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arthritis in horses

Like humans, older horses may exhibit stiffness in their gait. This is usually caused by arthritis. Arthritis is almost inevitable as a horse ages, but early diagnosis and careful care can slow its progression and minimize pain.

What is arthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease (DJD) involving the destruction and loss of the cushioning cartilage at the ends of bones within the joint. Due to this failure, lubricating synovial fluid is also lost, and the entire joint loses its ability to cushion shocks and provide a sliding surface during movement. This can cause joint pain and cause lameness in the horse. There are common colloquial names for specific areas of arthritis in horses, such as ringbone and bone spavin.

Symptoms of Equine Arthritis

In the early stages, arthritis may manifest as a mild stiffness that the horse will get rid of once it is warmed up. In joints, the cartilage material is breaking down but cannot repair itself efficiently. Eventually, as the cartilage becomes more damaged, so does the bone beneath the cartilage pad. The horse will then experience more discomfort, and as the inflammation develops, the joints may become hot. In more advanced cases, small bone growths called osteophytes may be seen on X-rays and may be felt around the affected joint. Horses may experience more discomfort and lameness as the disease progresses.

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Causes of Arthritis

Arthritis is caused by the wear and tear of cartilage, the tough, elastic tissue that acts as a shock absorbing and sliding surface between bones at joints. Over time, compression and pressure can wear away the protective cartilage. Arthritis is most common in the weight-bearing joints of the legs. Arthritis can be caused by extra stress or damage to any joint.

Certain movements can make certain joints more prone to arthritis in horses due to repetitive concussion forces. Certain types of builds in horses may also make them more prone to arthritis. However, as all horses age, as with humans and other animals, repeated wear and tear can cause varying degrees of damage to high-movement and weight-bearing joints.

Equine arthritis can affect any moving joint in the body, including the knees, shoulders, spine, foot locks, hocks, and knee joints. The most commonly affected sites are the foot locks, knees, coffin bones (inside the hoof) and hocks. These are weight bearing joints.


The goals of arthritis management are to reduce inflammation in the affected joint, reduce pain, and slow further damage to the joint. There is no cure or cure for arthritis.

If you notice any discomfort in your horse (even one that goes away quickly), it is best to consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may be able to detect arthritis early and slow its progression with medications that reduce inflammation.

Once cartilage in a joint is damaged or gone, it can be difficult to repair. Discomfort can be managed with combined injections of synovial fluid supplements such as hyaluronic acid and polysulfated glycosaminoglycans and corticosteroids. Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs such as phenylbutazone can also be used for pain management, but long-term use may have negative side effects, such as stomach ulcers and potential kidney damage. For long-term treatment, newer drugs include feloxib (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that works differently from phenylbutazone) and diclofenac sodium, which are available in topical creams. Some clinicians are exploring various stem cell therapies. In some cases, depending on the horse and the joints involved, this may also be an option. Shockwave and laser therapy may also be considered.

In addition to veterinary treatment, a reduced workload may be required, especially if the work involves jumping, walking on hard terrain, or other activities that may place undue stress on the joints. This could spell the end of a horse’s competitive career, although light exercise is important to maintain joint mobility. Sometimes a horse may be lame and should not be ridden. Keep the horse on a soft foundation with extra but not excessive bedding that may be difficult to get through. Proper trimming and shoeing by a knowledgeable farrier may also help.

How to Prevent Arthritis

To a certain extent, older horses are nearly immune to arthritis. A horse with a defective size can put extra stress on the joints, another reason breeders struggle to find a foal in good shape. Proper hoof grooming and shoes, good construction, provide a good foothold, while also providing good basic maintenance, can also help delay the onset of arthritis.

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If you suspect your pet is sick, call your veterinarian right away. For health-related questions, be sure to consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know your pet’s health history, and can provide the best advice for your pet.

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