What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that causes lameness in affected horses. The condition develops when the cartilage that protects the bones of the joint is destroyed. Although it may develop in any joint, areas most commonly affected include the upper knee joint, front fetlocks, hocks, and coffin joints in the forefeet. Osteoarthritis may result from injury, loose joints, an abnormal growth pattern, or inherited factors.

Your horse’s joints give the skeleton flexibility and allow him to walk, trot, run, jump, and move his head and neck. There are three types of joints in a horse’s body: ball and socket such as the hip and shoulder joints, hinged joints such as the knees, and gliding joints such as the ankles. These joints are lubricated by synovial fluid to help them move smoothly and are stabilized by tendons and ligaments.

Osteoarthritis in horses begins when the synovial fluid that lubricates healthy joints begins to thin. The resulting decrease in lubrication causes the cushion of cartilage to break down.

As the cartilage breaks down, your horse’s body attempts to repair the damage by replacing it with new bone (bone is produced much faster than cartilage, due to its abundant blood supply). The ends of the bones in the joint thicken and the new bone may form bone spurs that grind together causing considerable pain.

Is my horse likely to develop osteoarthritis?

When a horse reaches the age of 15 or thereabouts, the cartilage begins to break down faster than it is produced. The tendons and ligaments also tend to stretch as a horse ages, resulting in tears, joint instability and inflammation.

Another contributory factor is abnormal growth such as hooves that turn out or bowed legs. This may cause the cartilage to wear unevenly. Horses that are overworked or not physically fit are also more likely to suffer from the condition.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?

You should suspect arthritis if your horse exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Pain, stiffness and swelling around a joint that lasts longer than two weeks.
  • Early in the disease, your horse’s joints may ache after activity. Watch closely for signs that your horse may be experiencing some discomfort.
  • Stiffness that tends to follow periods of inactivity, such as sleep or prolonged standing.
  • Grating sound (“crepitus”) when the joint is used.
  • Decreased equine performance and inability to perform activities that were once performed with ease.
  • Appearance of bumps or swellings, especially on the extremities.

If your horse’s joints are red or feel hot or tender, he/she may be suffering from something other than osteoarthritis. Check with your vet about other causes of those symptoms, such as autoimmune or septic arthritis.

What joints are affected by osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis primarily affects weight-bearing joints in horses such as the:

  • Hocks (ankles) where it is commonly referred to as Bone Spavins – common
  • Fetlocks – common
  • Pastern joints and Coffin joints where it is referred to as Ringbone when more severe – common
  • Stifle (knee) joints – less common
  • Spine (neck and back) – less common

Osteoarthritis does not usually affect other equine joints, except where previous injury has occurred or areas where there has been repetitive or abnormal stress…

Arthritis treatment options for your horse

Once your horse has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, you and the veterinarian can determine a course of treatment. The chosen treatment will depend on the severity of the disease and the amount of work your horse is expected to perform. On occasion, stall rest and use of ice packs may be all that is needed to reduce inflammation and swelling. Treatment for established arthritis normally includes analgesic (pain-killing) and anti-inflammatory medications, exercise management and, occasionally, surgery.

Analgesic and Anti-inflammatory medications

Ideally, these should only be used for the short term, when necessary to encourage movement. Although your horse may respond quickly to anti-inflammatories, this is usually because they are quelling pain, and not because the condition itself is improving. In most cases these medications act simply as painkillers, and should only be used in addition to lifestyle modifications including good exercise management.

Commonly used analgesics and anti-inflammatories include acetaminophen and various NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs).


For mild to moderate arthritis in horses, your veterinarian may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol®, Panadol®, Exdol®, etc.) to relieve pain. Since acetaminophen is only a pain reliever and has no anti-inflammatory properties, it can generally be safely combined with anti-inflammatory medications when recommended by a veterinarian.

Too-high doses of acetaminophen can cause liver damage. You should therefore seek a veterinarian’s advice before administering acetaminophen.


