Consider the average adult human: they weigh approximately 140 pounds and balance their weight on two legs – relying on about 70 pounds of weight stability per leg. Now, compare that to 4-legged horses, which weigh between 800 and 2,200 pounds on average (not even including when they are pregnant). Therefore, by the same measure, equines have a weight stability demand of anywhere from 200 to 550 pounds per leg – it’s little wonder why arthritis in horses is such a deep concern for handlers. While traditional vet medicines and treatments abound for this condition, even the widely-used drugs meant to treat horse arthritis come with potential side effects, making alternative, natural remedies an enticing option.
Like human and even dog arthritis medical treatment, natural and alternative remedies are best used for proactive health maintenance in horses, rather than as an only solution applied to severe cases. In many instances, thankfully, they can be used alongside prescribed medications or treatments as part of an overall equine vet-approved approach.
What Are The Symptoms Of Arthritis In Horses?
It’s essential to bear in mind that rather than being a distinct ailment, “arthritis” is used as a catch-all term to describe ongoing, chronic joint pain and inflammation, regardless of species. A “symptom” of arthritis simply means that joint inflammation is present and won’t necessarily narrow down the root cause. In horses, it may be caused by a problem in the joint itself, it may be a symptom of an injury that didn’t heal correctly, or it may even be a side effect of another horse health issue.
Regardless of the root cause, horse handlers must keep an eye out for tell-tale signs that their horse or horses may be suffering from arthritis. These include:
- A stiffness or awkwardness to their usual gait: This symptom will be most apparent to handlers that walk or ride the affected horse regularly, which is why a frequent examination is so critical.
- A joint that appears visually swollen or feels warm to the touch: If the area is affected suddenly, rather than gradually, arthritis may be the result of an infection, and you should call a vet immediately.
- Pain or discomfort (e.g., “favoring” another leg, audible reactions, etc.) In the horse’s expressions and movement when a joint is flexed or stretched. This may appear during normal walking or exercising with a horse or when the horse is working with a farrier or other equine professional.
- Difficulty upon standing after the horse has been laying down for a rest: This is a particularly telling sign in older horses, who are more likely to experience arthritis. If arthritis is suspected, a handler may want to compel their horse to lay down to watch them get back up.
Natural Remedies For Arthritis In Horses: Treatments To Consider
For an animal that spends most of its lifetime standing, untreated arthritis can be devastating, and in some severe cases, will cause lameness and it may even necessitate drastic humane measures. One of the best defenses that horse handlers can give their animals is a diet and supplementation routine designed to minimize or eliminate arthritic symptoms. Natural equine arthritis treatment approaches come in a variety of forms – some may involve organic horse supplements or hemp oil for horses. In contrast, others may be topical or practice-based, but almost all will benefit from a consistent application rather than one-off uses. Although there are many different ways to provide relief to a horse’s arthritis, always speak to a trusted vet before administering any type of treatment to horses.
In some instances, supplements can be preventative, which is good news for horses who
are either healthy or only suffering from mild to moderate arthritis symptoms. Equine veterinarians can typically recommend supplements that are mixed in or added to food or water. These may include commonly-used “nutraceutical” substances such as:
- Chondroitin sulfate, which replenishes a naturally occurring joint material
- Glucosamine, which helps repair and rebuild torn or compromised cartilage
- Hyaluronan or hyaluronic acid, which boosts joint lubrication to prevent tearing and strain with the rebuilds usage
- Herbal derivatives, such as Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), used to reduce overall inflammation when taken regularly
These supplements are available virtually anywhere that horse accessories are sold – in feed stores, online, and so on. A vet can also make recommendations, and in some cases prescribe, brands and formulas if needed.
Alternative therapies are usually physically applied to the horse’s body, rather than introduced orally, transdermally (i.e., via the skin), or injected. Like health approaches used on human arthritis, the success of these will depend on both the individual horse and the severity of their arthritis.
