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The Horse’s Joints: Essential for the Musculoskeletal System

Joint health is crucial for a horse to feel good and move freely. After all, these cartilaginous connections ensure that the body can stretch and bend. But the horse’s joints are often overloaded and diseases are often recognized too late. Read here how you can prevent this and what you should pay particular attention to!

Anatomical Basics: Joints of Horses

Basically, the joints in horses do not work any differently than in humans. Their main job is to bend and straighten the limbs. While this naturally affects the whole body (e.g. neck, head, and back joints), the connections in the leg, in particular, are quite often affected by diseases. That is why we want to focus on this in the following.

The Basic Structure: This Is How the Joint Works

The basic building blocks of a joint are bones, muscles, tendons, and joint cartilage. These interact in a unique way to create a movable body part. But what exactly does it look like? If two bones meet at one point, a joint is usually formed. One bone is rounded, the so-called joint head, while the other is slightly hollowed inwards – the joint socket. Due to this special structure, the bones fit into one another.

The articular cartilage also forms around the individual bone parts (i.e. head and socket). This ensures that the bone mass is not rubbed off when they meet. In addition, the synovial fluid (also Latin synovia) is located between the two ends. This is, so to speak, the oil of the joints. Only through them does the structure really become flexible. At the same time, however, it also provides the nutrient material for the cartilage.

In order to create a complete and functioning system from this, the whole is enclosed by the joint capsule. This thin wall ensures that the synovial fluid stays in place. All around are muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments. Only these transmit the signals from the brain and ensure that the limbs move accordingly.

The Most Important Joints in the Horse

Yes, basically all joints are of course important for wellbeing and mobility. However, it is mainly those who are in or on the legs that have to cushion most of the load. On the one hand, the rest of the weight of the horse (and possibly the rider) rests on them. On the other hand, they are also moved the most frequently. This leads to a double burden, so to speak. So let’s take a look at the most important joints in the horse:

  • Shoulder joint: lies above the foreleg;
  • Elbow joint: the connection between the upper body and legs;
  • Carpal joint: located in the middle of the foreleg;
  • Hip joint: located above the hind legs;
  • Knee joint: corresponds to the elbow joint in the front leg;
  • Ankle joint: corresponds to the carpal joint in the foreleg;
  • Fetlock: connects the cannon and fetlock bones;
  • Crown joint: middle toe joint;
  • Coffin joint: extreme toe joint.

Joint Inflammation: What’s Behind It?

Joint inflammation in horses, also known as arthritis, can have different causes. On the one hand, traumatic arthritis is possible, which is caused, for example, by injuries. On the other hand, infectious joint inflammation can occur, in which bacteria cause irritation.

Traumatic Arthritis in the Horse

As the name suggests, this form of arthritis is caused by trauma. This can be, for example, a fall, tripping, or contact with a blunt object (e.g. the obstacle pole). Persistent malalignment and poor or inadequate hoof care can also be decisive.

One or more of these factors directly damage the joint capsule or the cartilage. To remedy this injury, the body produces more synovial fluid – what is known as a joint cast is created. However, this particular synovia has a different composition. It contains significantly less hyaluronic acid, which makes it more viscous, but also robs it of its lubricity. Conversely, this means that the horse’s joints are now causing the pain because the cartilage, synovia, and bones rub against each other.
Infectious arthritis

Here, too, the name actually provides information about what happens in the horse’s joints: An infection occurs when bacteria penetrate the movement modules. The body reacts with inflammation, which is supposed to kill and remove the bacteria. This is similar to the healing process after an injury.

But how can an infection develop? For one, wounds are possible causes. However, these must be relatively deep, for example when kicking a nail. On the other hand, a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body can also be to blame. This includes foal paralysis, but also inflammation in neighboring areas such as bursitis.

Acute and Chronic Joint Inflammation

Initially, both forms of arthritis occur acutely. However, if they remain untreated or inadequately treated, they can develop into a chronic disease. The joint is covered with cartilage substance. Once the growth has progressed, the synovia can no longer prevent these two cartilages from the meeting.

There is renewed friction, to which the body reacts with inflammation, which in turn ensures that more cartilage substance is created. A vicious circle starts. One speaks now of chronic degenerative joint inflammation. While the inflammation can be treated, the growths persist. This can cause further injuries to the joint. Osteoarthritis developed.

Recognize & Treat Joint Inflammation

While the exact diagnosis should be made by the veterinarian and include an extensive examination (including x-rays, arthroscopy, and/or a joint puncture), there are a few symptoms to watch out for. It is always important to recognize arthritis quickly so that it does not develop into a chronic disease.

Does your animal suddenly go paralyzed? Does the horse’s joint feel warm and swollen? Then there is a suspicion of traumatic arthritis. Infectious joint inflammation, on the other hand, usually progresses more slowly. The horse is only slightly paralyzed at first. However, the pain builds up and so does the lameness. In addition, the affected area swells a lot and fever occurs.

Infectious arthritis should get professional treatment right away. To do this, the horse has to go to the clinic, where the joints are rinsed and an antibiotic is given. In the case of traumatic arthritis, on the other hand, the animal must be immobilized. Provide soft bedding so that the joints are not put under additional strain. The following can also be useful:

  • Apply cooling bandages;
  • Apply anti-inflammatory creams;
  • Give anti-inflammatory drugs (injections or oral);
  • Inject hyaluronic acid;
  • Use orthopedic shoeing.

Proper Care for the Joints of the Horse

Joint inflammation can have serious consequences, especially if it has not been recognized and treated for a long time. Persistent lameness often means that the animal can no longer be ridden. So in order to prevent this, it is important that you take care of the horse’s joints properly. This has several facets:

  • Stress: Always work according to the level of training and do not overload your horse!
  • Assessment: Have your horse’s limbs assessed regularly by the farrier. This can correct positional errors at an early stage.
  • Grooming: Dedicate yourself extensively to hoof care. This makes rolling easier and relieves the toe joints.
  • Strengths: Target the muscles around the joints. This contributes to stabilization and can prevent many acute injuries.
  • Observe: Take a close look at your horse every day and examine it for injuries. This can help stop inflammation before it spreads.

In addition, the feed is also crucial. Because it supplies the horse’s joint with important nutrients. On the one hand, these support the formation of synovial fluid, on the other hand, they also have a positive effect on the surrounding tendons and ligaments. The most important nutrients include:

  • Glucosamine (supports the articular cartilage);
  • MSM (provides organic sulfur, which is essential for the connective tissue structures);
  • Hyaluronic acid (improves the formation of synovia and cartilage).

It is best to apply a mixture of these nutrients. There is something for every animal!

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