How to Help Prevent Arthritis in the Horse's Neck and Back...
...and what bodywork has to do with it.
Do anti-inflammatories, joint injections, bute, and various ‘joint ease’ supplements to treat recurring lameness due to arthritis sound familiar? We all either have or know of a horse that is arthritic. But what does that mean? Is it something that simply happens with age?
Arthritis is a painful disease that limits movement. According to the classic Adams and Stashak's Lameness in Horses, arthritis “...can be defined simply as inflammation of a joint.” Vets differentiate between ‘acute’ arthritis, which may resolve (or turn into chronic arthritis) and ‘chronic’ arthritis, which is a constant, mostly low-grade inflammation that almost always results in permanent damage of the horse’s affected joint.
Also called Degenerative Joint Disease, it is a condition that progresses over time. In case of chronic arthritis, the cartilage that makes up the joint surfaces slowly degenerates and wears down. The joint’s ‘lubricant’ surface basically disappears, which makes movement painful and restricted, often resulting in lameness. Not only senior horses are affected, but also increasingly younger animals under 10 years old. The symptoms of arthritis often start in the neck, but also in the hock and other joints of the limb.
Senior horses are known to have ‘stiff necks’ due to the arthritic changes in vertebrae of the neck. This often effects the third cervical junction (see image, C3). The horse cannot bend the center of his neck laterally and tries to make up by bending the head around.
Another area that is often affected are the neck (cervical) vertebrae of the neck/shoulder junction. Arthritic changes in this junction affect the movement of the entire horse and can be assumed to be especially painful, since this is one of the junctions that most affect performance, a ‘hub’ for any front end movement. The bad news is: Once your horse has chronic arthritis with the related joint damage, it cannot be treated, only managed. Bodywork on an arthritic horse has to be especially gentle and should only be performed by a knowledgeable professional after consulting with your vet. The good news is: In younger horses, there is much that can be done to prevent arthritic changes in the first place. In other words: There is something every horse owner can do to help prevent arthritis.
The key is flexibility and availability of joint fluid, also called synovial fluid, that is the ‘lubricant’ of the joint. In her book The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book, Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, explains this very nicely: “Every time your horse moves his back, the cartilage and discs soak up joint fluid.. Rigidity or loss of motion between the bones...decreases the normal pumping action between the vertebrae [and thus ‘dries out’ the cartilage].” She also explains that tight muscles can cause a horse’s spine (and neck vertebrae) to be stressed or pulled out of alignment, which in turn prevents fluid movement in the joint and results in undersupply of the joint cartilage with joint fluid. The cartilage then starts deteriorating, which is called osteoarthritis.
In short, the best way to help prevent arthritis in your horse is to ensure flexibility and to prevent inflammation (this touches on the topic of nutrition, which goes beyond this article). This includes the 3 Steps to Wellness (see Basic Horse Mechanics):
C: Gymnasticize and strengthen (Gymnasticizing for Wellness™)
Where to start?
We want to start with A! Releasing tension and restriction in muscles that directly influence joints is the key to preventing lameness as a result from painful arthritic changes. Here, you have two options:
Involve a knowledgable equine bodyworker or massage therapist (do your research and follow your instinct, look for a certified and experienced person that resonates with you and your horse)
If your horse already has noticeable lameness or other performance issues, you may want to start by involving an equine chiropractor. In my view, this should always be either a vet with special chiropractic certification or a chiropractor with special veterinary qualification (even if not required by law in your state). Chiropractic can be very helpful but also harmful if attempted by insufficiently educated individuals.
Just as in humans, arthritis in horses is not something that ‘just happens’. There is a lot we can do to keep ourselves and our horses nimble and delay the onset of arthritis and the related pain, discomfort and stiffness for quite some time.
There is much more to explore and know about the topic and I hope you found this article to be helpful.
Enjoy your horse!
The above article reflects my personal opinion. Equine Massage is NEVER a substitute for proper veterinary care. If you are in doubt about the physical condition of your horse, please consult a veterinarian.
*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.