Helping Horses with Arthritis at The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Ocala, FL – Having a chronic pain condition is exceptionally hard on horses since they are such athletic, active animals. Arthritis, which involves inflammation in the joint, can be especially debilitating due to the pain, lack of desire to move, weight gain, and the amount of concussive forces a horse experiences each day. It is estimated that sixty percent of lameness-related problems are related to osteoarthritis. Risk factors include poor conformation, musculoskeletal conditions, a past history of joint infection, a family history of arthritis, performing with inadequate training, and inappropriate shoeing and foot care. The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center in Ocala, Florida, treats many horses with arthritic joints, along with other age-related issues. These horses often leave The Sanctuary ready to go back to performing well at the higher levels of equestrian sport due to the advanced therapies provided by The Sanctuary.

The most severe form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs when articular cartilage breaks down over time. Articular cartilage is the tissue that lines the ends of the bones inside the joint. It allows for smooth, frictionless movement of the joint and helps to cushion the bones underneath during movement.

Diagnosis can be made through a physical exam, a lameness exam, x-rays, nuclear scintigraphy, and/or a diagnostic block. The veterinarian may see joint swelling, bony growths at the edges of the joint, increased bone density, a narrowing of the joint space, or a breakdown of the subchondral bone underneath the joint. A horse experiencing arthritis may range from having subtle lameness to being very lame.

Sadly, there is no real cure for arthritis— the goal of treatment is to slow down the progression of the disease, provide pain relief to the horse, and to improve the animal’s quality of life. Most of the time, a variety of treatments are used. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are common and can be given topically or intravenously. Corticosteroids can be injected into the joint, as can hyaluronic acid and polysulfated glycosaminoglycans. Newer therapies include using parts of the horse’s own body to help regenerate the joint, such as interleukin receptor antagonist protein (IRAP), platelet-rich plasma (PRP), and stem-cell therapy. Surgery to fuse the joint is an option for severe cases.

Supplements with glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, avocado-soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs), hyaluronic acid, cetyl myristoleate, omega-3 fatty acids, and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) have proven helpful to horses suffering from arthritis. Corrective shoeing or barefoot trimming, phsyical therapy, joint manipulation, and shockwave therapy are also used to manage arthritis.

Brenda McDuffee, General Manager of The Sanctuary, explains “The Sanctuary’s Laser Therapy is the first thing I think of when someone says that their horse has an arthritic joint, because it has an almost immediate pain-relieving property of reducing the inflammation, stimulating the circulation within the joint, and stimulating joint capsule fluid production. Of course, we can’t preventing the already existing arthritis; but in many cases, laser therapy alone will help address the pain issues and slow the degeneration while allowing the horse to return to a better quality of comfort during work.”

While some may think that allowing a horse ample stall rest will help with arthritis, McDuffee states that not working the arthritic area is the worst thing that can be done for arthritis. However, horses with arthritis usually will not want to exercise themselves when given the opportunity (such as during turnout). In addition to increasing pain and stiffness, not exercising the horse can lead to other problems. “Many times, arthritic horses will also tend to be overweight due to the reduced activity,” adds McDuffee.

The Aquapacer at The Sanctuary
The Aquapacer at The Sanctuary

To combat this, The Sanctuary offers a variety of ways to exercise the horse using the buoyancy of water to lesson the concussion on sore joints and to strengthen muscles and improve balance, all while giving the horse a total body workout. McDuffee says that The Sanctuary’s aqua treadmill “is a way for us to strengthen the horse in a round frame by encouraging the horse to use his core muscles to lift up his abdominals, lift through his back and shoulders, and really get his hind end up underneath himself to improve strength in the same frame you are trying to achieve under saddle.” In addition, the aqua treadmill improves flexibility, accelerates conditioning, increases cardiovascular fitness, reduces friction between articulating joints, and provides hydrostatic pressure to assist blood and reduce swelling.

The Sanctuary’s above ground aqua treadmill can also be coupled with the Cold Saltwater Leg Spa therapy. “The Cold Saltwater Spa therapy helps sore joints by immediately relieving pain and reducing inflammation,” explains McDuffee. “The 35°F temperature is analgesic, and the high salinity levels in the water act like a poultice to reduce swelling and inflammation. The cold temperatures also help reduce the heat associated with inflammation.”

Cold saltwater leg spa
Cold saltwater leg spa

The Sanctuary also has a state-of-the-art fourteen-foot-deep equine swimming pool that is used to treat arthritis, tendon and ligament injuries, EPM, laminitis, fractures, bone spurs and spavins, and some neurologic conditions. “Swimming is also a great way to exercise without any concussion on joints,” says McDuffee. “Swimming offers muscle strengthening and a great cardiovascular workout. Swimming is also a great way to manage weight and tone up.

The Sanctuary staff encounters many horses that are very sore from arthritic conditions. “Many times an arthritic horse will ‘guard’ a sore joint or area, which causes them to use other parts of their body to compensate,” says McDuffee. “Our Electromagnetic Pulse Therapy is a total body treatment designed to alleviate muscle soreness by stimulating muscle movement, improving circulation and increasing oxygen to tissues, allowing the cells to release waste and toxins, and improving cell function.”

McDuffee also suggests Vertical Vibration Plate Therapy for relieving sore muscles and joints, stimulating oxygen uptake in muscles, improving circulation, improving lymphatic system drainage, and stimulating bone remodeling to improve bone density.

These advanced therapies used by The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center give the owner a way to help their horse have a better quality of life by reducing pain and allowing the horse to get back to work. Horses suffering from arthritis can experience drastic improvements within The Sanctuary’s gates. This state-of-the-art facility is Florida’s only comprehensive provider of equine and canine sports therapy services. Certified Therapists on staff have over seven years of experience in sports therapy. To learn more about The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center, visit sanctuaryequinerehab.com or call 1-352-369-HEAL (4325).