Promoting Lifelong Equine Joint Health

Using sensible strategies, we can help keep equine joints healthy and capable of withstanding athletic demands.
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Promoting Lifelong Equine Joint Health
By using sensible strategies we can promote healthy equine joints capable of withstanding athletic demands. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Balanced nutrition, sensible exercise, and prompt treatment can help a horse’s joints function comfortable past their prime.

Horse owners are painfully aware that the predominant factor limiting a horse’s athletic longevity is musculoskeletal injury–particularly joint problems. A common assumption is that these injuries result from wear-and-tear and age. Consequently, owners further assume there’s not much to be done about it. But think again: Using sensible strategies we can promote healthy equine joints capable of withstanding athletic demands.

Nutrition From the Start

The journey to long-term joint health starts with the initial decision to breed a specific mare to a stallion. Earl Gaughan, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, previously a clinical professor of large animal surgery at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and now a technical services veterinarian at Merck Animal Health, says, “Selection of both stallion and mare for strong conformational attributes may improve known structural deficits in either individual.” He also recommends researching siblings’ and offspring’s history to better understand a potential cross outcome. “(The parents’) performance history is relevant as well,” says Gaughan. “Despite many notable imperfections in structure, many equine athletes perform successfully.”

From conception to foaling, broodmare nutrition affects the fetus’ joint health and might impact his chances of having developmental orthopedic disease (DOD, musculoskeletal problems) as a youngster. A mare’s feed intake and mineral ratios (zinc, copper, calcium, phosphorus) contribute to proper cartilage maturation, particularly in the last trimester. Because mare’s milk is a poor source of trace minerals, a foal depends on his liver mineral stores, such as copper, for several months after birth. Copper helps mineralize (strengthen) the cartilage matrix and aids bone development. While a foal’s liver store of copper does not reduce DOD incidence, it does help improve and repair lesions that arise

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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