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Joint Disease in Horses an Age-Old ProblemBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · June 6, 2017

Joint and skeletal conditions plague almost every horse at some point during their life, frequently precluding their ability to participate in work or athletic events. If you find it challenging to help your horse maintain healthy bones and joints, you’re not alone. According to a group of paleontologists*, horses have suffered from joint disease for hundreds of years, with evidence as early as the 11th century.

Using radiology (X-rays) and computed tomography, researchers diagnosed osteoarthritis (OA) of the pastern joint in an ancient horse excavated from Wrocław Cathedral Island in Poland. The joint was also partially fused—a condition referred to as ankylosis—and likely suffered a decline in his ability to work or function.

Osteoarthritis of the pastern joint, which is also called the proximal interphalangeal joint, occurs relatively frequently, including in performance horses. High loads placed on this low-motion joint contribute to the development of painful OA, often manifested as ringbone. Due to the negative impact of pastern joint OA on performance, affected animals may undergo surgical arthrodesis. During this procedure, the cartilage is removed and the bones fused together using plates and screws to eliminate the joint and effectively create one long bone (a combination of the first and second phalanges).

Regarding the ancient arthritic horse, the research group wrote, “Present-day medical knowledge indicates that there was little likelihood of successful treatment for this condition during the Middle Ages. However, modern horses with similar pathology can function reasonably well with appropriate treatment and management, particularly following joint ankylosis [arthrodesis].”

Ways to maintain joint health and potentially minimize the onset and rate of development of OA include:

  • Keeping horses at an appropriate body condition score;
  • Avoiding injuries due to inappropriate work (e.g., increasing work too quickly, competing with an unfit horse);
  • Using anti-inflammatory drugs to control inflammation, including intra-articular corticosteroids or systemic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs;
  • Employing biological therapies, such as platelet-rich plasma, stem cells, or interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein (IRAP) therapy; and
  • Extracorporeal shockwave therapy, among others.

“Nutritional supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate not only benefit horses with OA but also help protect joints when used prophylactically before an injury or insult has occurred,” reminded Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

KER offers several quality joint supplements, including KER•Flex with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, Synovate HA with high molecular weight hyaluronic acid, and EO•3 containing marine-derived fish oils. Australian horse owners should also look for Glucos-A-Flex.

Use these products early in life to protect healthy joints from the get-go.

*Janeczek, M., A. Chrószcz, V. Onar, et al. 2017. Proximal interphalangeal joint ankylosis in an early medieval horse from Wrocław Cathedral Island, Poland. International Journal of Paleopathololgy. 17:18-25.