The legs of a horse are its foundation. All the weight, force and movement of the animal depend on four strong legs. If you take support away from one leg, the other three have to take up the additional pressure, leading to complications. Stiff joints can be caused by a variety of issues, and knowledge is key to treatment.
The significance of stiff joints is manifold. All the pressure and weight of the horse's body is directed into the joints and feet, which must be healthy for proper movement. When a joint, such as the knee, hock or fetlock, is stiffened with pain or swelling, the horse can become lame and even crippled. Finding the source of the problem is imperative, and fixing it to the best of your ability is essential for a happy, healthy horse.
The most common cause of joint stiffness is arthritis. Just as in humans, overuse will cause damage in the joints, leading to arthritis. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, while shoulder stiffness does happen, the majority of stiff joints occur from the elbow or hock down to the hoof. Swelling, cartilage and bone degeneration and bone spurs all can lead to ongoing arthritis problems. Injury can also cause stiffness. A misstep, or trauma, can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints. The main cause of the actual stiffness is swelling as the inflammation keeps the joint from moving smoothly.
Stiff joints can be temporary from an injury that can and will heal, or they can be permanent from arthritis and other conditions that can be treated but never cured. In overuse injuries, rest and other treatment often can solve the problem and the horse can be returned to normal activity. In the case of permanent damage such as arthritis or bone spurs, long-term treatment is the only option. According to Texas-based veterinarian Dr. Robert Judd, up to 60 percent of lameness issues are caused by arthritis so owners should be prepared for the possibility of lifelong care.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, for short-term injuries anti-inflammatory medication, hydrotherapy, icing and bracing and rest often will do the trick, along with time and physical therapy. A veterinarian can advise on when the injury is healed and the horse can be returned to normal work. In long-term cases, where the damage cannot be cured, a steady dose of anti-inflammatories, daily hydrotherapy, icing, bracing, rest when soreness is worst and ongoing physical therapy and gentle exercise will keep the horse at its best.
Be realistic when looking at stiff joints in the horse. If you intend to use the animal for gentle pleasure riding or just to enjoy, stiffness and some lameness are not really issues and can be treated with a relatively high degree of success for light riding. But when considering an animal for high-impact us, including racing, competing, jumping, or other heavy performance, a horse of any age with stiff joints is not a good choice.