Understanding Equine Joint Pain

Joint stress is something that will affect most horses, whether competing or simply hacking down the road whether the ground is too hard or too muddy, either can result in joint stress so we are left considering how we can best protect our horse’s joints.

Of course the simplest answer is simply not to ride on very bad ground. Certainly if you turn up to compete but find the ground harder than the road, or soft enough that he can’t move through it, then it is best to simply load up and save him for another day. But we do want to be able to enjoy our horses in all weathers. Luckily there is much that can be done nutritionally to support our horse’s soundness.

Before we can understand what products may help, it’s a good idea to examine joint stress a little more so we know what we’re up against.


What is Joint Stress?

Joint stress is something that most horses will have to deal with on a daily basis. Whether competing or simply hacking down the road, the joints are subjected to concussive forces that will cause “stress”. But what is joint stress? Simply
put trauma, whether a sudden one off event or perhaps more usually, continual small traumas, act on the joint and reduce the protection given by the synovial fluid (“joint oil” within the joint). When the synovial fluid loses its protective properties, stress occurs within the joint, damaging the cartilage and resulting in joint discomfort. Joint stress then sets up a vicious circle within the system. Joint pain may result in less exercise (box rest or just a reluctance to work to the max) which leads to muscle weakness, which means the joints don’t get the support required from the muscles, so increased joint stress – and back to joint pain!

 Hence the importance of a gradual fitness regime, whether bringing a horse back after injury, or simply keeping them fit for the season. We also have to consider what else may further increase the risk and severity of joint stress.

The surface we ask our horses to work on will obviously have an impact – often literally! Roadwork can be a great way of building joint strength, as to a certain extent, repeated small stresses in the joint (i.e. working on a hard surface like tarmac) will increase the joint’s resistance.

 Excess weight is also a consideration, and should be avoided in all circumstances. Research shows that the forces passing through the leg when working can be huge. For example, when landing over a 1.2m fence the trailing leg (2nd to hit the ground) might be subject to forces of around 1.6 tons per square metre. This amount is influenced not only by the size of the fence but, obviously, by the weight of the horse. Hence the heavier the animal, the more strain put through his joints every time he jumps, or extends his stride, or trots down the road.

 So once we’re happy that we’re building our horse’s fitness gradually, and keeping an eye on those extra pounds, what else can we do for his joints – both for now and the future? The choice can be bewildering but if we look at the available scientific evidence we can see that the right nutritional support can hold the key to long term joint health from within.

 Why Nutritional Support?

 Joint stress has probably received more scientific study than almost any other nutritional area. The results mean we now know which key nutrients are most important for offering joint flexibility. It is advised that a quality joint supplement

will be based on glucosamine to support cartilage integrity working synergistically withMSM for comfort and support of tendons, ligaments and associated soft tissue. A recent study by Spanish researchers found that not only is jumping
exercise likely to cause joint damage but also that by feeding dietary MSM with antioxidants a protective effect was seen. One of the interesting factors in this study was that the result, although positive with MSM alone, was better when combined with antioxidants to flush away any build up of natural toxins from the area.

 Also showing positive results, though perhaps less so, are l-glutamine, chondroitin sulphate and, more recently, hyaluronic acid (HA). Experience tells us that a blend of these products, provided they are in the right ratios, is preferable to any single product. I would advise concentrating on the positive partnership of Glucosamine andMSM with antioxidants, but ensuring that the other nutrients are also present to offer their support.

 Which product is best for me?

So once you’ve identified the ingredients you want, how do you choose which of product to try?Firstly simply check that it includes all the nutrients you are looking for. If it doesn’t ask yourself why and whether it will still work for your horse, or whether you are better looking for one that meets your needs. When you’re happy with the ingredients, check the list on the back of the pack where manufacturers are legally obliged to list not only the ingredients but also their order by weight in the product. Therefore if the first ingredient listed is something like “dextrose” or“alfalfa” then ask yourself why you want a supplement that is mainly filler?

 Many manufacturers will list the inclusion rate of the key nutrients (i.e. MSM  5000mg per dose etc.). Inclusion rates not only give you a chance to check the levels, but also if they are in the right sort of ratio with each other that you’re after. Be careful when looking at levels declared by percentage, as these can be misleading. For example if a product states 100% glucosamine, it’s fairly clear that that is what you are getting. However it may still mean that the actual level is around 5000mg glucosamine per dose, and so no higher than a good quality combination product that is giving you that much glucosamine together with the other nutrients working in synergy.

 Unfortunately appearances can be deceptive, and if a product looks too good to be true then it probably is! A published scientific study found that when equine joint products were tested for their stated inclusion rates, not all came up toscratch. In this American study nearly 40% of the products tested were found to contain lessglucosamine than declared on the label, with some containing less than 30% of the expected amount! So if a product is claiming to have very highlevels at a very cheap price, then you have to question whether you trust their claims.

 I would advise choosing a company name you trust, or asking friends for their recommendations – word of mouth is nearly always reliable. Look also forthe UFAS accreditation mark  as that guarantees full traceability, and therefore quality, for that product. Also look for members of BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association), the industry standard for the equine professional.

 Is it suitable to compete on?

 For all those competing under rules, the question of whether a product is suitable to compete on or not is a hot topic. This really raises two issues. Firstly are the product ingredients suitable for competition, and secondly what risk is there of some banned substance getting in by accidental contamination? The FEI rules introduced earlier this year saw, for the first time, a very extensive list of banned substances that competitors should avoid. Further information is available on their website. The manufacturer should be able to advise you on whether a product is suitable, based on its ingredients, to fit in with FEI competition or not. Even if it’s not, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad product – simply that it may be more suitable for keeping the retired boys comfy at home, rather than for use in competition horses.

 The second issue, that of accidental contamination, is a bit more tricky. NOPS, or “Naturally Occurring Prohibited Substances” can occur from many different sources. How can you be sure your horse’s feed or supplements are clean? Here too new guidelines are available to help the competitor choose a suitable product. Last autumn BETA working in conjunction with the quality auditors, UFAS, launched the new BETA UFAS NOPS Code. A bit of a mouthful, but what it means in real terms is that only those companies who are BETA UFAS NOPS accredited are really in a position to say that their products have been sourced, manufactured, stored and distributed in a way as to ensure the highest possible level of confidence for competitors.

 Remember ultimately it is the rider or trainer’s responsibility to ensure all has been done to limit the exposure to banned substances. NOPS such as caffeine can occur in products commonly found on yards. So be careful what else youstore in your feed room – no mugs of coffee or secret stash of choccy biscuits if you want to ensure your horse is fully ready for competing under rules!

 So in conclusion, dietary support for healthy joints is strongly recommended as a long term insurance measure. Ensure you choose a product that contains the key nutrients for joint support, and, if appropriate, is accredited as suitable forcompeting horses and ponies, such as NAF Five Star Superflex.


 Acknowledgement :  Kate Hore BSc(Hons), nutritionist at Natural Animal Feeds. For further information call the NAF Freephone Advice Line on 0800 373106, or see the NAF web site at www.naf-uk.com




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