FAQ: Lameness and Arthritis in Horses

Your horse is reluctant to pick up more than a walk lately -- is she feeling a bit sluggish, or could it be  osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) -- also referred to as equine degenerative joint disease (DJD) -- is a common condition horses experience resulting in degeneration of the joints and pain, inflammation, reduced flexibility and range of motion. Osteoarthritis typically affects the synovial and cartilaginous components of joints.  Any joint is at risk whether hips, hocks, stifles or knees and fetlocks.

Find answers to FAQs about lameness and arthritis in horses, below.

At what age do horses get arthritis?

Osteoarthritis can impact every horse, no matter their age, breed or discipline. It’s a common misconception that the condition impacts only senior horses, however. Horse owners will need to take preventive steps early on to control their horse’s risk, and manage with prompt diagnosis and proactive treatment, should their horse develop OA over time.

What is the most common cause of lameness in horses?

It is estimated that OA is responsible for up to 60% of all lameness in horses.

How can I tell if my horse is in pain?

“Horses almost never say ‘no.’ Horses can talk, and it is our job to learn how to speak their language and above all, to listen and be their advocate,” said Steve Allday, DVM, an equine lameness specialist with more than 35 years’ experience caring for an impressive list of equine athletes. Dr. Allday also founded and developed the joint supplement line, LubriSyn.

To help address the underrecognized signs of pain in horses, co-authoring Drs. Catherine Torcivia and Sue McDonnell, within the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, published “Equine Discomfort Ethogram.” The report outlines 73 equine discomfort behaviors and grouped them into eight categories: posture and weight-bearing; limb and body movements; head, neck, mouth, and lip movements; attention to area; ear and tail movements; overall demeanor; altered eating or drinking; and vocalizations/audible sounds. Review their published work for detailed illustrations, written descriptions and even videos to best know whether your horse is in pain.

How can you tell if your horse is lame?

Dr. Allday recommends that you lunge or hand-trot your horse and look for a “nod.” If their head goes down when the right front leg goes forward, the problem is in the left front. If they “toe-heel” on their hind legs, it’s a sure-sign there is pain in the heel, frog or other form of lower-limb lameness.

What causes arthritis in horses?

Trauma to the joint, a horse’s conformation defects, their age, improper shoeing and trimming, as well as sequential bone fragments can all cause equine arthritis.

What are the signs of arthritis in horses?

There are a number of signs your horse could be affected by OA, such as lameness or limping, warm or painful, swollen joints, reluctance or difficulty to move, and stiffness in the joints.

Can arthritis in horses become worse over time?

“Osteoarthritis is ubiquitous in all mammals and progressive as a rule,” said Dr. Allday.  With proactive treatment, and joint health supplements to prevent the condition from worsening, arthritis in horses can be manageable.

How do you prevent arthritis in horses?

By getting ahead of what problems could arise because of a horse’s conformation or housing/training environments, you can help prevent joint issues.

  • Incorporate horse joint supplements like LubriSyn HA or Cosequin to support healthy joins and improved mobility.
  • Prioritize hoof care and keep horses on a regular trim schedule. Learn more about horse hoof care from a lifelong horse farrier.
  • Keep horses at their optimum weight, as obesity stresses the joints.
  • Ensure they receive excellent nutrition to encourage strong bones and healthy cartilage.
  • Limit riding on hard surfaces, if possible, and instead opt for softer footing.

“I put my horses on Lubrisyn as soon as possible,” Dr. Allday said. “I have unwavering statistics, the earlier they go on it, the more they function, and the less necessary it is for me to inject them. I have a rope horse I made over $150,000 on, and I’ve only injected him one time. He has showed up for me every time.”

How do I know if my horse has arthritis?

Owners and riders are excellent diagnosticians of any changes in a horse’s joint health. “This is simply because you know your horse. When I go look at a horse, I’m taking a snapshot of just that moment, while you have known the horse for days and years -- sometimes, his entire life -- before I got there that day,” said Dr. Allday, who recommends giving horses a close once-over when grooming or tacking up for a ride. Look to see if one side is larger than the other. Also, rub the horse’s back and palpate it to make sure it isn’t sore, and always check their hocks for any fluid. Share any new findings with your veterinarian. Should your veterinarian suspect joint problems, it’s likely they will perform a routine lameness evaluation.

Can you ride a horse with arthritis?

The short answer is “Yes,” but it depends. Talk with your veterinarian about your horse’s level of arthritis to know whether with treatment, he recommends the horse being ridden. “OA isn’t the end of their career, but it’s certainly something you have to be on top of, address rapidly and maintain routinely,” said Dr. Allday. “You may even have to go to anti-inflammatories to maintain a horse’s athletic career.”

What is the best treatment for arthritis in horses?

Veterinarians may recommend prescription medications, like Equioxx, Surpass Topical or Adequan i.m. to manage the pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis. Should OA be diagnosed, your veterinarian will work closely with you on joint health needs to prevent further progression of joint damage, as well as anti-inflammatory treatments available to manage the pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.

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