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Managing Arthritis in Horses

Scottie looking stunning on a light feed balancerin the sun, managing arthritis in horses

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While an arthritis diagnosis can seem like the end of a horses career, this doesn’t have to be the case. Many horses can continue with their ridden career without a problem. They might just need a bit more care to keep them comfortable. There are treatment options available, but managing arthritis in horses is usually the key.

Movement is best

Horses with arthritis are often described as stiff. They loosen up with exercise and start to look better again. Keeping them moving can help reduce the stiffness associated with arthritis.

As much turnout as possible

You should give them as much turnout as possible. Walking around the field in all weathers is better than them standing in the stable. If they can live out, this is probably the best option for them. Unfortunately this isn’t possible at all yards and you might need to consider if your yard is still right for your horse if the turnout is limited.

During the winter, our horses only go out for the morning, coming in at lunch during the week, a bit later over the weekend. Since Scottie’s arthritis diagnosis, I make sure he gets out of his stable in the evenings when he has come in early, even if it is just for a 10 min hand walk.

Keep them in work

While they might not be 100% sound, it is usually better to keep them in work than to retire them. This is because keeping them moving in light work helps prevent some of the stiffness. If you used to give them time off, especially over the winter, it is probably better to ease back on the work rather than stop entirely. For example, instead of giving them a few weeks completely off, you could do a few weeks just walking or hacking for example.

Encourage them to be active on their own

We aren’t with our horses 24/7 and they can be lazy. In the stable or in the middle of winter in the field, they can be very static, just standing at their hay eating. This won’t help their stiffness. But there are things you can do to encourage them to keep moving.

In the field, you can put your hay in multiple piles, a good distance apart. This means they can’t just stand at one pile all day, they have to move from pile to pile. You could also put them out with another horse who encourages them to move. You don’t want a horse what is going to chase them around as running around like a loon won’t help them. But an active grazing buddy might encourage them to move up and down the field a bit more.

You can do similar things in the stable. Seperate their haynet into multiple nets and hang them around the stable. You could also ditch the feed bucket, to encourage foraging behaviour in the stable. Check out more tips on food based enrichment in the stable here. All these things will help you keep them more active in the stable.

long reining Scottie, light work might be best for older horses, managing arthritis in horses

Rethink their workload

While most horses shouldn’t have to retire after an arthritis diagnosis, you might need to rethink their workload. If they have been competing at a reasonably high level or in certain sports, you might need to drop them down a level or two. Depending on what joints are affected, you might need to avoid certain exercises and movements such as circles or hill work. But your vet should be able to explain these to you after their diagnosis and not all horses will have to avoid the same, if any, exercises.

Your horse should be able to stay in full work. But you will want to change things. You will want to spend more time warming up and cooling down to help ease the joints into the work. You might also want to add a bit more variation to their workload. They might really benefit from more ground work such as long reining and pole work. These exercises can really help strengthen them, which can help support the arthritic joints.

Support their joints from within

Unsurprisingly, good nutrition is very important for a horse with arthritis. If your horse has had an arthritis diagnosis, it is definitely time to check their diet.

Are they getting everything they need?

So many people feed a conditioning feed. These can be great. But you often need to feed quite a lot of it each day to meet your horse’s nutritional needs. Double check how much you are feeding against how much you should be feeding. If you are feeding less than the recommended amount and they don’t need the extra calories, it might be worth changing them to a lower calorie complete feed or balancer.

Are you feeding a joint supplement?

If you aren’t already feeding a joint supplement, you should look into them. There has been research into the effects of some of the common ingredients and they can not only reduce the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis, but can help to slow the further development of arthritis.

My vet recommended a joint supplement including Glucosamine or MSM as these tend to be the most researched and appear to be effective. Ater a bit of my own research, I decided to try Scottie on NAF Glucosamine Plus MSM. It’s early days but he is looking fantastic!

Are they the right weight?

It shouldn’t be surprising that being overweight puts more strain on a horses joints. While obesity is a high risk for all horses and is something many owners overlook, it is even more important for horses with arthritis. Carrying any extra weight will put more strain on their arthritic joints. Check their weight and consider what could be done to help them lose some weight if needed.

Keep them warm

The cold and the damp can make arthritis flare up. Once your horse has been diagnosed with arthritis, you might need to take extra steps to protect them from the elements. They might need a slightly warmer rug when the weather is bad. Or you might want to move them into a field with more shelter available. If you are lucky enough to have some indoor turnout barns, these could be perfect for days where the weather is horrible.

Scottie having his back done.

Extra therapies and routine care

There have been studies in humans that show magnet therapy can help with arthritis. There are lots of magnet products on the market your horse might benefit from.

They might also need more regular visits from a physio. If they get stiff, they might compensate and make themselves sore elsewhere.

Alongside all of the above, there are extra therapies available what can be really helpful when managing horses with arthritis. These are some things what are believed to help a horse with arthritis:

  • Regular Physio
    If your horse is feeling stiff from their arthritis, they might compensate, causing issues elsewhere. Regular physio can help keep them comfortable.
  • Regular Farrier Visits
    When your horse retires or slows down, it can be tempting to take their shoes off and relax a bit. But whether you keep their shoes on or not, they still need to see the farrier regularly to keep their feet in good shape. Too long or poorly shaped feet can put extra strain on their joints.
  • Water Treadmill
    If you have a water treadmill nearby, these can be fantastic for horses with arthritis. We have one near us I am planning to take Scottie to on a fairly regular basis.
  • Magnetic therapy
    While experts disagree on whether magnets can promote healing or not, there is plenty of research into their use and they do help improve circulation and reduce swelling. This means they should help ease the symptoms of arthritis.

Combining good management with treatment

Managing arthritis in horses is key to keeping them comfortable. There are treatment options available to not only help keep your horse comfortable, but also help slow the progression of arthritis. Keep your eyes peeled for our next post about arthritis and the treatments available.

Last Updated on 04/04/2022

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