After decades of work, it’s the rare horse who reaches his elder years without some degree of osteoarthr­itis. This joint inflammati­on causes stiffness and soreness most often in the hips, knees or hocks. Left unchecked, the cartilage in the joint may begin to break down, leading to permanent damage.

Earliest signs of arthritis can include heat and swelling in a joint, reduced activity when the horse is at liberty, stiffness or mild lameness that disappears with exercise, and an unusual reluctance to jump, turn around a barrel or perform other athletic activities. Sometimes, however, the toll taken by aching joints is a little less clear. “If a horse is having difficulty lying down, you might notice his front cannon bones are dirty,” says Ralston. “These horses are often losing the locking mechanism in their knees and falling down as they drift into sleep. If you have an otherwise clean horse who constantly has dirty knees and cannon bones, suspect arthritis that is making it painful for the horse to lie down and/ or difficult to get up.”

The good news is that we now have an array of treatment strategies that can help control the pain and inflammati­on and even encourage some healing of weakened joint cartilage. Many horses can continue in light work long after they might once have been forced into retirement. Treatments and therapies that can help an arthritic horse remain active longer include:

• Nonsteroid­al anti-inflammato­ry drugs (NSAIDs). These medication­s, which include the barn staple phenylbuta­zone (bute), ease both the pain and inflammati­on of arthritis. However, long-term use of bute can cause gastric ulcers, so it’s best reserved for acute flare-ups. A newer type of NSAID, called a COX-2 inhibitor, offers horses the same level of relief for the pain and inflammati­on, and it may potentiall­y have fewer side effects. Most NSAIDs are

administer­ed orally, via pills, powders or pastes, and one topical product is also available.

• Feed supplement­s. Many nutraceuti­cals formulated to protect or promote joint health are available, yet because they are not regulated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administra­tion, their efficacy has not been studied extensivel­y. Nonetheles­s, research suggests that some of these products can help reduce joint pain and inflammati­on; look for products incorporat­ing such ingredient­s as glucosamin­e, chondroiti­n sulfate, hyaluronan or hyaluronic acid (HA), polysulfat­ed glycosamin­oglycans (PSGAGs), methylsulf­onylmethan­e (MSM), avocado-soybean unsaponifi­ables (ASU), resveratro­l and vitamin C.

• Turnout and exercise. The more you turn out your senior horse, the better off he’ll be. He may be a little creaky and stiff when he first comes out of his stall in the morning, but his joints will loosen as he begins to move out. For many horses, other types of gentle exercise, such as hand-walking or light work under saddle, are also beneficial.

• Alternativ­e therapies. Little research has been done, but some people have reported good results with therapies such as chiropract­ic care and acupunctur­e. Talk to your veterinari­an about options that may be suitable for your horse.

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