Feeding Horses for Joint Health

The first year of a horse's life is our main window of opportunity to affect his future skeletal health.

Photo: iStock

Take a proactive approach using your horse’s diet

Let me guess: You read the title of this article and assumed it was just another piece about joint supplements. Surprise, it’s not! Rather, this discussion about joint health will center around how certain nutrients support these structures and their development. 

But first things first: What makes up a healthy joint? Every joint comprises two bone ends covered by articular cartilage and encased within a joint capsule, a thin, saclike structure. The capsule’s inner layer, called the synovial lining, secretes synovial fluid that prevents friction between the joint structures. The outside layer of the capsule is fibrous, and that, along with the surrounding collateral ligament, helps stabilize the joint. The articular cartilage contains a matrix of collagen, proteoglycans, and water. -Proteoglycans are molecules that help organize connective tissue so that it is elastic, yet strong, and are made up of chains of glycosaminoglycans. These are a type of carbohydrate, attached to a protein, that give cartilage its stiff structure. Synovial fluid contains two key ingredients that give it its lubricating qualities: hyaluronic acid, another glycosaminoglycan type that’s also present in cartilage, and a protein known as lubricin. 

Proper nutrition can literally make or break joint health. Although a foal’s diet as it grows influences skeletal health most, its nutrition throughout adulthood also plays a role. We typically think of minerals such as calcium and phosphorus when talking about bone integrity, but vitamins, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), and energy also have their place when feeding for joint health. Let’s dive into joints and what a horse’s nutrition should look like over its life.

Young, Growing Horses

Do you have a big-boned Hanoverian filly that’s growing like a weed? Then pay attention. Postnatal growth is our main window to potentially optimize the horse’s long-term skeletal health. Growing horses are at risk of acquiring developmental orthopedic diseases (DODs). These encompass all growth disorders in foals, including osteochondrosis (OC, which causes lesions in the cartilage and bone of youngsters’ joints—not to be confused with osteochondritis dissecans, a loose bone fragment), subchondral cystic lesions, angular limb deformities, physitis (growth plate inflammation), flexural deformities, cuboidal bone abnormalities, and juvenile osteoarthritis. Factors that predispose foals to DODs include bone trauma, rapid growth rates, genetics, hormonal imbalances, and, not surprisingly, nutrition. 

This article continues in the May 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue.

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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