Alex Knott MA VetMB MRCVS
It's that time of year again....the shoes are off and the hunters are out in the field enjoying their holidays. For injury recovery a long holiday may be advantageous. But for those horses with arthritic changes, staying in light work is better for joint health and the overall well-being of the horse.
Osteoarthritis (damaged cartilage) occurs due to trauma. The joints become swollen and painful which often manifests itself as lameness. In more severe cases there may be a reduced range of movement of the joints making the horse more vulnerable to injury.
From a veterinary perspective we have an extensive armoury of treatments; from targeting specific joints with intra-articular injections, to treating multiple joints with systemic medications. Intra-articular steroids are relatively cheap and still the most effective treatment for reducing inflammation within a joint. More elegant and expensive therapeutics have recently come to the market, from biological products (PRP and IRAP), to shock absorbing plastics (Arthramid). Which particular treatment is appropriate for your horse depends on a multitude of factors and should be discussed with your vet.
However, this is where I talk myself out of a job. Every summer I look at hunters coming back into work that are really quite lame due to their arthritis. In humans, the first two NICE (National Institute for health and care excellence) non-pharmacological recommendations for osteoarthritis are, exercise and weight loss. In hunters these two recommendations are better than any therapeutic I can offer.
Many of these horses do require some maintenance treatments during the season but the biggest improvement in soundness is always seen when the horses come back into work, get fit and lose weight.
I would recommend we can get more from our hunters, have less veterinary intervention and reduce injury risk if we keep them in light work through the summer. The off season does have its place for specific injury recovery but can contribute to a worsening arthritic state. So if you have the opportunity, please keep your hunter in work, enjoy the summer evenings hacking and look forward to the approaching season in the knowledge you are improving your horse for many seasons to come (and reducing your vet bills!).