Many of us experience noticeable body stiffness in cold weather. It should be no surprise that horses do too.
Your horse doesn’t have to be a senior or have pre-existing problems to develop winter stiffness – although those things can certainly make it worse. There are even horses that function quite well in the warmer months but have so much trouble with the cold that they may find themselves unable to get up from the ground without assistance.
Research has shown us the effects of cold on a variety of body tissues. Muscles reflexively become shorter and stiffer, to the point that forceful stretching may cause damage. Energy generation is compromised because hemoglobin does not give up its oxygen to the muscles as easily as it does in warm weather.
Cold also alters the properties of tendons and ligaments. Flexibility decreases and the force required to passively move these ‘frozen’ joints may increase by as much as 25% with cold exposure. The reduced flexibility is accompanied by considerable stiffness.
The changes in muscle and tendon contribute to difficulty with moving the joints but there are changes in the joints themselves as well. Cold has been found to increase sensitivity to joint pain. Cold may also interfere with the normal flow characteristics of joint fluid, reducing lubrication. Cold can even increase the expression of genes coding for inflammation.
The first step in mitigating the effects of cold on your horse is to keep him as warm as possible. That means shelter from winds and wet weather. If you have a horse that obviously suffers with stiffness don’t hesitate to blanket. While some joints are inaccessible, you can use Neoprene wraps for the knees and hocks with lined shipping boots on the lower legs.
Exercise is a great way to loosen things up and improve muscle function but you need to be cautious. Stiffened tissues are damaged more easily and the horse may not be moving normally if certain areas hurt more than others. Known problem areas will benefit from a few minutes of brisk massage with a warming liniment before exercise. Allow extra time for a long slow warm up.
Joint support supplements can also be very helpful. In addition to the joint nutraceuticals glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid, look for MSM, Boswellia, Turmeric, Devil’s Claw and other antioxidants.
There can be a big difference between surviving and thriving in cold weather. If your horse is struggling with cold-induced stiffness, take action.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD