Horse health diary: Taking care of joints

Looking efter your eventer’s joints is vital to ensuring optimum performance and longevity. Vet and eventer Katie Brickman discusses how to spot if something is wrong and how to keep joints healthy

A joint is formed where two or more bones come together. Horses have three main types of joint – synovial joints. fibrous joints and cartilaginous joints – and all three act to absorb the shock of motion and provide movement.

The most common joint is the synovial joint, which is extremely important for movement and usually works in conjunction with surrounding tendons and ligaments. Each synovial joint is different and can flex and extend to varying degrees – pushing the joint beyond its normal range of motion can cause damage and this can culminate in severe injury. A normal synovial joint is composed of two bones coming together, each covered by a cartilage cushion known as articular cartilage. This cartilage is smooth and enables frictionless movement. The Joint also contains synovial fluid. which provides lubrication and nutrition, and a fibrous capsule for support. Tendons and ligaments often attach from one bone to the other, providing additional strength and stability.

Common causes of joint injury include:

  • Surrounding tendon and ligament damage leading to lack of support around the joint and joint injury.
  • General joint wear and tear leading to conditions such as joint synovitis or joint osteoarthritis.
  • Trauma, such as a kick or a bang on a fence.
  • Joint penetration – if an injury causes a foreign body, such as wire, to enter the joint capsule and bacteria are introduced, the repercussions can be catastrophic unless action is taken quickly.

Signs of joint pain

Early indications of joint pain can be very subtle, especially in event horses. A horse may be noted to have a reduction in performance or start refusing. The horse may struggle on harder ground, especially when jumping, and appear to not enjoy its work as much.

As the disease progresses, an overt lameness or ‘stiffness’ will become noticeable, but if multiple limbs are affected this can be difficult to notice unless a veterinary examination is performed. In acute cases, there can be heat, swelling and pain on palpation around the affected joint, but in most chronic situations this will not be present.

It is very important to discuss with your veterinary surgeon as soon as possible any concerns you may have about any possible joint pain in your horse. There are many ways to treat and manage early stage joint problems, allowing your horse to return to eventing, but all joint conditions have a much better prognosis if they are treated as soon as possible.

As an example, repetitive concussion through the coffin joint, such as through galloping on hard ground, can lead to the development of synovitis, where an excessive amount of synovial fluid is produced inside the joint capsule. This excess fluid causes discomfort due to increased pressure within the joint and, if left unchecked, the physiological balance within the joint becomes abnormal, eventually leading to the development of cartilage damage and potential for  the development of osteoarthritis. If the condition is treated during the phase of pure synovitis, the prognosis for the horse is much more positive and there is a much higher chance the horse will continue to event and at a higher level.

Prevention of joint problems

Poor conformation leads to abnormal loading through joints and can cause joint disease as the horse gets older. When purchasing a horse, it is very important to consider what activities you wish to do with the horse and if the horse’s conformation is appropriate. A veterinary exam can help you make this decision.

Conditioning of the horse’s joints is very important in the prevention of joint disease. Ideally, an event horse should be ridden on an array of different surfaces, including road work, to both strengthen the joint capsule and the tendons and ligaments surrounding the joint. Too much work in a manege, especially if the surface is deep, is a common instigator of joint disease. A horse should follow an appropriate fitness plan when coming back into work or stepping up a level
to allow the joints time to adapt.

Feeding a complete, balanced diet is also extremely important to maintain the health within all joints and it is worth considering feeding a medical-grade joint supplement to increase the levels of glucosamine and chondroitin in the horse’s diet.

Keeping your horse at the correct weight is vital for many reasons, but excessive weight puts more pressure through the horse’s joints, ligaments and tendons and increases the concussion going through the joint with each stride.

It is crucial to have a good relationship with your farrier as good, correct, balanced farriery is essential in the management of joint health. Incorrect shoeing or poor foot balance leads to incorrect pressure being loaded through the limbs and can result in injury of joints or ligaments and tendons long term.

Management after an event is also a major factor in maintaining joint health. After completion of the cross country phase, cold therapy is essential to take the heat of exercise out of the joints, especially those of the lower limb. Cold hosing, cold boots and ice boots are all extremely effective. It is also worth using cool clay after cold boots to continue the process as you travel home from a strenuous day of eventing.


Katie Brickman B.Vet.Med (hons) AVP MRCVS graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London with honours in 2013, before developing a keen interest in sports horse lameness and poor performance. She returned to Yorkshire after graduating and now works for Ridings Equine Vets in Lumby, North Yorkshire.


This article was originally published in British Eventing Life Nov/Dec 2020