What damages joints?
The role of a synovial joint is to allow friction free movement between the ends of bones. Another important role of a synovial joint is to act as a shock absorber. Just like any part of the body, if a joint is repeatedly overused, without a rest period it can become sore and irritated. In the context of training this could be the result of regular repetition of the same type of exercise, and it could be exacerbated by performing this exercise on hard ground. Long-term, this could develop into permanent arthritic changes within the joint.
It is important to point out that joint damage is not reserved for the elite equine athletes, it can affect all horses and ponies of all ages and types, from racehorses to happy hackers, which is why an understanding of joint health is relevant for all owners and riders.
Joints can also be damaged as a result of a traumatic injury, developmental problems or infection. For the purpose of this article, we are going to concentrate on joint injury caused by overuse.
What are the early signs of poor joint health?
Early signs of poor joint health can include puffiness (effusion) or heat in the area. Visual signs are more common for joints such as the fetlock, coffin joint and knee. While for other joints, like the small hock joints (TMT), it is unlikely that any outward signs will be seen, and instead the first sign may be that the horse is stiff coming out of his stable, or at the beginning of exercise. Without any intervention, these signs could progress to soundness issues.
What happens inside a joint when it becomes puffy or sore?
Repetitive overuse of a joint will result in damage to the cartilage and irritation of the synovial membrane. The body initiates the inflammatory process to tidy up and repair the damage, but if there isn’t a good rest period for the joint, this process is incomplete, and the inflammatory cycle can escalate. Overtime, cartilage is damaged at faster rate than it can be maintained. The synovial membrane becomes chronically irritated and angry, and as a result is unable to look after the joint and produce good quality joint fluid. The cumulative results of these changes over time is a progression to arthritic changes within the joint.
What can be done to prevent damage happening in the first place?
Carefully considering a training plan for your horse can help to reduce ongoing stress on joints. Ensuring your horse is fit enough for the job he or she is being asked to do is a good starting point. Fitness often goes hand in hand with body weight. If your horse is carrying extra weight, it will result in extra, unnecessary stress on his or her joints.
If you think fitness needs to be improved or weight loss is necessary, its time to consider how to do this, while minimizing stress to joints. Cantering your unfit horse around a field three times every other day may result in both weight loss and an improvement to fitness, but is likely to be detrimental to both joint and muscle health.
Instead, focus on gradually increasing the workload and intensity over a number of weeks, and distributing the workload evenly through the week. Slow work (e.g. walking up hills) is just as important as intense cardio work (cantering). Using a variety of surfaces has been found to be beneficial for injury prevention, however common sense must be applied here too- cantering on rock hard grass will not be of benefit to your horse.
For some horses, using water treadmills or swimming facilities are an invaluable addition to a fitness regime. Swimming provides intense cardio exercise, without any concussion to joints. While water treadmills allow for more intense walking exercise that engages more muscle groups.
Rest is an essential part of any training regime, which can be easily overlooked. Repetitive intense exercise without rest days will deplete muscle glycogen stores, resulting in reduced performance. Rest days within a weekly training plan, and then longer rest periods within a monthly or annual training plan should be scheduled to allow for natural repair and the resolution of the inflammatory cycle.
Being familiar with your horses’ legs, his or her natural gait and attitude will help you to spot signs of declining joint health earlier. This in turn should result in earlier intervention, before more permanent changes within the joint have occurred. Making an effort to feel your horses’ legs on a daily basis while grooming or picking out feet is a good starting point for familiarizing yourself with what is normal.
When you notice something abnormal which may be a puffy joint or some heat, seek professional advice for the next steps in appropriate management. This may be as simple as a rest period, followed by a re-evaluation.
Carrying a rider is unnatural for the body of a horse, increasing the weight carried through joints. We increase the rates of damage and subsequent repair required to maintain good joint health further by exercising horses. We aim to support good joint health by providing dietary supplementation with the raw materials needed to repair cartilage and create joint fluid.
What ingredients are found in a good joint supplement?
A good joint supplement will offer well rounded nutritional support for all aspects of joint health. This will include ingredients to encourage good quality maintenance and repair (glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, MSM, collagen peptides). Water soluble antioxidants, capable to getting into joints to mop up damaging free radicals (Vitamin C). Support for the resolution of the natural inflammatory cycle (DHA, EPA, Boswellia Serrata). A combination of ingredients, to support every aspect of joint health, offers a superior approach to long term comfort and soundness, over using a single ingredient.
What is things should I consider when looking for a joint supplement?
- What ingredients are in the product?
- How many grams of each ingredient are given per serving?
- Are the ingredients used high quality, and bioavailable to the horse?
- Is the product made in a BETA NOPS accredited facility?
- Are the ingredients used safe for use during competition?
If the answers to these questions are not obviously stated on the website, question why that may be.
At what point in my horses’ career should I consider using a joint supplement?
Joint supplements are for all horses of all ages! There is good reason to provide nutritional joint support to all horses in exercise, as exercise will increase the rate of cartilage maintenance and repair. Joint supplements can be used in any aged horse without soundness issues to best support joint health. Joint supplements can be used as part of a holistic plan to support soundness in horses with a history of joint problems.
For more information on our joint supplements, and which one is best suited to your horse, please get in touch with our team of nutritional advisors.