- Acupressure, the non-invasive “cousin” to needle-dependent acupuncture, relies on stimulating specific points on the horse’s hock, legs, and joints with a targeted massage. The handler can apply this treatment, provided they are comfortable with the concept, and it’s well-tolerated by their horse or by a professional as part of a visit.
- Equine Chiropractic Treatment is administered by a visiting equine chiropractor, who will gently manipulate, push, and pull a horse’s neck and joints to relieve tension and pressure. Typically used on an ongoing basis and preemptively by handlers, chiropractic treatment for horses can make a positive difference in preventing and alleviating horse arthritis symptoms.
- Swimming, provided that an appropriate body of water is available and is well-tolerated by the affected horse, can be a big help. Frequently incorporated into physical therapy for humans and other animals, swimming holds the same benefits for arthritis in horses. The water alleviates the pressure of the horse’s weight and eliminates the irritating/inflammation-causing concussive effect each time their hoof touches down on dry land.
Important Note: During swimming, a horse will not need to go into “over the head” levels of deep water for therapeutic effects – even chest-deep water will offer enough buoyancy to make a positive difference and give joints some relief.
- Horse Massage will help increase blood flow, which in turn will speed up healing and relieve discomfort and stiffness. Many horse handlers that incorporate massage into their horse health approaches use an equine massage gun, a handheld electric or rechargeable device that is safe and gentle but powerful enough to impact the solid muscle that composes much of a horse’s body. Top human athletes also use Scaled-down versions to help their bodies recover after demanding practices or games.
- Temperature Therapy can also help as part of horse arthritis treatment. Unique wraps are available that are made to attach to or around a horse’s affected limb. These are usually secured with Velcro and are either kept in the freezer before retaining cold or microwaved to heat filler material inside gently. Best used when a horse is put up rather than in motion, these tools allow soothing heat or inflammation-fighting cold to penetrate the limb and offer relief at the affected site. A horse should always be carefully observed to ensure the temperature of the wrap or compress isn’t too extreme; in some cases, a thin towel or other cloth can be used between the wrap and horse as a “temperature buffer” for comfort.
Preventing Horse Arthritis: Helpful Handler Guidelines
While there is no surefire way to prevent horse arthritis completely, that doesn’t mean that horse handlers are helpless when facing this persistent foe. Rigorously incorporating both “warm-up” and “cool down” periods when exercising a horse will help considerably, regardless of the horse’s age. Observation, however, will remain an essential tool in spotting, diagnosing, and treating equine arthritis before it becomes an emergency vet-level problem.
Make it a habit to observe how a horse moves consciously, whether walking or running alone or with a rider. Most handlers fall into a routine with their horses, the familiarity of which can mask small red flags on their way to becoming more significant health problems. While keeping a log or journal may feel a little unusual at first, a series of dated observations that call out the “little things” can help an equine vet or therapeutic provider establish a firm timeline of arthritic injury or discomfort.
As horse ages, you can assume that arthritic symptoms will show up sooner or later – the most proactively they’re watched for, the sooner treatment can be applied for relief. And, while it may seem obvious, avoid strenuous exercising or weight-bearing on an arthritic horse that looks to be in discomfort, mainly when directed to do so by an equine veterinarian.
And finally, horse obesity, while not exactly an “A-to-B” causal factor, can aggravate existing horse arthritis symptoms or cause them to emerge more quickly. Once arthritic symptoms are present, excess weight can and will and cause a faster progression to serious stability issues in a horse’s joints. Handlers should keep a close eye on their animal’s diet and avoid skipping periodic equine vet visits. These are crucial, particularly ones that log weight – they’ll be the most telling indicators of an unhealthy weight gain.
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1) Bazay, Casie Emerson. “Natural Remedies For Hock Pain.” Horse Network (horsenetwork.com), October 17, 2017, https://horsenetwork.com/2017/10/natural-remedies-hock-pain/. Accessed April 15, 2021.
2) Meszoly, Joanne. “Coping with Arthritis in Horses.” EQUUS (equusmagazine.com), October 22, 2020, https://equusmagazine.com/lameness/coping-with-arthritis-in-horses-8356. Accessed April 15, 2021.