Free, Easy and FAST – How to Support Joint Health and Function with Nutrition

Free, Easy and FAST – How to Support Joint Health and Function with Nutrition

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It is said that “diet is the foundation of health,” and I couldn’t agree more. When we, OR our horses have lost some element of health, it’s the first place we must look.

Unfortunately however, sometimes it’s the last. And often, the health issue exists because we didn’t pay close enough attention to it to begin with.

“When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need.” – Ancient Proverb

Take the case of my previous horse, Mark ta Fly, aka “Peanut” whose athletic career was cut short by what vets. believed was Osteochondritis Dissecans presenting as cartilage damage in his stifles at the tender age of four.

Peanut's first ride was a total non-event.
Relaxing with a leg cocked – Peanut’s first ride was a total non-event.

Although it’s challenging to pin-point the exact cause in cases like his, Veterinary experts suspect that nutritional imbalances in fast growing youngsters to be the root of OCD. Some also believe there could be a genetic component.

I did everything I could to support Peanut’s still developing body when I started him as a colt. Keeping things light wasn’t a problem because he was so easy to start. Although he didn’t start showing subtle symptoms of a problem until age four, there’s a good chance Peanut had compromised stifles long before I ever met him as a long yearling.

But it’s what we don’t know that can hurt us, and our horses. My goal for today’s post is to empower you with education so that you DO know… and so that it WON’T hurt – your heart, your checkbook, your goals OR your horse’s body!

Whether or not we come across joint issues that were believed to have developed in early in infancy, or whether the problem could have been at least in part genetic or conformation related, or even whether we’re dealing with arthritis in an aged, retired horse, managing wear and tear, or just trying to keep our healthy competition horses going strong – there is ONE major thing that impacts ALL these joint concerns.


As barrel racers, many of us know all about the wide variety of oral joint supplements that flood the market. Many are also familiar of the common practice of injecting sore joints to calm inflammation and restore pain-free mobility.

But just like I always encourage you do to (when it comes to horsemanship, or otherwise) – let’s go deeper than that. While joint injections may sometimes be necessary and extremely beneficial, it’s still a way of treating a symptom, not necessarily a cause.

A barrel horse's joints take a beating - feed (and ride) accordingly!
A barrel horse’s joints take a beating – feed (and ride) accordingly!

Of course barrel horse’s joints take a beating, but don’t believe for a second that your horse requires invasive maintenance just because he runs fast and turns hard. The wear and tear to our horse’s body created by the high demands of the sport is no doubt part of the problem, but it is still only a part.

If we overlook this piece, we’re denying ourselves opportunity to create an authentic and strong foundation of health and wellness.

In How to Restore and Maintain Soundness with Quality Movement and Healthy Biomechanics, I shared how I restored my husband’s horse to soundness with healthy biomechanics alone. I simply changed the way Dot Com moved and used his body.

Movement, like diet, can work for us OR against us.

Healthy, balanced movement, like a healthy, balanced diet, can be like healing therapy, OR lack of it can be the very thing that destroys our horse’s soundness and health.

Even more important to realize is that IF we can use movement and diet to correct and heal problems, then we can also use it to prevent problems. Today I’m happy to be sharing how we can use diet to prevent and even resolve joint problems in barrel horses.

A couple weeks ago, I shared how we can best “Feed for Speed.” The specific areas of our horses diet we pay special attention to depends what sort of support or result we want to achieve. We know that sugar/carbs and fat are sources of energy, that protein is the building block for muscles, etc.

When it comes to joint health, one the most important areas to explore is mineral consumption, or mineral absorption to be exact.

The amounts of magnesium, calcium, sulfur, and phosphorus, etc. that our horses take in through their diet, as well as how those minerals work together and therefore are utilized, plays a huge part in whether our horse’s bones and joints will be strong and healthy or weakened and compromised.

Think of it this way – if our horse’s mineral intake is out of whack, they may have “extra” circulating through their body which for the most part gets excreted. But when there are little repetitive tweaks to the joints accompanied by a minor inflammatory response, the horse’s natural healing cycle kicks in in an effort to decrease mobility as a way to “splint” and protect the hurt area.

Peanut showing promise on the Heel-O-matic!
Peanut showing promise on the Heel-O-matic!

All that is well and good when it triggers a little pain and swelling, or at least it was for horses in the stone age – it forced them to take it easy for a little while. This was easily possible because the horses that lived thousands of years ago didn’t have to run barrels on the weekends, they just needed to heal quickly enough to survive. Limited range of motion was a better option than being lunch to a predator.

