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Not only for us humans, but also for the horses, the damp cold literally “creeps into the bones”. When the cold and wet weather arrives, it becomes more evident that horses encounter issues with their musculoskeletal system. They tend to emerge from their stables stiff, particularly in the mornings, exhibit a lack of synchronization in all four limbs, and require an extended period at the start of their training to regain suppleness and achieve a balanced state under the rider.
Here are six tips on what you can do to address these issues without the need for installing underfloor heating in the stable:

Encourage gentle and consistent exercise

Joints do not have direct blood vessel supply. Instead, joint cartilage receives nutrients passively through the synovial fluid. However, this nutrient supply doesn’t occur through the joint during the heartbeat but rather when the joint is in motion.

While muscles receive a continuous supply of blood and nutrients from the heart even at rest, the same is not true for joints. Furthermore, when there is a lack of movement, the cartilage matrix cannot adequately absorb fluid. You can liken it to a sponge in a bucket of water, which you either squeeze and release intermittently (like the cartilage matrix during movement) or keep continuously squeezed (like the cartilage matrix after prolonged standing).

The cartilage matrix plays a crucial role in joint suspension and lubrication but can only perform its functions effectively when saturated with synovial fluid.
As a result, many horses are prone to joint issues, particularly when they remain in a stationary position for an extended period. An open yard with various stimuli to encourage movement, such as a paddock trail with multiple roughage options along the way, is an ideal solution in such cases. It’s important to note that no amount of vigorous riding can substitute for the benefits of extended, low-intensity exercise when it comes to maintaining joint health.

Take your time with a gradual warm-up and extend the cooling-down period

As we often become quite chilled after grooming, there’s a natural inclination to begin riding swiftly. However, it’s crucial to bear in mind that the horse is even colder than we are since it has had even less movement during grooming.

© Adobe Stock / majonit

Ensure a warm-up period of a minimum of 20 minutes, and allocate an equivalent duration for a gradual cooling-down ride. For older horses, extending the warm-up time to 30-40 minutes may be necessary to optimize joint functionality. Typically, the warm-up phase is somewhat shorter for horses kept in an active yard, such as an open yard or paddock trail, compared to horses kept in a stationary position in a single stable. You can also opt to warm up and cool down your horse on foot; this approach can help ensure that your own toes thaw out more comfortably.

Feeding rose hips

Some horses have an affinity for them, while others strongly dislike the red fruits. Hence, it’s worth giving it a try: Rose hips, whether freshly picked from the bush or dried, offer valuable fatty acids and vitamins, along with a gentle anti-inflammatory effect that can be particularly advantageous for horses dealing with mild arthritic issues.

Rose hips in a bowl
© pilipphoto / Adobe Stock

Rose bushes planted within diverse natural hedges along the turnout not only create an excellent ecological habitat for birds, small rodents, and insects but also serve as a welcomed source of rosehips for horses during the winter months.

Soothe inflammations naturally

Older horses and those with extensive competitive backgrounds often experience significant joint wear and tear, commonly referred to as arthrosis. In cold and damp weather, these painful inflammatory episodes exacerbate the damage to joint cartilage. Stiff movements, clammy joints, reluctance to move after prolonged periods of standing, and the need for horses to “warm up” gradually all indicate the presence of arthritic processes.

The entire musculoskeletal system can be impacted, a common occurrence in older horses or former sport horses. However, individual joints can also experience heightened pain, typically resulting from accidents or excessive strain.

African devil’s claw has demonstrated its effectiveness as a natural anti-inflammatory remedy in this regard. It typically takes approximately two weeks to achieve its full effectiveness and is recommended to be administered in courses lasting six to eight weeks.

In cases where horses exhibit significantly diminished mobility after completing the treatment, devil’s claw can also be administered throughout the winter months.

OKAPI Devil's Claw
OKAPI Devil’s Claw © OKAPI

However, it’s important to note that horses with stomach ulcers should not be given devil’s claw. Additionally, devil’s claw should never be combined with ginger. Its mechanism of action involves an increase in inflammation.

It is utilized when horses exhibit generalized or diffuse joint complaints. In such cases, inflammation is deliberately stimulated to trigger the immune system response, ultimately leading to the long-term reduction of inflammation. Hence, ginger is administered for a short duration, typically 3 to 5 days, to activate the immune system. This approach is effective for assisting arthritic horses during brief periods of cold and wet weather, such as during inclement summer conditions.

Support cartilage development

Cartilage tissue relies on a variety of essential nutrients, most of which are fortunately present in adequate quantities. While it’s crucial to guarantee a sufficient copper supply for young horses to maintain healthy joint cartilage, this concern is generally less applicable to adult horses.

Conversely, once joint cartilage has deteriorated, it can no longer regenerate fully. Nonetheless, it is feasible to enhance the nourishment of the existing cartilage cells and encourage the formation of fibrocartilage as a replacement.

Glucosamine sulfate is highly suitable for this purpose, as it is readily absorbed through the intestine, and horses often exhibit noticeable improvements in their movement behavior shortly after commencing its administration.
Green-lipped mussel extract, being primarily composed of mussel meat, is typically unappealing to most horses, which are primarily herbivores. In contrast, OKAPI Synofit is very well accepted by many horses.

It contains the pure active ingredient from green-lipped mussels, has a subtle taste, slightly bitter but not fishy, and can be easily blended into a handful of soaked hay pellets or added under the concentrated feed. It can be combined with OKAPI Devil’s Claw for enhanced effectiveness.

Keeping joints warm

In cases where specific joints are significantly impacted by arthritic changes, horses often exhibit lameness in the corresponding leg, which tends to improve with extended periods of gentle exercise.
According to Chinese medicine, osteoarthritis is classified as a “yin disease” linked to damp cold conditions. To address such conditions, “yang remedies” characterized by dry heat are used.

These remedies may include the use of ceramic fiber boots, such as those offered by CeraTex® or Back on Track®, which generate and retain dry heat to promote healing. These boots reflect the infrared radiation emitted by the tissue, effectively warming it from within. Caution: Initially, apply briefly and under close supervision. Gradually extend the duration of use until they can occasionally be left on overnight. If the duration of use is increased too rapidly or the horse is left unattended, they may attempt to remove the boots themselves as soon as they become excessively warm underneath.

For horses experiencing issues, especially with vertebral joints, a blanket made of such ceramic fibers that can be placed on overnight may also be beneficial. Horses often express their gratitude with increased flexibility in their movements and, at times, even show a preference for their blanket in the evening.
Medically speaking, arthritic changes in the joints are considered irreversible. Nonetheless, effective management is possible through strategies such as regular, gentle exercise, providing adequate cartilage nutrients, maintaining joint warmth, and addressing inflammation when necessary. By following these practices, even horses with arthritis typically manage the winter season effectively.