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Using nutrition to improve equine joint health

May 17, 2021
Horse jump

Musculoskeletal injury is one the most common reasons for loss of performance in horses. Luckily, you can implement exercise and nutrition programs to maximize equine joint health.

Google the phrase “joint supplements for horses,” and you will quickly be overwhelmed by more than 165,000 results.

Many owners and trainers in the horse industry consider joint health a top concern for their management programs. This is warranted; after all, the average horse weighs around 1,000 pounds and is supported by four relatively thin legs with very little protection.

Understanding equine joints becomes increasingly important for each horse owner, as musculoskeletal injuries are classified as the number-one reason for loss of performance.  

What’s really going on in the horse’s joints?

There are three types of joints in the body, but the type that is most influenced through nutrition (and the type that we typically think of when we think of a joint) is called the synovial joint.

Synovial joints are those that allow for movement and help transfer the load between bones, including the elbow, knee or wrist — or, in the horse’s case, the knee, hock or fetlock joint.

Synovial joints are composed of:

  • Cartilage, which covers the ends of the two bones that meet at the joint.
  • The joint capsule, which is the space encompassing the entire joint with an inner synovial membrane housing synovial cells and synovial fluid.
  • Ligaments, a type of connective tissue that connects bone to bone.

Cartilage is one of the most important aspects of the joint

We hate to play favorites, but when it comes to joints, we are partial to cartilage for the role it plays in handling the compressive and concussive forces that joints deal with on a minute-to-minute basis. Cartilage is a metabolically active tissue composed of chondrocytes, the main cells in cartilage, as well as type II collagen and a proteoglycan network.

You can think of cartilage as a small, remote town — “Joint Town,” perhaps.

In basic terms, the chondrocyte cells produce collagen fibrils, which undergo an extensive cross-linking process during development. Collagen is the road system of “Joint Town.”

Proteoglycans are molecules that aid in the shock absorption properties of cartilage. They are made up of a core protein linked to a glycosaminoglycan chain, such as keratin or chondroitin sulfate. 

Proteoglycans are similar to the houses and buildings that comprise a town.

Cartilage is a largely avascular structure, meaning that it receives a limited blood supply, and as a result, repair and renovation is a slow process. This is a small, remote town, after all.

While the proteoglycans can be replaced completely after 300 to 1,800 days, the collagen network is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime building process — in fact, it is estimated to only be replaced every 120 years in dogs and every 350 years in humans!

You know how road construction goes. Can you even imagine how long it would take to completely replace a town’s road system? Let’s just say that remodeling a home or building (i.e., the proteoglycans) is enough of a task for the construction workers (i.e., the chondrocytes), who receive limited resources.  

That being said, it is important to understand that cartilage, being a metabolically active tissue, will vary based on its location within the joint and how much of a load that area experiences. The load in different areas is dependent on the type of exercise that the horse does on a regular basis, as well as on that animal’s unique conformation.

Daily “wear and tear” impacts the horse’s joints

When a foal is born, it is believed to be born with “blank” joints. The foal’s bone, cartilage and overall joint makeup will develop based on its activity level, and the foal’s early life will set the animal’s joints up for a lifetime of success (or not).

This is where balancing the exercise cycle comes into play.

Based on this information, we know that exercise is a critical component of equine joint health. On the one hand, exercise builds strength and stimulates blood flow and the “pumping” of synovial fluid in and out of the joint.

Synovial fluid not only acts as lubrication in the joint, but it is also an important communication medium between many pieces of the joint, carrying nutrients into the cartilage and waste out. More movement means more nutrients coming in and waste being removed. Think of exercise as traffic control; it helps keep the one-way street in and out of the remote town working, so that resources can continue to be brought in or traded out.

On the other hand, too much or chronic, repetitive exercise can strain certain areas of the joint, resulting in “wear and tear” of the cartilage, inflammation, damage and, in the worst-case scenario, osteoarthritis.

While some of these effects may be unavoidable, there are certainly preventative measures that can help protect the joints and maximize performance — and nutrition may be one of the least invasive ways to protect horse joints.  

Which joint supplements for horses actually make a difference?

There are many questions about whether joint supplements are useful, and frankly, conducting research that investigates the effects of joint nutraceuticals is challenging, to say the least.

While there is always more research to be done, we can honestly say that the evidence does support the fact that joint supplements provide many benefits — especially if you choose the right ones.

When shopping for a joint supplement for your horse, consider four key nutrients:

1. Glucosamine

Glucosamine is an amino sugar that is a natural component of the horse’s cartilage. Glucosamine is a precursor to building glycosaminoglycans, which, as you know from earlier, are important players in the proteoglycan network.

Glucosamine is like “joint food”; it is believed to help prevent cartilage degradation, inflammation and pain in the joint while also supporting cartilage growth.

2. Chondroitin sulfate

While glucosamine is a precursor to glycosaminoglycans, chondroitin sulfate is an actual glycosaminoglycan, which bolsters the strength and resistance capabilities of the joint. Research has found that using a combination supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin in horses with osteoarthritis improved flexion tests while decreasing joint volume and lameness scores.    

3. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is an organic sulfur compound necessary for the production of connective tissue. Perhaps one of the lesser-understood joint nutrients, research in horses has shown that MSM may help protect the body from free-radical damage due to exercise, and it also appears to play a role in the glutathione pathway, which is an important antioxidant in the body.

4. Hyaluronic acid (HA)

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is most well-known for its lubrication and comfort-inducing properties as a major component of synovial fluid. HA is also found in cartilage and helps aid in absorbing shock. Studies have found that HA plays an important role as a protective and anti-inflammatory agent in the joints, decreasing the breakdown of cartilage and synovial fluid. 

Key points to remember

Performance horses are prone to joint disease as a result of their normal activity. While some of this may be inevitable, especially as the joints’ regenerative ability decreases with age, there are various therapies and technologies that can help promote equine joint health.

First and foremost, asking your horse to perform a variety of different exercises at various intensity levels and on different surfaces can help keep your horse moving and can help balance the load on the horse’s joints, as well as the inflammation cycle associated with training.

Additionally, do not underestimate the power of nutrition. While it is human nature to always seek new information, research offers convincing evidence that high-quality joint supplements can help protect and restore joints throughout a horse’s life.

Alltech’s new Lifeforce Joint supplement was designed to provide all four key joint nutrients in one scoop, helping support and maximize your horse’s joint health and long-term performance.


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