Osteoarthritis can be an insidious process and a common consequence of aging. Learn how            horses’ joints inevitably wear with age and how to keep them comfortable in this article


If you are lucky to own a horse long enough, you’ll start to notice and understand the intricacies of aging. Your senior horse might have trouble chewing, his diet might need adjusting, and, most likely, he’ll start moving at a slower pace. Osteoarthritis (OA) can be an insidious process and a common consequence of aging.  Lets find out how horses’ joints inevitably wear with age and how to keep them comfortable.


While age is not a disease, aging predisposes horses to a number of conditions, especially OA. Formerly known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), OA can be unavoidable in geriatric equids. Joint surfaces are covered with cartilage, which acts as a buffer to keep the joint surface happy.

“OA is characterized by chronic and progressive deterioration of cartilage between two bones called the articular surface,” says Anne Marie Skiffington, DVM, of Ocean State Equine Associates, in North Scituate, Rhode Island. “OA simply begins with any sort of destruction to the articular surface of cartilage.” Each joint contains a finite amount of cartilage. While you can take a variety of steps to protect the cartilage, you can’t replace it. When horses experience a net loss of articular cartilage, says Skiffington, veterinarians categorize their condition as end-stage OA. This progressive condition is extremely painful and might be refractory to analgesic medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Often, euthanasia is the kindest option in cases of end-stage OA.

We see two facets of OA in the equine community. It is the most common cause of performance issues in sport horses and can be detected early in life. In older horses, however, OA can be a reluctant rite of passage, a simple aging process. Furthermore, it can follow them from their younger years to their old age. Bony changes can develop secondary to developmental issues, high-impact performance stress, trauma, or simply decades of wear and tear.

Clinical Signs of Osteoarthritis

Mature horses can develop OA months to years prior to showing any clinical lameness. And it can start off very subtly, mostly as mild performance issues. In geriatric horses, however, the game is a little different. Elderly horses with OA have likely had it for years, and it progresses and worsens with every passing year. “Pain, swelling of the joint, heat, pain and crepitus (crackling or grating bone) on flexion, and decreased range of motion, are all commonly seen. You might also see joint deformation, particularly of the knees and fetlocks. These joints undergo such extensive bony changes that the external architecture can transform to the naked eye.

Management Tools

While we can’t cure OA, we can take steps to manage it. In sport horses, performance is often the driving force behind joint therapies. In geriatrics, however, the goal is pain management.