joint Physiology: Responses to exercise and training. “Equine Exercise Physiology: The Science of Exercise in the Athletic Horse”. 2008.
  2. Berenbaum F. Osteoarthritis as an inflammatory disease. Osteoarthr Cartil, 2013.
  3. National Research Council. “Nutrient Requirements of Horses: 6th Revised Edition”, 2007.
  4. Savage C.J. et al. Effects of dietary energy and protein on induction of dyschondroplasia in foals. Equine Vet J, 1993.
  5. Jones G. et al. Effect of physical activity on cartilage development in healthy kids. Br J Sports Med, 2003.
  6. Firth E.C. et al. Musculoskeletal responses of 2-year-old thoroughbred horses to early training 1. Study design, and clinical, nutritional, radiological and histological observations. NZ Vet J, 2004.
  7. Firth E.C. & Rogers C.W. Musculoskeletal responses of 2-year-old thoroughbred horses to early training 7. Bone and articular cartilage response in the carpus. NZ Vet J, 2005.
  8. Palmer J.L. et al. Site-specific proteoglycan characteristics of third carpal articular cartilage in exercised and nonexercised horses. Am J Vet Res, 1995.
  9. Van Weeren P.R. & Barneveld A. Study design to evaluate the influence of exercise on the development of the musculoskeletal system of foals up to age 11 months. Equine Vet J Suppl, 1999.
  10. Strand E. et al. Intra-articular pressure, elastance and range of motion in healthy and injured racehorse metacarpophalangeal joints. Equine Vet J, 1998.
  11. Viitanen et al. Effect of foot balance on the intra-articular pressure in the distal interphalangeal joint in vitro. Equine Vet J, 2010.
  12. Thompson K.N. & Herring L.S. Metacarpophalangeal and phalangeal joint kinematics in horses shod with hoof caulks. J Equine Vet Sci, 1994.
  13. Gill J.C. et al. Weight loss management in client-owned horses. J Equine Vet Sci, 2016.
  14. Henneke D.R. et al. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J, 1983.
  15. German A.J. et al. Obesity, its associated disorders and the role of inflammatory adipokines in companion animals. Vet J, 2010. –
  16. Di Filippo P.A. et al. Influence of exercise, age, body weight, and growth on the development of tarsal osteoarthritis in young Mangalarga Marchador horses. J Equine Vet Sci, 2019.
  17. Pearson W. et al. Exploring relationships between body condition score, body fat, activity level and inflammatory biomarkers. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr, 2018.
  18. Oikawa M. et al. Age-related changes in articular cartilage thickness of the third metacarpal bone in the thoroughbred. Jap J Vet Sci, 1989.
  19. Firth E.C. The response of bone, articular and tendon to exercise in the horse. J Anatomy, 2006.