Whether a foal, a broodmare, or a mature or aging horse, supporting joint health is a common concern for many horse owners.

Being proactive can help to prevent joint problems from affecting your horse, robbing them of performance, comfort and well-being.

Nutrition plays an important role in keeping your horse’s joints in good shape, but this is not the only way to support and maintain your horse’s joint function.

The joint itself is where two bones meet, connected and padded by connective tissue and cartilage. Synovial fluid within the joint acts as a lubricant and is important for joint function. [1] Together these work to absorb load and allow for mechanical movement.

Horses build and develop joints in the womb and during growth. Ensuring healthy growth in the foal can be a major component in preventing joint disease, although it does not guarantee that injuries or diseases will not occur.

With age, cartilage turnover decreases. When combined with wear-and-tear and/or high-intensity exercise and overload, joints can become susceptible to injury. [1]

When the joint degenerates, it can lead to osteoarthritis. This can result in inflammation induced by pro-inflammatory mediators such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF- α). The joint can also experience oxidative stress which is identified by oxidative markers like prostaglandins.

Supporting joint health can be accomplished at all ages. Here are Mad Barn’s 8 principles for supporting healthy joints in horses.

Top 8 Principles for Joint Health in Horses

1) Ensure Sound and Proper Nutrition

Providing your horse with a complete and balanced diet[3] is one of the key strategies to growing and maintaining healthy joints.

The maintenance of bone, cartilage, and synovial fluid requires that a horse’s energy requirements are met, with adequate protein and appropriate vitamins and minerals.

Not providing enough energy, or calories, could result in slowed or reduced growth. In mature horses, this could result in weight loss specifically of muscle tissue which could increase the risk of injury.

Dangers of Excess Energy

Too much energy can result in developmental issues during growth and excess body weight in growing and mature horses.

When feeding foals a diet of mostly roughage at 129% of their daily energy requirements for 16 weeks, they exhibited signs of dyschondroplasia (based on the National Research Council 1989 – Nutrient Requirements for Horses). [3]

Dyschondroplasia is defined as abnormal cartilage growth that can affect bone and joints. Ensuring adequate energy, but not over-feeding, is important to the development and maintenance of healthy joints.

Amino Acids

For proteins, ensuring a complete amino acid profile[3] is a must, with special attention to lysine, methionine, and threonine.

These are the most common limiting amino acids in a horse’s diet and are integral to overall health. Even if overall protein requirements are met, if your horse does not get adequate amounts of these essential amino acids, protein synthesis will be inhibited.

Vitamins and Minerals

There are a variety of vitamins and minerals that are important for your horse’s joint health, including calcium, phosphorous, zinc and copper.

Calcium and phosphorous are the major minerals in bone and joints, and these are especially important to provide at an adequate level during growth.

In mature horses, inadequate calcium intake will result in taking calcium from the bone, and thereby weakening its composition and integrity.

A ratio of 1.5:1 of calcium to phosphorus is considered ideal, although in foals the ratio can be as high as 3:1. [3]

Copper and zinc are important for collagen development and maintenance. However, too much of these mineral can impact or compete against other minerals for absorption. These trace minerals can be difficult to provide at an adequate level if there is little variation in the diet.

The best way to ensure that your horse is receiving a complete and balanced diet is to submit your horse’s diet for analysis. Our equine nutritionists are on hand to discuss horses’ specific needs and recommend the right feeding program.