It’s not unusual for horses to develop arthritis as they get older. The degenerative and painful condition can come on for any number of reasons. Depending on the location of the arthritic joints (knees and hocks are typical) it is, fortunately, generally quite treatable and the horses can remain active with light riding, possibly throughout their lifetime.
You’ll want to consult with both your veterinarian and hoof care specialist to assess the severity of your horse’s condition and discuss a treatment plan. Having your horse’s feet in proper balance is always important, but it’s absolutely essential for a horse who’s suffering from arthritis. Trimming hoofs as frequently as every two to three weeks may be required. It is vital that you keep toes from getting too long (as this can put terrible and often debilitating pressure on knees) or heels getting too high.
Any imbalance in a hoof can introduce discomfort that is likely to be intolerable to the arthritic horse.
Adding a joint supplement is a common course of action. Anything with a fair dosage of glucosamine and chondroitin is preferred. Some supplements include pain relievers such as MSM, yucca or devil’s claw as well. SmartPak offers several choices and their website has an online questionnaire that will aid you in determining which may be the best selection for your horse. Their customer service experts are also available online or by phone to answer questions. Ordering the supplements in a bucket (vs SmartPaks) allows you to alter the dosage if need be. Some prefer the handy pre-packaged SmartPaks though, for ease of use and the option to avoid measuring each day’s dose. Valley Vet sells Majesty’s Flex wafers on their equine site, allowing for fast and simple online purchases. They also have a number of other joint supplements and pain relievers to help your horses remain reasonably active and comfortable. The wafers, like the ready-to-go SmartPaks, are incredibly simple to feed.
Additional support can be acquired via the use of knee or hock wraps. Take a look at the Back on Track products; their warming ceramic powder is appreciated by many arthritic horses whose joints are warmed by the supportive wraps. Many equestrians also swear by magnets, available in either knee or hock boots from a variety of manufacturers. Fleece polo wraps can also enhance comfort when used correctly, and they can help the knee boots stay in place.
Some horses are helped by topical poultices or ointments. Locally, Simply Eden makes a soothing equine poultice that’s favored by successful Utah riders in many disciplines, from barrel racing, cutting, dressage and jumping. Sore no More is another popular over-the-counter product; they have a gel along with the traditional liquid liniment and a cooling clay poultice (effective on joints and tendons, it’s also terrific for packing sore hoofs).
Properly-fit tack is important as well; make sure your saddle fits well and is comfortable for your horse. A relatively lightweight saddle with either a flex tree or a quality treeless design can be helpful. Use a supportive pad and consider adding a memory foam pad to make sure impact to her back is absorbed. Everything you can do to alleviate tension in her muscles and ligaments will help prevent stiffness that can further exacerbate the joint discomfort created by arthritis.
Make sure that exercise routines are not too demanding. You can still ride, but avoid small, tight circles or sharp, sudden turns. As much as possible, stick to riding straight lines. Make sure your turns are not abrupt; round corners out so your horse can maintain a gentle, easy going stride that won’t put too much torque on his already ailing joints. Don’t lunge the horse. Rather, hand walk him in long straight lines to help him loosen up before you get on. Showing isn’t entirely off the table, but relaxed schooling shows may be your best option. Limit the number of classes. Walk-trot may be best. If you’re showing in hand, halter is preferable to showmanship, as the latter asks for pivots and back up steps that could make your horse sore and unhappy.
Keeping your horse barefoot (with the aid of a proven barefoot expert like Chad Montee or Meisja Wagner) will reduce the weight that’s created when you add metal shoes. The natural flexion of the feet will also aid in healthy blood flow and proper use of tendons and ligaments. Your skilled barefoot hoof practitioner will also have nutritional and exercise recommendations that will help your arthritic horse maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Using hoof boots when you ride will also offer additional cushioning that could alleviate the horse’s pain.
During times of obvious discomfort, you may wish to add Bute or aspirin to your horse’s supplementary feed. You don’t want to over-do the medication, but when you get to know your horse you’ll be able to tell when she truly requires a little added pain relief.
Be cautious with turnout. Arthritic horses cannot move with the speed and agility of a younger, healthier horse and are especially susceptible to injury (either from an aggressive bite or kick when they can’t get out of the way swiftly, or by twisting their own body in an attempt to escape). Solo turnout could also prove unpleasant and painful for the horse if she becomes agitated and paces excessively. Your best option for turnout may be hand walking or grazing in hand.
Arthritis will slow your horse down a bit, and somewhat limit the athletic endeavors that she’ll be able to pursue, but the two of you can still enjoy gentle rides and happy, undemanding activity. With a little time and patience, you can help your arthritic horse to enjoy his lifestyle and appreciate your time together.