Arthritis In Horses: Everything You Need To Know

Arthritis is an unfortunately common condition among people and animals alike, and horses are no exception. It’s a degenerative disease that causes joint damage and discomfort. Knowing the signs and causes can help lower your chances of developing arthritis and reduce the severity of it after diagnosis.

What Is Arthritis In Horses?

While you may think of arthritis as being a uniquely human disease, it can affect all sorts of animals as well, including dogs, cats, and yes, even arthritis in horses. A major factor that plays into the development of arthritis is stress on joints, which can be a result of over exercising and overbearing weight. Since horses are both large animals and extremely athletic animals, arthritis is exceptionally common among them, even during their early years. Arthritis goes by many names; degenerative joint disease, joint inflammation, osteoarthritis, and so on. All of these are names for essentially the same thing, though they may denote slight variations in symptoms or causes. Arthritis is the result of inflammation around an individual’s joints. It can cause pain and discomfort when trying to move, along with a creaky feeling that isn’t pleasant for anyone. Arthritis symptoms can vary in severity depending on the weather, and it typically gets worse as the sufferer ages.

If your horse has arthritis, there’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that since arthritis is the result of physical damage to your horse’s joints, it is currently impossible to cure. Once your horse develops arthritis, they will have it for the rest of their life. The good news, though, is that since it is such a common condition among horses, there are a plethora of treatment methods available. So even if your horse does begin showing signs of arthritis, there are plenty of ways to ease their pain and help them live a comfortable and normal life.

What Causes Arthritis In Horses?

The sheer size and weight of a horse’s natural mass takes a toll on the cartilage, fluids, ligaments, and bones that compose their joints. The cartilage in your horse’s joints acts a cushion, allowing the two bones forming the joint to glide around one another smoothly. Over time, though, your horse’s natural body weight can steadily erode this cartilage. Arthritis is the result of damage to your horse’s joints – meaning that the exact cause is non-specific. There’s no singular thing that causes arthritis. Instead, it’s usually the result of a handful of factors, some that you may be able to control as an owner, and others that are simply beyond prevention. One of the most common causes of arthritis in horses is a joint strain. While you may not think of your horse being very delicate, the inner workings of their joints are a sensitive construction.

Other factors like birth defects, obesity, certain organ diseases, and so on can contribute to the damage that occurs on your horse’s joints. While you may not see symptoms of arthritis immediately following these conditions, years of damage adds up. And like a domino effect, each of these problems tends to lead into one another, creating a cascade of joint damage.


Exercise is an important and vital component of your horse’s day to day routine. They’re athletic animals, and it’s necessary for them to exercise if they’re going to remain physically and emotionally healthy. That said, exercise does have its downsides, and one of them is that it takes a toll on your horse’s joints. Casual motion – like grazing on hay, meandering around a pasture, and walking a perimeter – are all extremely gentle on your horse’s joints. None of these activities is going to cause excessive strain.

Exercise, on the other hand, is just the opposite. Exercise not only causes a horse’s joints to undergo serious movement and strain but if demanding enough, it can cause inflammation of the joints. Now, it’s important to understand that inflammation is usually a good thing in your horse’s body. It’s a reaction of the immune system that promotes healing.

In the case of joints, however, inflammation can be a damaging reaction. It causes the synovial fluid in your horse’s joints – responsible for keeping the joints intact – to breakdown and turns watery, rather than it’s typical syrup-like consistency. This reduces the amount of protection that the joints have, leading to more damage down the road. The breakdown of synovial fluid is one of the first stages of arthritis development.

That certainly isn’t to say that you shouldn’t allow or encourage your horses to exercise; it’s still an essential and important aspect of your horse’s health. Just bear in mind that excessive and intense exercise, without breaks, can lead to significant damage in the long term.

Symptoms Of Arthritis In Horses

Even though arthritis is a lifelong condition, its progression can be slowed with early treatment. The problem is, however, that the signs of arthritis can be difficult to pick up on. This is especially true in horses since they don’t let the symptoms affect them as much until later on. Early arthritis will likely look like general stiffness or discomfort in your horse that they can work themselves out of. While it may seem like a good thing that they can manage the early symptoms, it usually reduces the chances that an owner will seek a diagnosis.

Aside from stiffness, arthritis can also appear as inflammation around your horse’s joints. Inflamed joints will be swollen and warm to the touch, and you may even notice that your horse is uncomfortable when you apply gentle pressure to these joints. You might also notice that your horse’s gait, stride, and general movements differ from their norm. This is them adjusting to the new pain and discomfort that comes along with arthritis.

In its later stages, arthritis will continue to have a worsening effect on your horse’s ability and willingness to move. You may notice that they don’t want to run, give up during running, stutter in their gallop, and so on. They may be less than eager to do tasks that at one point had been easy for them. At an extreme, they may even become lame.

Diagnosing Arthritis In Horses

If you suspect that your horse may have arthritis, no matter how minor the signs may seem, don’t hesitate to take them to a vet. The sooner the issue is treated, the less of an impact it will have on them in the long run. Once you have taken your horse to a veterinarian, the first thing they will do is a physical examination of the affected joints. This will involve looking for the typical symptoms of arthritis, including inflammation, pain/discomfort, and stiffness.

One of the ways that vets pinpoint arthritic joints is through a flexion test. A flexion test is where the vet holds a horse’s joint in a flexed position for around a minute and then asks the horse to trot immediately afterward. If the horse refuses or clearly exhibits pain in the flexed joint, then it is likely arthritis. This is then repeated for each of the horse’s joints.

Your vet will also work to build a portfolio of your horse’s physical history, so it’s important that you come prepared to answer a wide variety of questions pertaining to your horse’s health. These questions will include things like workload, exercise intensity, sports your horse may compete in, and so on. All of this will help them determine how likely your horse is to have arthritis. This, combined with the physical examination, will also help the vet pinpoint all of the affected areas.



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