You know you can find arthritis in most older horses’ joints. But did you know you can find it in ancient horses’ joints, as well? Researchers recently discovered osteoarthritis in a medieval horse’s pastern joint.

“We believe, that in the first phase of disease, the horse was progressively lame, but later, due to ankylosis (fusion) of the joint, the lameness in the second phase was not a result of pain but of anatomical dysfunction,” said Aleksandra Skalec, PhD candidate in the Division of Anatomy in the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences Department of Animal Physiology and Biostructure, in Poland.


Polish and Turkish scientists studied the first and second phalanges (the long and short pastern bones, respectively) of an 11th-century horse’s front left limb. Archaeologists had excavated the bones about 17 years ago on Poland’s Wrocław Cathedral Island.

The current research team took X rays and CT scans of the fused bones and found that the digits showed signs of osteoarthritis and ankylosis. Related bone parts from the excavation had typical butchering marks. Their analyses revealed that the disease progressed over several months, indicating that despite lameness, the horse’s owners did not put the horse down immediately.

“In medieval times, the horse was a very valuable animal,” said Maciej Janeczek, PhD, also of Wrocław University’s Department of Animal Physiology and Biostructure. “Perhaps the owners gave it time to rest and probably tried to heal it—healing methods are described in medieval textbooks.”

This finding gives interesting cultural insight into this period and allows scientists to have a better view of people’s relationships with their horses, the researchers said.

“It is interesting, but it’s not surprising,” Janeczek said. “There are actually quite a few equine remains from various ages that show symptoms of chronic disease.”

While owners could probably manage osteoarthritis like this with current veterinary medicine, that wasn’t the case back in the Middle Ages, the scientists said. The knowledge and medicine available at the time wasn’t likely to give the horse much relief. Regardless, the horse’s pain might not have been the owners’ primary concern.

“In medieval times people in general didn’t consider lameness as a sign of pain, rather simply as ‘a leg not working correctly,’” said Janeczek. “The idea that animals can suffer pain as we people do was not popular.”

The fact that the owners kept it alive nonetheless means they probably made efforts to treat it with the means they had available, they said. The owner might also have kept the horse for breeding or even light work.

“This knowledge gives information not only about a particular animal but also, in a wider context, about the human population in general at the time,” said Skalec.

The study, “Proximal interphalangeal joint ankylosis in an early medieval horse from Wrocław Cathedral Island, Poland,” was published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.