Managing horses with osteoarthritis

Gayle Smith
for Tri-State Livestock News
Dr. Pierce says it is not necessary to retire a horse with osteoarthritis, in fact it is important to keep him moving to prevent additional problems. Photo by Carrie Stadheim

Similar to their two-legged human comrades, horses can develop pain, inflammation and degeneration in their joints that signal arthritis. By identifying these signs early, horse owners can treat the symptoms and provide relief to the horse.

Dr. Lisa Fortier, an associate professor of large animal surgery at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Scott Pierce, a partner in Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, and the founding owner of Kinetic Technologies, answered questions about osteoarthritis during a recent webinar on

In horses, arthritis is typically referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, Pierce explained. “We don’t really distinguish between the different types of arthritis in horses.” Fortier continued, “Osteoarthritis in horses is the degeneration of the joint as a whole, the cartilage on the end of the bones that absorbs force and also part of the inflammation on the inside of the joint.” The primary symptom is lameness, but horses may also exhibit shortness of stride, soreness on flexion, and reluctance to perform, she added. The condition can be diagnosed through an MRI, CT or x-rays.

Although osteoarthritis primarily affects older horses, usually at least five, Pierce said he has seen symptoms in yearlings. “Younger horses can show predisposed conditions, like hock compression, that can lead to osteoarthritis later in life,” Pierce explained. “Good horsemanship and trainers notice subtle changes in the horse that could signal this condition.”

nt Similar to their two-legged human comrades, horses can develop pain, inflammation and degeneration in their joints that signal arthritis. By identifying these signs early, horse owners can treat the symptoms and provide relief to the horse.

Both veterinarians stressed the importance of prepurchase exams. X-rays and palpation can signal troubled areas like bone spurs that could predispose the horse to osteoarthritis. The horse may also suffer from joint filling, where the joint capsule can fill up, and the horse will be sore when the veterinarian performs a flexion test.

The horse may also appear unbalanced, have conformational abnormalities, and exhibit other indications that could indicate arthritis. “On a prepurchase exam, don’t just look at X-rays, but what the horse is telling you while you are riding it, and (what the horse is telling) the examiner,” she said. Some horses also have more tolerance for pain than others, so the condition could be more or less apparent depending upon the horse.

Trauma can also be a predisposing factor to osteoarthritis, Fortier explained. If a horse hyper-extends its leg causing inflammation, or sprains a ligament, it could set the horse up for osteoarthritis as it ages. Fortier compared this type of injury to a high school football player spraining his leg, and developing arthritis later in life. “It is a type of injury that may not show up ‘til decades later,” she explained.


“If it is detected early, it can be treated and the horse will have more longevity,” Pierce said. Owners are encouraged to research possible treatments for their horses, and consult with a veterinarian to implement treatment methods and diagnose any underlying problems.

Both veterinarians said if a horse has swelling in its legs, icing the area for about 20 minutes can be a very effective method to alleviate pain and discomfort. Pain relief can be given, but a veterinarian should be consulted regarding the most effective drug that can be given to the horse. There are many drugs on the market for pain relief, but more expense doesn’t necessarily mean it is more effective, they said.

If a horse has osteoarthritis, Pierce would recommend a good joint supplement, and limited forced exercise, depending upon what the horse can do. “I would not retire the horse,” he said. “It creates more problems to just lock these horses up in a stall. They may need a smaller paddock, but it is important to keep them moving,” he explained.

Older horses also need their nutrition more closely monitored, Fortier added. “I would bring them in at night and give them isolated access to their hay and grain so they don’t have to compete with other horses,” she explained.

It is also important to keep the horse at a healthy weight, neither obese nor thin, and keep their feet trimmed on a regular basis. Fortier said the horse will also need shelter from wind and rain, but not a blanket or leg wraps unless it doesn’t grow a decent haircoat.

Do supplements work?

If owners are considering supplements, Pierce cautioned them to make sure the manufacturer of the supplement is a member of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC). Since supplements are not regulated by FDA, NASC is one of the only regulatory arms in respect to supplements, he explained. The manufacturer of the supplement has to go through regulatory testing and paperwork before the NASC will allow them to put the council’s stamp on their packaging.

“Research is lacking in regards to supplements,” Pierce continued. “But, some are backed by more research than others,” he explained. Research shows that Glucosamine is absorbed into the joints. Omega 3s have research showing they are inflammatory markers in arthritic horses. “There are a lot of supplements out there,” Pierce said. “Some work and some don’t. I would encourage you to do research, and consult with a veterinarian on any product you are considering using.”

Fortier added, “Supplements are not controlled substances. I would encourage you to purchase them from a company that has enough integrity that they sell the same product over and over again. There are too many companies that sell one product today, and a different one next month,” she added. “There is also an independent website, consumer lab, that independently tests products. Lastly, I would recommend that you find a vet you trust to tell you what works and what doesn’t,” she said.