Horses have joint problems because we often ask them to do things they weren't designed to do.

After domesticating the horse, man designed competitions for him that put a great deal of additional stress on his joints. Think, for example, of the concussive force on joints of the front legs when a 1,200-pound horse sails over a six-foot jump and lands on his front feet.

Dressage seems like a fairly benign competition as far as placing stress on joints is concerned, but that isn't true. The advanced dressage horse is required to move his center of gravity more to the rear, putting more stress on the hind limbs.Some of the lateral movements, such as the shoulder-in and half-pass, cause high joint stress particularly on the hock. The types of disease and injury that can afflict dressage horses include degenerative joint disease of the hocks, inflammation and degenerative joint disease of the front pasterns, inflammation of the middle knee joint, and degenerative joint disease and inflammation of the fetlock.

 

Joint inflammation

Repeated exposure to trauma or stress at the joint, often initiates inflammation in the synovial membrane and joint capsule. The resulting symptoms are lameness, swelling, and heat. As a result of the inflamed synovial membrane, leukocytes invade the joint space. Both synovial membrane and leukocytes release destructive enzymes, free radicals, cytokines, and prostaglandins. Left untreated, these inflammatory mediators have a destructive effect upon the cartilage.

 

Cartilage degradation

Leaving joint inflammation untreated results in erosion of the cartilage which eventually leads to significant cartilage damage. The damage progresses and develops into degenerative joint disease (DJD) or osteoarthritis. DJD cannot be cured, only managed, and often leads to a premature death of the horse.

 

Prevention and treatment

The primary key to successful prevention is a balanced diet so that cartilage, muscles, and ligaments are supplied with sufficient nutrients. The second key is adequate exercise which stimulates metabolic exchange and thus the delivery of nutrients into the joints. Ongoing damage can by limited by the early recognition of symptoms and prompt treatment.

To prevent irreparable destruction of cartilage, the treatment of joint disease has to start early. Therapeutic objectives include limiting inflammation and blocking the release of destructive inflammatory mediators.

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