NSAIDs are a type of medication that helps reduce pain and swelling of the joints and decreases stiffness. When taken at a low dose, NSAIDs reduce pain; when taken at a higher dose, NSAIDs can also reduce inflammation. NSAIDs such as ASA (Aspirin®, Anacin®, etc.) can be purchased without a prescription. NSAIDs do not prevent joint damage and when used over the long-term, may accelerate joint breakdown. Taking more than one NSAID at a time increases the possibility of heartburn and severe side effects such as ulcers and bleeding.

Many NSAIDs require a prescription including Phenylbutazone® (Bute) and the newer sub-class of NSAIDs used to treat companion animals, called Cox-2 Inhibitors (Rimadyl® (carprofen), Metacam® (meloxicam) and Etogesic® (etodolac).


Cortisone is a corticosteroid that reduces inflammation and swelling. For severe pain and inflammation, veterinarians may inject a corticosteroid, such as cortisone, directly into the affected joint. Cortisone mimics the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol, which is a hormone naturally produced by the body. Although corticosteroids closely resemble cortisol, they exert a much more powerful anti-inflammatory effect. An injection can provide almost immediate relief for a tender, swollen and inflamed joint.


Visco-supplementation is the process of injecting a gel-like substance into the joint. This substance lubricates the cartilage, reducing pain and improving flexibility. Visco-supplementation decreases friction within the joint, thus reducing pain and allowing greater mobility. This method of treatment requires ongoing injections as benefits are only temporary. Substances used in visco-supplementation include hyaluronic acid, or HA (Legend®, Hylartin® and Synacid®), and poly-sulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGS) such as Adequan®

If your horse requires surgery

If your horse’s joint/s become severely damaged or if the pain is intense, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. While surgical intervention should be considered a last resort, appropriate surgery can reduce pain, and improve movement and function.

There are a number of different kinds of surgery for degenerative arthritis – some less invasive than others. Arthroscopic surgery, for example, involves making small incisions through which surgeons can clean cartilage debris from the joint. Some surgeries are done to repair bone deformity, fuse joints or rebuild part of a joint. Other surgeries may be done to replace your horse’s joint with an artificial joint.

Reducing the risk of osteoarthritis in horses

Certain breeds of horse may pass along the tendency for defective cartilage or slight defects in the way joints fit together. These defects include hip dysplasia, navicular, osteochondrosis (OCD), and osteochondritis, all of which may lead to osteoarthritis later on in your horse’s life. It is important to observe the following lifestyle modifications, to reduce your horse’s individual risk factors or to help halt the progression of existing osteoarthritis.

Traumatic injury to hock, stifle, pastern and fetlock joints increases your horse’s risk for developing osteoarthritis in these joints. Joints (such as the hocks), that are used repeatedly in certain activities may be more likely to develop osteoarthritis because of injury or overuse.


Weight control is an important component of any treatment for osteoarthritis. (Excess weight puts more pressure on the weight-bearing joints, particularly the knees and hips.) If being overweight is contributing towards your horse’s pain, your veterinarian will recommend a suitable diet.


Exercise is an important component of healthy living. Exercise helps reduce pain, prevents further joint damage and can help your horse maintain a healthy weight. Disuse of a sore joint will cause the muscles around it to weaken, resulting in pain. A little exercise taken frequently is recommended.


Some horses, particularly working animals, do not get adequate rest for optimum healing. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on how much rest your horse requires during the healing period.


Improper shoeing in horses can cause many joint and muscle problems and is a significant factor in the progression of degenerative disease. An experienced farrier can help assess whether your horse’s shoeing is contributing towards joint problems. Your veterinarian may be able to suggest a farrier who is capable and well-respected.

For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse

Natural ways to help your horse with arthritis


Recovery®EQ with Nutricol®, is an elite proprietary performance and wellness supplement for horses that enhances quality of life. Recovery®EQ improves healing by increasing circulation of nutrients to affected cells and extracellular structures, halting tissue damage and decreasing inflammation. It may be used on its own or in combination with prescribed medications. Ask your veterinarian how Recovery®EQ can help your horse.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in October and December 2003

Recovery®EQ rated as “Best Performer Overall” as a pain-relieving supplement for joint pain, back pain and tendonitis – comparison of natural joint care supplements.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in June 2006:

“You get what you pay for” – Horse Journal quote about Recovery®EQ used as a performance enhancing supplement – comparison of natural performance enhancing supplements

For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse