One of the big issues facing senior horses and their owners is joint health. As we age, our joints lose lubrication and the cartilage becomes thinner. Ligaments can also shorten which results in decreased flexibility, making joints feel stiff. These same changes happen in our horses.

As I mentioned in the first part of this senior series, my own horse, Bogart, suffered from stiffness even as a younger horse. Now 16, it takes longer and longer to reach suppleness in our training sessions. I want to know what I could do to help him, not only for my own riding pleasure, but for his comfort. But what are the signs of joint problems such as arthritis?

Symptoms can include subtle changes in movement such as shortening of the stride, head raising while ridden, and hollowing of the back. Other signs are stiffness that lessens as you warm up, and puffiness, warmth or pain in the area of the joint.

If some of these symptoms apply to your horse, then having your vet assess for specific areas of arthritis is a good start in order to help properly manage it and slow down the arthritic process.

There are different ways you can help ease your horses’ stiffness and discomfort including feeding a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids, adding a joint supplement (see below), and adding Vitamin E. Seniors should maintain a healthy weight, as extra weight adds extra stress to the joints. Make sure they have regular hoof trims. And always keep your horse moving! As with people, the less active they are, the stiffer they become.

The use of equine massage, acupuncture and chiropractic work can also help make your horse more comfortable. As with any treatment, check with your vet so you know what will work best for your particular horse.

As I wrote in part one of this series, riders and trainers should limit the use of lungeing as a training modality. It can be very stressful on the horse’s joints to repeatedly move in a bend on a tight circle. Instead, if you must lunge, then use the whole arena so the horse gets to move down the long side as well. (This also help you keep fit!)

I’ve also really been impressed with the use of carrot stretches. Dr. Hilary M. Clayton, who is a professor and McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, wrote a guidebook called Activate Your Horses’ Core. In the book, she explains that “carrot stretches are core strengthening exercises in which the horse is trained to stand in place while following the movements of bait.” So another name for carrot stretches would be ‘baited’ stretches, with the bait being a small piece of carrot.

“The bait is moved to a position that either rounds the horse’s neck or bends it sideways. In these stretch positions, the horse has to use many muscle groups in his limbs and back to maintain balance. Several research studies have shown that the small muscles that stabilize the joints between the vertebrae protect against development of spinal arthritis are activated and strengthened by performing carrot stretches several times a week, ideally just before riding.”

Dr. Clayton also writes that these types of exercises are not suitable for horses with neurological issues as it affects their balance. If your horse does have a condition and you’re unsure if carrot stretches are appropriate, speak to your vet first.

PRO TIP: Dr. Clayton suggests using a plastic cup lid to poke the carrot through so that the lid acts as a sort of shield, protecting your fingers from being bitten.

CONFESSION: My horse broke my finger last summer biting at a piece of apple and taking my fingers inside his mouth instead. I wish I had known about this trick then!

After a particularly hard workout, cold hosing, icing or liniments can be helpful, and some horse owners use heat therapy or specialized circulation/anti-inflammation wraps.

We also spoke with Dr. Kate Robinson of McKee Pownall Equine Services about joint care. Since joining MPES, Dr. Robinson has taken over as medical lead at the McKee Pownall Equine Services Rehabilitation and Reproduction Facility and as just completed her Canadian Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (Chiropractic) certification course.

Horse Canada: Let’s start with joint supplements. There are a lot on the market, but do they work? I’ve read that a lot of what we know is anecdotal, and that scientific studies are few and far between, and even less that are peer reviewed when it comes of efficacy.

Dr. Kate Robinson: Supplements can work is the short answer, but I think your critical lens and approach is a very good one. I do think that there are some pretty useful supplements out there. But I think it can be very difficult for owners to separate the wheat from the chaff. I think using a supplement that has some evidence behind it or talking to your veterinarian are good steps. There are certainly supplements that are available only through veterinarians, and those are typically ones that do have a little bit more evidence behind them. Admittedly, it might be white papers rather than peer-reviewed publications, but at least there has been some effort put into them in the fact that the company is choosing to limit their sales through veterinarians rather than feed or tack stores. Not to say that there aren’t good ones out there that you can get off the shelf. But you need to do your research.

HC: When should an owner decide it’s time to put their horse on a joint supplement?

KR: I don’t think that it is ever a bad time to put a horse on a joint settlement. And there’s actually some recent evidence actually showing that joint supplementation in younger horses like two- and three-year-olds can be protective of joint health. So I think starting them earlier in life maybe useful.

HC: What about joint injections? I’ve spoken to vets who say that some seniors are worse off after the injections have worn off. Yet for active show horses they are the first go-to.

KR: I think, especially as we get into senior horses that have mild arthritis in multiple joints and so are overall stiffer rather than having a specific lameness issue that we are trying to treat, I don’t know that just starting to treat joints is the way to go. And you may see decline after those injections wear off, but I do think those patients maybe do benefit even more from things like Adequan or IV Legend. But I think if we’re going to start those types of programs, we need to commit to them; giving a shot of these types of products twice a year is not likely to do anything in particular for that horse. But keeping them on a regular program as recommended by the label is more likely to give them some relief and for you as the rider to see results.

HC: Can you explain the main difference between those two products?

KR: Legend is an IV product that requires a veterinarian to administer, versus Adequan, which is also an injection but is given intramuscularly, so a seasoned barn manager or staffer can administer it. Legend is hyaluronic acid (there are also other brands) which helps with healthy normal synovial fluid. Adequan is the only FDA-approved equine PSGAG (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) for degenerative joint disease in horses. So, they are similar but a different component of joint fluid and the cartilage itself. Adequan has actually been shown in studies to be disease-modifying in joint health versus Legend, which helps modify clinical signs, but doesn’t necessarily change what’s going on in the joints.

Subscribe to the Horse Canada newsletter and get an exclusive bonus digital edition!
We'll send you our regular newsletter and include you in our monthly giveaways. PLUS, you'll receive our exclusive guide with 85 Tips to Handle Anything You Encounter on the Trail!