Principal Body System: SkeletalDefinition: 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 - certainly to see a healthy horse in motion is a joy to watch.
The skeleton, connective tissue, muscles and joints all hold the body together, enabling it to stand, move and display the form. This brilliantly engineered mobility system is used and misused by physical wear and tear, and in the blink of an eye, problems can occur. Joint health and comfortable mobility depends not only on what use our horses are put to but also their diet, lifestyle and the metabolic condition.
If the biochemical and metabolic processes are undernourished and out of balance, the body as a whole will be under greater strain to eliminate toxins, which can build up in the connective tissue and trigger the development of arthritis, which will eventually lead to the progressive destruction of the joint itself, aka DJD.
Once a limb or joint is damaged, patience is needed for the time it needs to take to heal. Rehabilitating limb injuries can be 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.
Long and short, the most common injuries we see here at EquiNatural are when the supporting connective structure around the joints, specifically cartilage and muscle, breaks down, causing misalignment and inflammation. A vital part of the therapy is ensuring a clean, healthy bloodflow 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 blue-green algae; vitamins C and E; omega-3 fatty acids (via linseed) which are excellent potent anti-inflammatory agents; as well as certain nutrients such as sulfur, which is super-valuable for connective tissue and how it fills out the protein makeup to achieve optimal healthy and functioning musculature and overall build.
The glucosamine and chondroitin story
Studies on glucosamine and chondroitin reveal disappointing results. For years, glucosamine and chondroitin have been the go-to support for joint care, but do they work?
Here’s a quick snapshot at what these studies reveal:
- A two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, the Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT), compared glucosamine and chondroitin, both alone and together, with a prescription drug or inactive placebo for mild knee pain. Overall, there was no significant improvement in those with mild pain and limited improvement in those with moderate to severe pain with the supplements.
- A 2010 Meta-Analysis of 3,800 people with knee and hip issues found that treatment with glucosamine, chondroitin or the combination was no better than a placebo.
- A 2016 study of 164 patients with symptomatic knee concerns found that combined treatment with chondroitin and glucosamine sulfate showed no superiority over a placebo for joint pain or functional use.
- More than 20 studies looking at the effect of chondroitin on knee and hip pain have found no consistent evidence that it lessens pain.
- Several studies have looked at whether glucosamine and chondroitin can benefit joint structure. Any improvements seen were too small to make a difference to the patients.
Not great results – certainly not what you want to see if you’re hoping for real change. But that’s not all - there were a few significant side effects as well:
- Much of the glucosamine on the market is derived from shellfish, not biologically equine-appropriate and in human health a common allergen.
- Chondroitin molecules are large, making it difficult for the body to digest, with gastrointestinal upset noted in the studies.
- Glucosamine may affect how the body handles sugar, especially if there are blood sugar issues or insulin resistance.
Probably the most important factor in joint health 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.
Maintaining 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 also help boost collagen level. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E, sulfur, silica, antioxidants and the omega fatty acids are all important to collagen production.
Dehydration in the summer is a common cause of joint pain as the body’s need for fluids becomes greater as we sweat more in the heat.
I know it’s stating the obvious, but water really is a key ingredient in allowing the body to function properly, especially joints. Why? Water makes up the majority of the lubricant and cushioning in the body’s joints, particularly joint cartilage and synovial fluid, which is produced in the spaces between joints to help reduce friction and facilitate movement. Water also helps flush toxins out of the body which consequently helps to fight inflammation.
All this means that when the body becomes dehydrated, joint comfort suffers. Twin this with a rock-hard, dried-out summer paddock and you’ve got concussive impact as well.
Encourage drinking – add electrolytes or extra salt to the feedbowl and offer drinking buckets with diluted bicarb of soda in – you may find horses prefer this over regular water.
As well as upping hydration, there are also effective herbs such as Willow and Arnica, a renowned herb for bruising, to help support general summer joint pain. Our Carmen always finds the hard summer ground challenging because of her twisted hoof from birth – it doesn’t take long before she’s head-bobbing on three legs.
When this happens I give her a dessertspoon of our DuoBute into the feedbowl which effectively takes the edge off discomfort and inflammation. I also keep our ArnicaGel handy which has added witchhazel and peppermint to cool sore legs.
The good news is that joint health is an area that can be positively supported with an excellent range of nourishing herbs that can help support peripheral mobility, joint health, collagen production and alleviation of discomfort. First up we aim to alleviate the discomfort with natural anti-inflammatories such as Willow and Meadowsweet, both of which are effective analgesics as well, with Meadowsweet being particularly useful as it's also a diuretic and heptic which helps to clean and eliminate toxins. We also need alteratives, aka blood cleansers, which gradually clean and rebalance the blood - Burdock and Nettle are excellent alteratives for joint health, with Nettle being super-nutritious as well. Diuretics such as Celery Seed and Dandelion support the kidneys to eliminate the metabolic waste, and we also use Cramp Bark as an Anti-Spasmodic during arthritic muscle cramping.
Here's a list of other useful herbs:
- 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 sulfur, with garlic also high in lipoic acid and taurine to help rebuild damaged collagen fibres.
- Nettles are an ancient mineraliser, helping to build the body's own natural production of collagen with high levels of collagen co-nutrients such as calcium, silica and sulfur, making them an excellent source to help boost collagen receptors. According to some sources, one cup of infused nettles contains 300-500mg of calcium, as well as carotene, magnesium, vitamin A, B + K, potassium, and protein.
- Avena sativa is also a significant source of silica, rich in body-building components, and helps to maximise absorption of calcium into the body.
- Garlic is also high in sulfur, an important component for collagen production, as well as lipoic acid and taurine which help rebuild damaged collagen fibre.