Treating arthritis in your horse

It's one of the most common causes of lameness affecting many horses as they age. Vet Matthew Tong explains the latest on this debilitating disease.

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The best way to prevent and manage arthritis is to ensure your horse's body is working as efficiently as it can. 

Regular farrier visits to balance the feet and help prevent uneven loading on the joints, keeping your horse at his ideal weight, and a regular, sensible exercise plan will all go a long way to helping your horse's joints work as nature intended. 

It's also a good idea to make sure your horse is always well warmed up before strenuous exercise and well cooled down after to help protect his joints from excess wear and tear.

A good quality joint supplement that boosts your horse's levels of glucosamine and chondroitin (both help to build healthy cartilage) is recommended, and your vet will be able to advise you as to which product to invest in. 

While many people reach for this kind of supplement only when stiffness becomes an issue, it may be more beneficial to give it long-term, from a younger age, especially if your horse is conformationally challenged. For example, if he's pigeon-toed. 

Arthritis: The key facts

  • Arthritis is one of the leading causes of lameness in the UK, and is believed to be responsible for 60% of all cases. 
  • Today's more sophisticated diagnosis tools include nuclear scintigraphy (better known as a bone scan) a radioactive substance that is injected that 'binds' to areas of active bony change within a joint. 
  • These can then be picked up hot spots by a scanner. An MRI scan - which can also be used on the horse's lower leg - can also be used to detect changes in the joint and it's surrounding soft tissue.
  • Riding too fast or hard over poor terrain - be it hard, soft or boggy - can increase the chances of joint trauma and in turn predispose the joint to arthritis. So it's vital you ride with care. 

Kissing spines explained

Kissing spines is a painful condition for those suffering from it. Here, vet David Rutherford from Fellowes Farm Equine Clinic explains more about the condition and the different treatment options available.

The term ‘Kissing spines’ is a term used to describe a condition where the pieces of bone that project upwards from a horse’s back bone (the dorsal spinous processes, or DSPs) become too close together and start to grate on each other, causing pain.

It’s most commonly found in the middle of a horse’s back under the saddle region, but can occur anywhere along the spine. It’s a progressive condition that usually affects horses aged between seven and 14 and is quite common in larger breeds, particularly Thoroughbreds, but rare in ponies.

Bucking can be an early indicator of a problem in your horse's back

Bucking can be an early indicator of a problem in your horse's back

Horses with kissing spines will struggle to perform well under saddle, and show signs of pain in their back – though this discomfort can present itself in different ways. The first thing you may notice is a lack of forward movement, especially in canter. Bucking, refusing jumps or reacting when the girth is tightened or the rider mounts are other signs.

To diagnose kissing spines, the first step is usually to take radiographs of the DSPs. Kissing spines is suspected when the gap between the DSPs narrows and, in some cases, the bones are touching. Often the bony margins will have areas of increased density (which shows as white on an x-ray) and areas where the bone has partly dissolved (black on an x-ray).

In very severe cases the diagnosis may be based on x-rays alone, but this can be problematic as some horses with quite nasty radiographic abnormalities can in fact be completely pain-free in this area. Therefore either bone scanning, or nerve blocking the area and observing an improvement in ridden performance, is usually necessary to confirm the problem.

Can you prevent it?
As kissing spines is a naturally occurring, progressive condition, prevention isn’t possible. There are, however, some things that can be done to help reduce the risk. Experts believe there’s likely to be a genetic component to kissing spines, so breeding from known sufferers should be considered very carefully. In addition, it’s wise to avoid any ridden exercise until a horse is approaching his or her skeletal maturity at three to four years of age. This will give his bones the best chance to develop as they should.

Before you buy a horse, ask your vet to take survey radiographs of his back as part of the pre-purchase exam. Sadly, if a defect is found, this won’t mean the horse will avoid developing kissing spines in the future, but it will at least minimise your risk as a potential buyer.

Finally, bear in mind that the condition is worsened by the action of riding your horse, so symptoms will develop quicker the more work you do with him.

How is it treated?
Once a diagnosis of kissing spines has been confirmed one of three routes can be taken:

1. Medical
While it won’t cure the problem, medical treatment will allow the horse to continue working. Treatment consists of a combination of oral painkillers, anti-inflammatory cortisone injections into the affected part of the back, physiotherapy and altered training methods. This will improve the situation, but rarely resolves it and, as the condition worsens, it becomes less effective.

Surgery can be used to create a larger gap between the impinging bones in cases of Kissing Spines

Surgery can be used to create a larger gap between the impinging bones in cases of Kissing Spines

 2. Surgical treatment
Surgery can be used to create a larger gap between the impinging bones. In some situations wedges of bone are removed, and in others splitting the ligament between the bones is sufficient. Often the procedure is carried out under standing sedation with local anaesthetic, rather than under full general anaesthesia. The exact method of treatment will depend on how severe the impingement is, and on the preferences of surgeon and owner.

3. No treatment
No treatment will ultimately result in retirement or euthanasia. 

To learn more about Fellowes Farm Equine Clinic visit

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Spot the signs of Gastric Ulcers

Zoetis image of ulcer

Equine Gastric Ulceration Syndrome (EGUS) can affect any type of horse or foal in any environment. If your horse is displaying any unusual signs such as poor appetite, body condition and performance, changes in attitude or acute, recurrent colic it’s important to speak to your vet immediately, advises Zoetis vet Dr Wendy Talbot.

