Osteoarthritis in horses - causes, treatment and prevention

Diagnosis of arthrosis - a big shock for many riders and horse owners. But what exactly is osteoarthritis and what can be done about it? Time for an overview: Causes, diagnosis and treatment, as well as tips for prevention. Because ideally, of course, your horse will not get the disease in the first place.

Osteoarthritis - what is it actually?

A horse is treated for its arthrosis

Osteoarthritis is a joint disease that usually occurs insidiously. Typical forms of arthrosis in horses include spavin, shell or hoof-roll inflammation. Arthrosis often occurs in horses with high joint loads. However, the disease can affect any horse - regardless of breed, age or training condition. Arthrosis is a chronic degenerative disease of the joints. This means that the disease exists over a longer period of time, has a gradual disease process and is irreversible. The damage to the joints cannot be reversed.

What are joints for?

Picture of the joints of a horse

Osteoarthritis is the most common disease of the joints - and these are very important for the horse's body. Joints connect the individual bones with each other. This allows your horse to move. The cartilage is located in the joint itself and is, so to speak, the shock absorber of the individual bones. This keeps the bones mobile and prevents them from rubbing against each other. With intact cartilage, your darling runs well lubricated and without problems. To keep it that way, however, the cartilage needs various nutrients because it has to regenerate regularly. These nutrients are present in the synovial fluid. They can be supplemented by additional food when the load is high. If the cartilage cannot form anew or is worn out, joint problems arise and the bones rub against each other. This has significant effects on your horse's mobility.

Nutrients to support the cartilage

If your horse is injured or the joints are overstrained, the cells in the cartilage become active and try to repair the cartilage damage. To do this, the cells need the individual cartilage components. If these are not present and the cartilage damage cannot be repaired, the cartilage will wear out or be lost. Therefore, the most important nutrients, also for cartilage formation, should be included in your horse's supplementary feed.

Causes of osteoarthritis in horses

When it comes to the question where osteoarthritis comes from, there are several causes. Often these are:

  • Overloading the joints due to excessive sport or being overweight
  • incorrect hoof positions
  • congenital deformities
  • incorrect or inadequate nutrition
  • incorrect wear of the joints
  • an acute joint injury that has not been cured
  • Joint malpositions & Joint diseases
  • Cartilage changes
  • improperly shod hooves

Often, an interaction of several causes leads to the disease.

Symptoms - how does osteoarthritis manifest itself in horses?

Osteoarthritis begins insidiously and then gets worse and worse. At the beginning, many horse owners do not even recognise the disease because the first signs are hardly visible. If the joint injuries worsen, this often manifests itself in lameness and a dull gait. Horses usually lame the worst after resting. Only after some time does the gait gradually improve.

Types of osteoarthritis in horses - different symptoms

Osteoarthritis can occur at various joint sites in the horse's leg. Common sites are the hock joint (spavin), the coronet or pastern bone (shell) or the hoof (hoof roll inflammation). Depending on which joint is affected by osteoarthritis, the course of the disease and the symptoms may vary somewhat. For example, inflammation of the hoof rolls can often be recognised by stumbling or shortened gaits or in the case of the shell, by relief of the forelegs. In the case of spavin, pain in the hock joint is also visible as the first sign of incipient arthrosis. The affected joints may be warm or swell thickly. Many horses are also sensitive to pain when touched.

How can I recognise osteoarthritis in a horse?

Two horses are riding across a paddock. The focus is on the horses' joints

The onset of osteoarthritis is hard to detect. If your horse does not like to move, this can be the first sign. If you notice pain when walking, lameness or other changes in movement, a veterinarian should be contacted. The sooner you detect arthrosis in your four-legged friend, the better.

The diagnosis of arthrosis

If you tell your vet that you suspect arthritis, he or she will do some tests. There are several ways to detect arthrosis. First, the vet will examine your horse's general health and training condition. This also includes a lameness examination. During this examination, your horse will walk and trot on different surfaces and must also undergo individual bending tests of the legs. Blood tests or X-rays may be necessary to determine the disease and its extent. Depending on how advanced the disease is, many different diagnostic procedures are necessary.

Arthrosis in winter

Many horses shy away from exercise when they suffer from arthrosis. Who wants to trot around when the first steps after rest periods are particularly painful due to the wear and tear on the joints? In the cold months, this reluctance to move becomes particularly obvious. Due to the colder temperatures, the metabolism slows down and the blood supply to the legs is reduced. In addition, horses are usually less active in winter, which can make the pain even worse. Therefore, you should pay special attention to sufficient exercise, especially in winter.

The treatment of osteoarthritis

Once your horse has arthrosis, there is nothing you can do about the disease itself. The damage to the joints is irreversible. Therefore, the diagnosis is usually a big shock for horse owners. But: You can influence the further development of the disease and thus slow down the process. Many horses suffer from osteoarthritis and can still be ridden. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the sooner you can start treatment.

Important in the treatment of arthrosis: Nothing works without a physician! Osteoarthritis is very diverse and the quick and correct treatment immediately after diagnosis decides how the disease will develop. So don't experiment, but contact your vet immediately and get advice. A combination of exercise, correct feeding and medication is crucial in the treatment.

