Just as your own joints may ache more in the winter, older, arthritic horses feel the cold more than their younger herdmates. Scientists don’t fully understand why joints hurt more in the cold, but changes in barometric pressure, colder ambient temperatures and reduced exercise all seem to contribute. Older, arthritic horses are often stiff under saddle during the winter months, taking longer to warm up at the beginning of a ride. Some never work out of the stiffness and remain in a continual state of discomfort. Aching joints aren’t just uncomfortable, though; they can make it difficult for an old horse to stand again after lying down for REM sleep. If the horse also has any weakness or neurological issues, “difficulty” can become a life-threatening “inability.”
But there are things you can do to help your horse through the cold season:
• Plan ahead: If your horse has had any history of joint pain, don’t wait until winter exacerbates the situation to act. If he’s not already on a supplement formulated to protect joint health, you may want to start him on one. If your horse is already on a supplement, talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of increasing the dosage.
• Keep your horse moving. Regular exercise keeps joints lubricated and the muscles that support them toned. Plan now to have a place —ideally, an area with good footing, adequate shelter and friendly herdmates—where your older horse can be turned out every single day of winter. There may be days when even that space isn’t suitable, so put a backup plan in place, such as turnout in an indoor arena or even hand-walking up and down the barn aisle for 30 minutes twice a day. You don’t want any horse to spend an entire day in a stall this winter, but it’s particularly important to avoid leaving your aging horse idle throughout the day.
• Ask your veterinarian about medications that can help: If, despite your best efforts, your older horse’s arthritis acts ups in the cold weather, medication may be appropriate. Talk to your veterinarian about starting a course of phenylbutazone. This non-steroidal anti-inflammatory is effective but can be hard on a horse’s kidneys. Your veterinarian may want to draw blood to ensure your horse’s renal function is normal before you begin regular dosing with “bute.” An alternative is firocoxib, a different class of anti-inflammatory drug with fewer side effects. It’s more expensive but may be the best choice for long-term regular use.
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