Equine Gastric Ulceration Syndrome (EGUS) is a serious and common condition,1,2 with approximately 93%of racehorses, 65% of performance horses, 54% of leisure horses and 50% of foals shown to be affected.2,3,4 The condition is associated with injury to the inner lining of the oesophagus, stomach and upper part of the intestine.2

Horses produce a steady flow of stomach acid to help digestion.1 As a protective mechanism their naturally acidic stomach contents are buffered by alkaline saliva produced in response to regular eating and by the food itself.2 Our domestication of horses, particularly stabling and restriction of grazing, has reduced the time our horses spend eating, resulting in prolonged periods when the stomach is empty, causing reduced production of saliva. In addition feeding grain (rather than fibre) can produce types of acid which contribute to the already acidic environment of the stomach.1

The usual signs of EGUS may include poor appetite, poor body condition, poor performance, changes in attitude and acute and recurrent colic.  In adult horses clinical signs may appear or progress as training intensity, speed and workload increase.2 However, in some horses the signs may be vague. In foals the signs may be very subtle and progress rapidly so it is important to contact your vet immediately if you have any concerns.2

There are many risk factors that may cause your horse or foal to suffer from gastric ulcers. These include stress, intense exercise, a high-grain diet, intermittent feeding, inappropriate management and other illnesses.1,2,4 The only accurate way to definitively diagnose or monitor EGUS is by gastroscopy,1 which involves a vet examining your horse’s oesophagus, stomach and upper part of the intestine using a gastroscope.

Wendy Talbot, vet at Zoetis, said: “EGUS is a serious condition but once diagnosed it can usually be treated very effectively with management changes and orally administered therapy to help the ulcers heal. If you think your horse could be suffering from EGUS you must contact your vet immediately.”

1 Bell RJ, et al. Equine gastric ulcer syndrome in adult horses: a review. NZ Vet J 2007; 55 (1): 1-12. 2 Picavet M-Th. EQUINE GASTRIC ULCER SYNDROME. Proceedings of the First European Equine Nutrition & Health Congress. February 9 2002. Antwerp Zoo, Belgium.. 3. Murray MJ, et al. Prevalence of gastric lesions in foals without signs of gastric disease: an endoscopic survey. Equine Vet J 1990; 22(1): 6-8. 4. Sykes BW, et al. European College of Equine Internal Medicine Consensus Statement—Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome in Adult Horses. J Vet Intern Med 2015;29:1288–1299

About Zoetis
Zoetis is the leading animal health company, dedicated to supporting its customers and their businesses. Building on more than 60 years of experience in animal health, Zoetis discovers, develops, manufactures and markets veterinary vaccines and medicines, complemented by diagnostic products and genetic tests and supported by a range of services. In 2014, the company generated annual revenue of $4.8 billion. With approximately 10,000 employees worldwide at the beginning of 2015, Zoetis serves veterinarians, livestock producers and people who raise and care for farm and companion animals with sales of its products in 120 countries. For more information, visit

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Common Leg Problems: Tendonitis

See a swelling on your horse’s leg and your first reaction might be to panic - will it take ages to mend, cost me a fortune and potentially affect his future? But don’t panic. With good management, most leg problems can be prevented and early intervention from your vet will more often than not lead to successful treatment.

What is it? 

This is a broad term referring to the inflammation of a tendon. Tendon injuries are one of the most common musculoskeletal problems. The superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) is the most frequently affected tendon, with the injury usually occurring at the mid-canon level. Tendonitis can be caused by both intrinsic (strain or displacement) and extrinsic (bruising, penetration, laceration) factors. Intrinsic problems are common in equine athletes, but rare in ponies.

Diagnosis and treatment

In most cases, heat, pain and swelling of the SDFT can be felt over the back of the canon bone. Severe cases will have a ‘bowed’ appearance and may also show over-extension of the fetlock joint when the horse puts his weight on the leg. The degree of lameness is related to the degree of inflammation and not necessarily the extent of the actual tendon damage, so investigation is important. Ultrasonographic examination of the tendons is the best way to confirm the type and extent of the injury. The best time for the first ultrasound scan is between four and seven days after the injury.

The leg should then be scanned at regular intervals to monitor healing. Numerous treatments have been described for tendonitis. During the acute stage (up to three days after injury), cold therapy, support bandages, rest and anti-inflammatories are recommended. There are also a variety of medications for direct administration into the tendon.

Recently, the use of stem cells has received particular interest. These cells are the precursors to all the cells in the body. The benefit of their use in tendon injuries is related to the method of tendon repair. Tendons are unable to regenerate new fibres following injury and instead heal through the formation of scar tissue. Stem cells are stimulated to become new tendon cells (tenocytes), which means the tendon heals through regeneration of normal fibres instead of scar tissue. Scar tissue is prone to injury again, so the use of stem cells could help the horse stay sound. However, the mainstay of treatment for tendonitis remains the controlled return to exercise. The timing and intensity of this should be dictated by the ultrasonographic appearance of the affected tendon.


Appropriate early conditioning of young horses will improve the quality of the growing tendon tissue, making them more resistant to subsequent injury. Careful attention should also be paid to speed, ground surface, fatigue, shoeing and weight of rider. Protective boots will help prevent extrinsic causes of tendonitis.