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You’ve recently noticed that your horse seems stiff, and you think it might be arthritis. You decide to do some research to see if your theory holds water. Some sources say it might be Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), others suggest Osteoarthritis (OA), but all the symptoms sound the same. No need to panic—osteoarthritis, Degenerative Joint Disease, and arthritis are just different names for the same thing.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis is progressive and permanent deterioration of articular cartilage, the specific type of cartilage that lines the ends of bones where they come together to form a joint, such as your horse’s fetlock. Healthy articular cartilage provides a smooth, slippery surface that allows free movement and contributes to the shock-absorbing properties of the joint. As arthritis sets in, articular cartilage becomes compromised, which disrupts the normally smooth surface, causing stiffness and discomfort.
Is my Horse at Risk?
Arthritis is one of the most common conditions that affect performance and pleasure horses. In fact, arthritis is believed to be responsible for up to 60% of all lameness. The joints most often affected by arthritis include the knee, fetlock, coffin, hock, and pastern (where it is often referred to as “ringbone”).
A 1999 study published in the Equine Veterinary Journal identified arthritic changes in a herd of wild mustangs, which led the researchers to conclude that arthritis was a natural part of the aging process in horses. In essence, this means that it’s not just horses in heavy work that are at risk—all horses are at risk for developing arthritis, even those in light work or no work at all. While all horses are susceptible to developing arthritis, there are some factors that can increase your horse’s risk, including consistent stress from riding, acute injury, and poor conformation. Senior horses are also more likely to show arthritic changes. While there is no sure-fire way of preventing arthritis altogether, there are steps you can take to help keep your horse going strong for as long as possible.
What are the Warning Signs of Arthritis?
A horse that appears stiff with uneven gaits and a shortened stride could be displaying signs of arthritis pain. Reluctance to pick up, keep, or change a lead in the canter or lope may also be signs of arthritis. In addition, horses that work at speed, such as jumpers, reiners, and barrel horses, may become unwilling to stop or turn. If you have started to notice some of these signs in your own horse, be sure to talk with your veterinarian.
How is a Horse Diagnosed with Arthritis?
Diagnosis begins with a complete history and physical examination by a veterinarian, including palpation. Next, the veterinarian observes the horse for soundness (with and without flexion tests) while jogged in-hand, lunged, and/or ridden. Nerve blocks may be helpful in localizing arthritis pain. Once a problem in a particular joint is identified, it may be examined further through X-rays (radiography), ultrasound, bone scan (nuclear scintigraphy), CT scan, and/or MRI.
Prescription Medications Available
If your horse has been diagnosed with arthritis, prescription medications may be an important part of your horse’s treatment and management program. Consult with your veterinarian to see if your horse could benefit from intra-articular (IA), intravenous (IV) and/or intramuscular (IM) joint medications.
Adequan® is the only FDA-approved, disease-modifying drug for the treatment of degenerative joint disease. It contains polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG), which travels into injured joints and stimulates new cartilage production, while also relieving signs of arthritis. Adequan is available in both IM and IA form.
Legend® Injectable Solution provides hyaluronate sodium for IV or IA injection, and is FDA-approved for the treatment of joint dysfunction of the knee or fetlock due to non-infectious synovitis associated with arthritis in horses.
For the management of arthritis, your veterinarian may also prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as phenylbutazone (bute), Equioxx® Oral Paste, or Surpass® Topical Cream.
Supplements that Support Healthy Joints
When it comes to supporting healthy joints, many veterinarians agree that there is a role for both prescription joint medications and oral joint supplements. While prescription medications are designed to help reduce inflammation and treat the signs of joint problems, oral joint supplements provide key ingredients like glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid (HA) to offer daily support for healthy joint fluid and tissues. In fact, an eight-year study† demonstrated that the use of an oral glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate supplement resulted in the decreased need for IA hock injections to maintain soundness in a group of hunter/jumper show horses. While this particular study refers to the injection of hyaluronic acid and/or steroids directly into the joint, the researchers’ findings support the general idea that there is a place for both prescription injectables and daily oral supplements when it comes to maintaining your horse’s joint health.
How do Joint Supplements Work?
Your horse’s body is designed to manage the normal “wear and tear” to joints that comes with being a horse in its natural state (constant roaming throughout the day, etc.). The increased demands of riding, training, and competing can put additional stress on your horse’s joint tissues. Joint supplements help ensure your horse’s body has a consistent, ready supply of the ingredients it needs to cope with the stress of exercise and maintain healthy joints. And because joint supplements are designed to support normal, healthy joint tissues, the best time to start supplementing is BEFORE your horse starts displaying signs of joint problems.
Common Ingredients in Joint Supplements
Glucosamine: Research suggests glucosamine supports the production of new cartilage and helps combat cartilage breakdown.
Chondroitin sulfate: Stimulates production of hyaluronic acid and proteoglycans; inhibits enzymes that break down cartilage.
Hyaluronic acid (HA): Integral component of joint fluid and articular cartilage; provides lubrication and shock absorption.
MSM: Highly bioavailable form of sulfur for building and repairing cartilage; helps support a normal inflammatory response.
Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant, vitamin C protects tissues throughout the body and is vital in the production of connective tissues, including cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.
Devil’s claw & yucca: Herbs used extensively to fight discomfort in joints and other tissues and support a normal inflammatory response.
Super oxide dismutase (SOD): The body’s most effective antioxidant. SOD is the first line of defense against free radicals that can damage the cells in joint structures.
†Rodgers MR, Intern J Appl Res VeterinarianMed. 2006;4(2):155-62