- Joints, Bones, Soft Tissue & Muscles
Principal Body System: Skeletal
Definition: The bones and joints of the body, and their associated soft tissues.
Function: Supports and protects the body; provides leverage; houses cells that produce blood cells; stores minerals.
Some say the horse is the greatest athlete in the world, and yet, in the blink of an eye, problems can occur. The good news is that there is an excellent range of nourishing herbs that can help support peripheral mobility, in many cases back to competition level.
However, once a limb or joint is damaged, it can take a long time to heal. Rehabilitating limb injuries is an expensive and time-consuming endeavour, and unfortunately usually associated with variable success rates, largely due to the tendency for injury to reoccur.
There are many therapies for limb injuries, ranging from box rest and cold therapy; magnetic field application to shock wave therapy; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to major surgical procedures. However, few of these therapies are proven to be fully successful, with many being of questionable value, and worse still, some being potentially harmful. None appear any more or less effective than another for returning horses to athletic function without re-injury.
Whatever the initial cause, be it injury, age, joint stress, malnutrition or shoeing for example, the supporting connective structure around the joints, specifically cartilage and muscle, breaks down, causing misalignment and inflammation. If left untreated this results in the progressive destruction of the joint itself, so of paramount importance of the therapy is ensuring a clean, healthy blood-flow to the depleted tissues to maintain the body's own natural detoxing of the cellular debris from the affected area.
Keeping the joint tissue healthy is the first step to maintaining healthy limbs, and keeping the structure and function of your horse's limbs will keep your horse healthy. However, no amount of joint supplements will keep your horse's joints healthy if you're not feeding a species-appropriate, quality diet packed with micronutrients and antioxidants.
Working horses need access to plenty of naturally occurring antioxidants to neutralise the free radicals being produced from heavy exercise. Good antioxidant properties can be found in bluegreen algae, vitamin C, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids - also excellent potent anti-inflammatory agents - and certain nutrients such as sulphur, which is so valuable for connective tissue and how it fills out the protein makeup to achieve optimal healthy and functioning musculature and overall build.
Probably the most important factor in joint health, however, is maintaining healthy levels of collagen; collagen is the cellular glue that helps hold together all the connective tissue in the body. It provides the structure for bones, muscles, tendons, joint cartilage, blood vessels and organs, including the entire digestive system, and, would you believe, it makes up a whopping 70% percent of the skin’s protein. Collagen plays a crucial role not just in appearance, but also how well the body functions.
Collagen is the most common protein – and the most abundant substance – in the body, second only to water. There are nearly two dozen types of collagen, but three types make up 80-90 percent of the collagen in the body: Types I, II, and III. Types I and III are found mainly in skin, bones, ligaments and tendons. Joint cartilage is mostly type II collagen.
Age also plays a huge part. During the growing years, the body makes enough collagen to keep tissues pliable and youthful, but certainly in human terms, you can tell when this changes, usually from the mid-20's onwards. By the time us humans reach 40, the body’s ability to produce its own collagen drops around 25%, and by the time we've hit the big 6-Oh, our production is half our youthful levels - we can see the visible signs in facial wrinkles and creases. 80-years plus, and we've around four times less collagen, which is why our skin now sags more, typically noticeable on the face, neck and arms.
It's less easy to equate the aging process to equine skin aging, although you can usually see distinct sagging of face and neck skin in late 20/30-yo horses. However, from a joint health and comfort perspective, collagen is hugely important because it covers and cushions the surfaces of opposing bones, and because most domestic horses are typically in high work levels, wear and tear also plays a major part in collagen levels deteriorating.
So how can we maintain collagen levels?
Collagen fibres are somewhat unusual in having large amounts of two amino acids, hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline, both of which can be found in micronised linseed, which is invaluable for joint comfort. These two amino acids are important for formation of all three types of collagen and are also needed to provide the different collagen types with their appropriate amount of strength and flexibility. Several studies have shown that linseed supports connective joint tissue, and also reduces pain, inflammation and swelling of compomised and/or injured joints.
Several nutrients can help boost collagen level. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E, sulphur, silica, antioxidants and the omega fatty acids are all important to collagen production.
- Rosehips are one of the highest sources of vitamin C, with a reported 60 times more than citrus fruit. Horses love them too - pick them fresh from hedgerows and feed them as a treat - my Murphy loves nothing more than burying his nose deep into a wild rambling rose hedge and nibbling on rosehips while we're out on a trail. Vegetables high in vitamin C include broccoli and green leafy vegetables so you can always add these into the feedbowl or onto the pasture as a treat.
- Calendula (marigolds) and garlic are both high in sulphur, with garlic also high in lipoic acid and taurine to help rebuild damaged collagen fibres.
- Linseed, again, proves invaluable as it contains omega 3 and 6 in balanced ratios. Oat Straw is also useful as it is a significant source of silica, rich in body-building components, and helps to maximise absorption of calcium into the body.
- Antioxidants protect against damaging free radicals and stimulate collagen production.
- Garlic contains sulfur, an important component for collagen production, as well as lipoic acid and taurine which help rebuild damaged collagen fibre.