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Understanding Joint Disease in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 16, 2017

The term osteoarthritis (OA) gets thrown about often in barn aisles, racetrack backsides, and veterinary clinics.  Joint disease remains a leading cause of pain, lost training and competition days, and even attrition in various sectors of the industry. Without a cure, preventing the onset and progression of disease remain the only way to help horses fight this debilitating condition.

The best way to prevent OA is to arm yourself with a clear understanding of the normal structure of joints and factors contributing to joint disease. This knowledge will maximize joint health and keep horses sound for years to come. These seven facts will help develop an improved understanding of the leading health problem affecting horses.

  • Articular cartilage lines the ends of bones where two or more bones meet in a joint. This includes not only the joints located in a horse’s limbs but also those in the head (e.g., temporomandibular joint) and along the entire length of the spinal column.
  • Cartilage, a highly specialized and unique tissue, allows smooth, frictionless movement and helps distribute the forces incurred during locomotion.
  • Cartilage is home to cartilage cells, or chondrocytes, that produce a special matrix comprised of collagen (mostly type II) and proteoglycans. Collagen is the primary structural protein, whereas proteoglycans—a combination or proteins and sugars—hold water, giving cartilage its shock-absorbing properties.
  • Cartilage goes under a continual cycle of turnover. This means that chondrocytes constantly break down old matrix and create new matrix. Such turnover is mandatory for pain-free movement.
  • Inflammation causes problems. Any type of trauma to the cartilage or the joint triggers inflammation. Inflammatory mediators, such as interleukins, produced by the body interfere with cartilage turnover. Specifically, inflammation causes accelerated cartilage breakdown and decreased cartilage production.
  • Once joint inflammation begins, the cartilage slowly begins to degrade day by day.
  • A bad step causing trauma or a fracture involving the joint, inflammation of soft tissues such as tendons and ligaments located close to a joint, or even just general wear and tear and normal age-related degeneration can instigate cartilage degeneration.

A multimodal treatment approach to OA has been advocated for years in lieu of a cure. Joint supplements play an integral role in delaying progression of disease.

“Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate not only provide cartilage precursors to help the chondrocytes build new, healthy cartilage but also exert anti-inflammatory effects. Avocado-soybean unsaponifiables (ASU) and omega-3 fatty acids such as marine-derived EO•3 both possess inherent anti-inflammatory properties,” shared Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Not to be left out, hyaluronic acid provides lubrication to the joint, and supplementation with an HA product such as Synovate HA (available in the U.S. and some international markets) reportedly also helps horses with OA. In Australia, look for the broad-spectrum joint supplement Glucos-A-Flex.

Regardless of what supplements you choose to support joint health, select supplements wisely and make all dietary changes slowly. Always consult your veterinarian to confirm a diagnosis of joint disease prior to instituting any changes in management.