What are the joints of a horse?

The joint is a complex and fragile mechanism which allows mobility between bones. Your horse is born with a joint “capacity”, which will decrease with time and wear of the joint. The joint cannot be regenerated.

A joint is made up of several elements:

  • The synovial fluid which lubricates the inside of the joint.
  • The cartilage which forms the protective, elastic and resistant layer on the surface of the bones. It acts as a shock absorber by protecting the bones and limiting friction due to bone movement. It is made up of rounded cells, the chondrocytes, within an extracellular matrix made up of proteoglycans and collagen. This matrix is rich in hyaluronic acid.
  • The subchondral bone just below the cartilage absorbs shocks to prevent them from being transmitted to the bone as a whole.
  • The ligaments that support the joint and keep the bones aligned. 

Each of these elements plays a role in the proper functioning of the joint. If one of them is affected, it can lead to a disturbance in the proper functioning of the joint and thus its premature ageing: this is osteoarthritis. The cartilage and subchondral bone are the two areas that will suffer the most destruction. 

In a horse without joint problems, the life of the cartilage consists of a succession of breakdown and reconstruction phases following the work of the joint. A healthy cartilage requires a balance between these different phases: construction and breakdown.

Conversely, certain factors favour imbalance and therefore the formation of osteoarthritis. The factors which favour the degradation of cartilage are: defects of posture, traumas, over-intensive work, excess weight, ageing...

Osteoarthritis occurs when the breakdown of the cartilage becomes too great to be offset. The joint no longer absorbs the shocks caused by movement, exposing the bone to friction. Osteoarthritis is characterised by a reduction in cartilage, but also by damage to the subchondral bone called bone remodelling or remodelling. The bone will be destroyed in some places (osteolysis) and will be overproduced in other parts of the joint. This damage is irreversible.

How can I assess my horse's joint condition?

It is difficult to evaluate exactly the state of your horse's joints. Your vet can perform tests such as X-rays or more complex imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess them.

On a day-to-day basis, there are a number of things that can be done to assess their condition . There may be signs that your horse's joint condition is deteriorating. These signs are similar to osteoarthritis signs.

This can be swelling, heat or pain during movement of the joint. The pain can also affect the overall behaviour of your horse through a lack of motivation, reduced performance, stiffness or lameness. 

How can I protect my horse’s joints? How can osteoarthritis be avoided?

  • Riding your horse on suitable ground: avoid soil that is too deep - this puts a lot of stress on the tendons, and conversely, avoid soils that are too hard, which will put a lot of strain on the joints and ones.
  • Take care of your horse’s hooves: regular trimming or appropriate shoeing will prevent their deterioration. Hooves that are too long or in poor condition overload joints leading to deterioration. Regular foot maintenance also allows the marshal to correct posture and limit overload resulting from bad posture.
  • Adapting your horse’s diet: excess weight increases the load on the joints - resulting in more wear and tear of the cartilage.
  • Supplements, such as Ekyflex Arthro, can help to nourish the cartilage. Ekyflex Arthro contains, among other things, glucosamine, chondroitin and collagen. It helps to maintain the elasticity and shock absorption of the cartilage and the horse’s stride.

What should I do when my horse's joints are weakened?

When your horse's joints have been damaged, it is important to prevent osteoarthritis from developing too quickly. There are several solutions:

  • Local solutions which will relieve the affected joint. This involves the use of different products such as corticoids, hyaluronic acid, IRAP, PRP, stem cells. 
  • Systemic solutions will help relieve the damaged joint, but also other affected joints. Horses rarely have only one affected joint but also neighbouring joints which are deteriorated. In this case your vet will be able to recommend anti-inflammatory drugs or bisphosphonates. Bisphosphonates act on the bone and prevent the destruction or proliferation of bone related to osteoarthritis. 

Among other solutions which can be used to limit stiffness and keep your horse flexible are supplements. There can be feed supplements based on harpagophytum, such as Harpagyl. Other supplements, such as Ekyflex Nodolox can also be used in competitions as they are non-doping yet they reduce stiffness, thanks to ingredients like Boswellia, White Willow and Quercetin.

Ask your veterinarian for advice.

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