When this inflammation crops up, most times it’s biochemical effect occurring subtly under the surface without us ever even knowing. But within your horse’s joints, enzymes may be attacking the smooth cartilage that covers the joints, causing it to deteriorate.

An example of the joint/diet connection can be easily made by looking to sulfur. It’s one of the major building blocks that make cartilage stiff. You can imagine that a diet deficient in sulfur would not support joint health. We all know that calcium is important for strong bones, but if there is excess calcium circulating in the body with subtly but repetitively inflamed joints, it’s believed that the calcium is more likely to get laid down in the joint at those inflammation sites to “protect it.”

But this is not necessarily what we want to keep our horses fast and free! When the wear and tear that comes along with life as a barrel horse is combined with an imbalanced diet, and when the two co-exist long enough, our horses will begin to show symptoms of soreness. Over time, cartilage degrades and layers of bony growth may even settle in joints until mobility starts to really become compromised and a very effective “brace” has been created – by this time causing serious discomfort and limited mobility.

In “Joint Health,” BHN November, 2007, with Dr. Gayle Trotter author Bridget Cook stated “Sore joints are usually caused by soft-tissue inflammation. These soft-tissues include the joint capsule and the synovial membrane, as well as some joint associated ligaments. Persistent joint inflammation sets the stage for ultimate cartilage degeneration, which can result in permanent lameness problems from arthritis. Good joint health can be promoted by understanding the inflammatory and degenerative process of joints and joint uses different nutrients to maintain and rebuild themselves.”

On the way to Peanut's first show.
On the way to Peanut’s first show.

Again what this means is that those tweaks to the joint that start out as soft tissue “mirco-injuries” lend to inflammation and over time lead to cartilage damage and even bony changes that can and will put the brakes on your barrel racing dreams.

It’s not enough to just throw more than adequate amounts of vitamin, mineral, and joint-specific supplements at your horses in hopes that they’ll get what they need and excrete the rest. This is because of how each of the minerals depend on and interact with each other to actually provide appropriate levels of what their bodies need. Mineral imbalances are a bigger and more common problem than mineral deficiencies.

A great way to become more informed and confident in this area as I see it is through hay and/or pasture nutrient analysis and working with an Equine Nutritionist to balance your horse’s diet.

There’s even more to supporting joints through balanced minerals of course (zinc and copper are also very important), because as I’ve mentioned it’s injured soft tissues in and around joints where problems often begin, and the first victim of attack is the smooth cartilage layer that covers the surfaces of joints.

Below I’ve listed some of the more common ingredients in equine joint supplements.

  • Cetyl Myristoleate (CM) – Causes lymphocytes to produce fewer inflammatory mediators.
  • Omega 3’s – Calms down inflammation by suppressing prostaglandin formation.
  • Glucosamine – Amino sugar that helps build, maintain and replenish cartilage components.
  • Condroiton Sulfate – A structural component of cartilage, prevents further breakdown.
  • Vitamin C – Essential for the health of connective tissues (too much can cause damage).
  • Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) – A potent source of sulfur, a building block of cartilage.
  • Hyaluronic Acid (HA) – A naturally occurring lubricant in joints important for maintaining cartilage.
  • Devils Claw, Yucca, Boswellia – Herbs believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
He might have made a rodeo horse!
He might have made a rodeo horse!

While there are also mineral supplements today (such as CalDensity and Equi-Bone, which our horses have benefited from) that are effectively improving bone density and the quality of life of many horses, it’s my belief that your best bet when it comes to creating a solid foundation of health is to start by analyzing the source.

Your horse’s nutritional foundation is based on their main source of nutrients, which will always be forage.

Understanding what truly creates “balanced equine nutrition” can seem like an endless endeavor. I can only take you so deep in today’s post, but I hope that I’ve at least taken your understanding on supporting joint health especially, deeper then it was before.

In Feed for SPEED – How to Fuel Fast-Twitch Muscles for Faster Times! I challenged you to get your hay and/or pasture nutrient tested so you know what your baseline is for creating a healthy, balanced diet.

Today, I challenge you to research one of the four resource links I’ve included at the bottom of this post to even further empower your own foundational understanding of precisely how to ensure your barrel horse is free AND fast!

What you don’t know can not only hurt you, it can seriously jeopardize or even end your beloved barrel horse’s career.

A joint disease stopped my young superstar in his tracks. Peanut’s OCD may not have been something I could have prevented, but through my experience I learned how to better support my existing horse’s joints and hope that because of him, you have too.

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