By: Dr. Emily Vermillion, DVM, McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital in Newman Lake, WA
When we see our older horses start to slow down, we usually know that there are some age-rated creaks and aches that are causing their issues. Did you know that young, athletic horses may also be suffering from similar problems? Arthritis affects horses just as it affects humans, and it is not just limited to the older guys. In the most basic terms, arthritis means inflammation of any joint and the surrounding tissues. This inflammation can lead to to buildup of unhealthy of joint fluid (swelling), decreased range of motion in a joint, pain and lameness, and frequently just a subtle decrease in performance. Maybe you’re noticing your reiner isn’t dropping her hind end in sliding stops like she used to. Or maybe you’re noticing your jumper is knocking rails or refusing fences. Horses can’t tell us when it hurts, so it is up to YOU to notice these small performance changes. It is then up to us as the veterinarians to systemically assess the horse’s decreased performance by conducting a thorough lameness exam.
Lameness exams generally involve watching the horse move over a variety of firm and soft surfaces in both straight lines and on circles, as well as watching the horse move under saddle. Your veterinarian may then perform “flexion” tests, which create pressure on individual joints, such as the fetlock or hock. Assessing the horse’s response to flexions can help us narrow down the problem area. In some cases, your veterinarian may also perform diagnostic analgesia, which means they temporarily numb specific nerves- and if the horse goes sound after one of these nerve blocks, we can further isolate the lameness. Using the information from the lameness evaluation, your veterinarian can then hone in on diagnostic imaging of the affected area- including taking x-rays and performing ultrasound. Once the arthritic area is assessed for severity and location, you and your veterinarian will have a discussion regarding treatment options and prognosis.
Fortunately, veterinary medicine has had a lot of advancements in this area, and there are MANY ways to help out your arthritic horses. Some common therapies include systemic medications that reduce inflammation (such as firocoxib or phenylbutazone) and provide building blocks for joint fluid lubricant (polysulfated glycosaminoglycans and hyaluronic acid). For more targeted therapy, you may choose to have the affected joints injected with a steroid to provide potent anti-inflammatory effects and/or a lubricant. We also have access to incredible biologics (meaning products derived from your horse’s body, isolated, activated, and re-administered) that block inflammatory mediators and promote healing. Lastly, your vet can work with you to develop a rehabilitation protocol that will strengthen your horse’s soft tissues and prevent excessive joint misuse. A program for managing arthritis should be catered specifically to you and your horse, taking into account factors like severity and location of disease, the horse’s job and performance goals, and your budget.
In summary, arthritis in younger horses is much more common than you might realize! There are many ways to treat this disease process, and it is not a “one size fits all” approach. You know your horse better than anyone- be their advocate! Work with your veterinarian to keep them comfortable and performing at their best for years to come!