Senior horse care basics: kick up those hooves

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint degeneration in horses, can stop an equine in its tracks. Indeed, sixty percent of lameness issues originate from this condition.

Often described as a cascade of inflammation in a joint accompanied by the progressive loss of surrounding articular cartilage, diagnosis and treatment of osteoarthritis encompasses both conventional approaches such as corticosteroids. Stall rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, hyaluronic acid injections, and oral supplements, as well as emerging methods like stem cell therapy and IRAP(®), Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein address this disease.

While many arthritic conditions are recognized, the most common form affecting older horses is osteoarthritis. The fetlocks, pasterns, hocks, coffin joints, and the spine’s length, including the neck and back, are the most likely areas for damage to progress over time.

Symptoms vary, but chronic lameness points to the likelihood of arthritis developing in senior horses. A discerning eye detects other indications of discomfort and aids in early diagnosis. Aside from lameness, record any of these signs of trouble in your horse health diary.

  • Stiffness during exercise or when the horse tries to raise or lay down
  • Sensitivity to the touch in joint areas
  • Heat, puffiness, or swelling of joints or lower leg
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Lack of impulsion
  • Switching leads
  • Behavioral changes affecting mood or appetite

Treatment for osteoarthritis is not a one-size-fits-all. The range of movement, noticeable pain in your horse, and repeated swelling in the joint guide a treatment method chosen. Treatment components may change over time as the disease progresses. No permanent cure is available to ease your horse’s arthritic condition, but several applicable medical, supplementary, and emerging methodologies give comfort to your senior.

  • Phenylbutazone or bute is an inexpensive yet effective treatment for inflammation and pain. Administered as either a powder, paste, or injected, bute treats short-term arthritic flares.
  • Corticosteroids injected directly into an affected joint halts inflammation and slow the progression of a joint’s disintegration.
  • HA or Hyaluronic Acid, a natural element in synovial fluid and cartilage of the joint, is injected separately or in conjunction with a corticosteroid, improving the joint’s cushioning by encouraging the body to produce more HA.
  • Oral supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), Vitamin C, or oral HA combats inflammation.

Aside from medications and supplements, your choices make a difference in your horse’s comfort, too. A slow and gradual warm-up during regular and low-intensity exercise keeps your horse moving and benefits in the short and long-term. Providing deeper bedding in your horse’s stall, ensuring the footing in the arena is soft, and staying committed to regular hoof trimming and shoeing enhances your horse’s comfort.

Treatment approaches enlisting your horse’s body to aid in healing paves the road to the future. Stem cells or blood-derived, while not a clear-cut answer to treating orthopedic disease, are leading the way to understand how to use the body to heal itself. Dr. David Frisbie, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, and Colorado State University professor reflects on the possibilities that biologics present. “As we look to biologics, especially stem cells, while they are not a silver bullet or a panacea, they are decreasing the re-injury rate better than other surgical or medical treatments.”

Senior horse care and owner priority

In the 2009-2010 American Horse Publications (AHP) Equine Industry Survey, equine seniors’ health came second only to joint problems as owners’ most significant concern. Not surprisingly, survey respondents, on average, owned two horses over the age of fifteen.

Whether companions or champions, family members, or friends, the older horse holds a special place in our lives, requiring both a flexible and diligent approach to making their golden years shine.