Maintaining Joint Health

Horses are used in a variety of disciplines such as eventing, endurance riding, barrel racing and many others that put heavy strain on a horse’s joints. Because of this, joint health has become a major focus in equine nutrition. This is because research in horses has shown that overall diet and even supplements can improve joint function and health.

Joints serve to allow flexibility in the spine and facilitate the bend in limbs. There are three types of joints in the horse:

  • Cartilaginous- allow flexibility in vertebrae and hips
  • Fibrous- nonflexible joints in the skull and some bones
  • Synovial- the most active joints located in the extremities

Synovial joints are the most prone to injury or disease. These are joints with two bones meeting with smooth articular cartilage. Important synovial joints are in the stifle, hock, elbow, knee, and fetlock of the horse’s limbs.

Stability of the synovial joint is maintained by a fibrous capsule, which attaches both bones. Within this capsule is an inner synovial membrane, which secretes synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates the joint, allowing frictionless movement. It is this inner synovial membrane that is the site of injury or disease.

Inflammation of the synovial membrane can cause damage to cartilage within the joint capsule. This happens because as the joint attempts to repair itself, the cartilage within the capsule becomes thin, the surface becomes rougher, and over time, bony spurs and overgrowth can result. Other joint problems include:

  • Arthritis
  • Injuries such as sprains or ligament damage
  • D.O.D. (Developmental Orthopedic Disease)
  • Osteoarthritis

Damage to joints can lead to lameness and even permanent loss of a horse’s usefulness for riding or other activities.

Consideration of nutritional impacts on joint health should begin almost immediately in a horse’s life. Young horses need slow, steady, and even growth during the first two years of life to promote strong and healthy bones and cartilage. Diets need to be carefully balanced to meet the young horse’s high nutritional requirements without providing too much energy or other nutrients, which can lead to D.O.D.

Nutritional causes of D.O.D. are thought to be too much energy (excess calories) in the diet, inadequate or imbalanced minerals in the feed, and periods of slow growth (poor nutrition) followed by a catchup period (quality nutrition). Therefore, it is recommended young horses in their first two years of life are consistently fed quality feeds. Premium feeds like Tribute®’s own Growth Pellet are carefully formulated with a solid plane of nutrition with enough fiber and fat to support proper cartilage and bone development.

You can read more about Developmental Orthopedic Disease HERE.

For all class of horses, one of the most important aspects of maintaining joint health is proper body condition. Generally, horses should be kept at moderate body condition (~ BCS 5) to reduce the stress and impact of the horse’s weight on its joints.  It also goes without saying, all horses need to be fed a balanced diet to ensure they are meeting all of their dietary requirements, which in turn, supports healthy joints.

Quality supplements can and do enhance joint health. Controlled studies in horses have shown that glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate reduced joint inflammation and helped with the formation of healthy cartilage in the synovial joint. It is believed that these supplements can extend the years horses can remain active. Others believe these supplements can even slow down arthritis in older horses.

The synovial fluid within the joint is made up of hyaluronic acid and a protein called lubricin. Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan that provides lubrication of the synovial membrane. Lubricin helps lubricate the articular cartilage within the joint. Glucosamine is classified as an amino sugar and stimulates the production of glycosaminoglycans and thus, enhances lubrication. Chondroitin sulfate is very important with any joint supplement. It helps promote the growth of healthy cartilage within the joint and acts synergistically with glucosamine to enhance joint lubrication.

Another supplement that enhances the actions of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate is methylsulfonymethane (MSM). It is a naturally occurring sulfur which aids in the building of healthy joints and works best when fed with the other joint supplements.

Overall, nutrition plays a key role in maintaining healthy joints in the horse. It is becoming more widely accepted to feed any active horse joint-supporting ingredients, such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and MSM. Many of Tribute’s feeds are formulated with them, like Essential K® GC Plus or Kalm ‘N EZ® GC Plus.

If you have any questions or concerns for your own horse, we encourage you to reach out to us directly to develop a personalized feeding plan tailored for your animal.

Article By: Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.
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