Movement, movement, movement!

Two horses galloping across a meadow

Exercise is essential for osteoarthritis! Even if your horse is painful at the beginning of the walk, the legs need to be moved and supplied with blood. Make sure you have a sufficient warm-up phase at a walk and avoid tight turns, jumps or strenuous exercises for the joints. Talk to your vet about which movements or exercises are suitable for your four-legged friend and which you should rather leave out of your training plan.

Lose extra kilos

If your horse is well-fed or has accumulated some winter fat, this is a real problem for horses with osteoarthritis. The extra weight puts extra strain on the joints. Arthrosis finds a ready meal. It can even get worse this way.

Nutritional supplements

Certain supplementary feeds can support your horse's joints. Certain additives stimulate cartilage production. Look for ingredients such as devil's claw, MSM or glucosamine. They are known for their cartilage-promoting effect.

Therapies and medication

Depending on the stage of osteoarthritis, there are also different medications that can help your horse. Some relieve the joints and help build up cartilage, others relieve your horse's pain. Always talk to your vet about which medicines are suitable for your horse. Anti-inflammatory creams or hyaluronic acid injections can help. There are also various methods of treatment for bone fragmentation. Stem cell therapy, autologous blood therapy and leeches - there are many alternative and possibly helpful approaches to help your horse.

Suitable shoeing

Horses should always have the right shoe - we know that ourselves: If the shoes don't fit, we can't walk very well. Especially in cases of arthritis, you should talk to your vet and farrier about whether your quadruped needs special shoes. This is especially important in the case of shell or inflammation of the hoof rolls.

Heat treatment

When treating with heat, you should be careful and check with your vet. In case of pain, heat treatment can be very beneficial for your pet and also relieve the pain somewhat. However, if there is still an acute infection in the joints, heat will only make it worse. Talk to your vet first and don't try to treat your pet yourself without consulting him or her.

Osteoarthritis - reason to euthanise?

The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is terrible for horse owners and the thought of the treatment not working and the beloved horse only being able to walk in pain is unbearable. But the diagnosis is no reason to put a horse to sleep immediately. Although the disease cannot be cured and requires lifelong treatment, there are many ways to relieve the joints and support the horse through exercise, feed and medication. Don't waste time and have a treatment plan drawn up right away.

Preventing arthrosis in horses

Your horse needs intact and well-lubricated joints for every movement. If you pay attention to the cartilage formation and the joints of your favourite, you can prevent arthrosis. The following points are essential:

Sufficient minerals

Especially in the first years a horse's body develops and grows. Here, the right nutrition is important so that bones and joints develop properly. This applies not only to weanlings, but also to young horses - most horses are not fully grown until they are five years old and should be supported with nutrients during their growth. Above all, a sufficient supply of minerals is important so that your four-legged friend has strong tendons, ligaments and joints.

Additional feed

Nothing works without well-lubricated joints - that's why supplementary feeds can be useful during sporting activities. Provide your horse with important ingredients so that the joints are not overstressed and wear out. Our Joint Liquid helps to supply your horse with many important nutrients.


One of the main causes is overloading the joints. Make sure you have sufficient warm-up phases in your training. Also add variety and do not train only individual muscle groups and joints.

Are you active in competitive sports or do you train a lot with your four-legged companion? In sports like jumping, dressage or western riding there can be a lot of pressure on the joints. Take care of the right training, the optimal supply of nutrients and the right horseshoes. Always keep in touch with your trainer and uncle doctor, regular check-ups can help you to detect joint problems at an early stage.

Regular visits to the farrier

When it comes to your horse's health, you should listen to professionals and this also applies to hoof care. Take your horse to the farrier regularly. There you can also find out if your horse's hooves are wearing evenly or if they are crooked or bending inwards.

Weight reduction

Excess weight puts additional strain on your horse's joints - so always keep an eye on your horse's weight.

Cure injuries

If your horse is injured and has been prescribed a rest period, stick to it. Joint injuries that are not properly healed can lead to osteoarthritis. Start training slowly and have your vet take a look at the joints, especially at the beginning.

Take lameness seriously

Every horse can get a sprain, a slight bend, and a slightly irregular walk - all of these can have many reasons and often there is no serious cause behind them. However, you should take lameness, stiff walking or other strange behaviour of your horse seriously. As a general rule, it is better to call the vet once too often than once too late. At the first signs of arthrosis in your horse, you should definitely consult your vet. If you continue to train normally, in the worst case a nasty joint injury will result.

Riding with arthrosis

Horseback riding in a meadow

Does the diagnosis of arthrosis mean the end for your riding horse? Normally not. However, depending on the form and progress of the arthrosis you must consider some aspects. Ask your vet which exercise is suitable for you and your horse. Strenuous exercise is usually no longer possible with arthrosis. Nevertheless, a riding or leisure horse with arthrosis can still be ridden painlessly into old age if appropriate adjustments are made. The sooner the diagnosis is made the better you can support your horse.

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