Joint Care Tips with Andrea Fappani

Learn from NRHA $7 Million Rider Andrea Fappani about caring for your horse's joints at home no matter what discipline you're riding.

Performance horses have a lot of stress put on their joints, especially in an event like the reining. That’s why joint care and maintenance is such an important part of my training program. Maneuvers like the sliding stop and spins put pressure on even the most athletic horse’s body but there are some things we can do to keep them feeling and moving their best. Keep reading to see what tips I have for you to do at home with your own horse.

Joint care tips from Andrea Fappani
Maneuvers in the reining put a lot of stress on a horse’s joints, but there are some things we can do for joint care to keep them feeling their best.

Give Them Time

I am a strong believer in giving young horses the time they need to fully develop before pushing them. Every few months, especially when starting two-year-olds, I’ll gradually increase their workload to help them strengthen and develop their joints and muscles. Because young horses are constantly growing and changing, I don’t like to inject any of their joints until they’re finished developing. We need to let nature take its course with these horses before we start intervening.

More from Andrea: Invisible Riding Cues

I will monitor their movement and flexibility very closely once I start working a young horse. If I feel they’re getting a little sore in their hocks and stifles or notice a build-up of fluid, I’ll back off on their training. Every horse is different, so I try not to put them all in the same group when it comes to their training and maintenance program.

Muscle Matters

We’re putting a lot of stress on these horses’ bodies so one thing I pay really close attention to is the way each horse is built structurally. A long-lasting performance horse needs to be strong with good bone structure and feet. It’s the amount of muscle weight they have on them that can end up doing damage if you aren’t careful. Just because you have a horse that’s strong, doesn’t mean his joints are ready to handle the weight of all that muscle. So when you’re working 2- and 3-year-olds, be conscious of how much muscle their joints are ready for. Remember, a lot of muscle isn’t always a good thing.

Stay Hands-On

I’ve mentioned a few times already in this article that I am constantly keeping an eye on my horses’ health. In fact, I always look over every horse I ride without any boots or leg wraps on beforehand. If I can’t see their joints because they have something already on, I’m not going to assume that everything is fine underneath. I like to go a step further and take a very hands-on approach to the horses I’m riding. I’m often the one wrapping my horses’ legs and I think that’s something that all riders should be doing.

Constantly putting your hands (and eyes) on your horse is one of the best things you can do to keep track of their joint-care health. If you catch signs of joint irritation early on, there are a lot of things you can do to prevent a future injury.

Some signs of joint irritation I look for are:

  • Fluid build-up around the ankles
  • Fluid build-up in front of the coffin joint
  • Any fluid build-up near the hock

If your horse has any of these it’s a good indication there’s irritation in their joint.

I like to get a baseline of joint x-rays in a horse’s 2- and 3-year-old years to have on hand to reference in case something does go wrong. This also helps me and my vet keep an eye on how the horse’s joints are developing over time. Because most of the horses I’m riding are in a pretty rigorous training program, I have my vet put his hands on them and flex every joint at least once every sixty days. This probably isn’t necessary for most performance horses, but because reining horses do have a lot of impact on their joints, this helps me prevent any major issues from occurring. Talk to your vet about the workload you have for your horse and come up with a plan where you’re both keeping an eye on him.

Be Preventative

While I do work with a lot of young horses, I also have quite a few older ones in my program. Following the guidelines I talked about earlier in this article when they’re young is a huge help in preventing joint issues when they’re older, but that’s not always an option. There are a lot of things you can do for your horse, no matter his age, that will help maintain and protect his joints.

Nutrition and providing your horse with the vitamins they need to stay healthy is one of the most important things you can do for him. I feed vitamin E and hyaluronic acid to all of my horses, which both play a role in joint health and keeping inflammation down. It’s also important to keep each horse on a feed that is right for them. A senior performance horse might need extra fat and protein than a 3-year-old that isn’t being worked as hard. Be sure to pay attention to the ingredients you feed.

Learn More: Horse Joint Supplement Breakdown

Another tip for maintaining your horse’s joint care and preventing injuries is by tailoring to their needs. I have many different exercises that I use in my daily riding routine but each horse has their own specific plan. Each reining maneuver that I teach is going to stress the horse’s joints one way or another so as a trainer and horseman, I don’t just drill the same thing over and over again. I focus on where the horse is weakest and work on things that will help him improve and build strength.

Try This Exercise

One of the exercises I do with all of my horses is jogging. This might not seem like a special joint-related exercise, but it helps me feel if there’s asymmetry in their hind end, which can be a sign of a stiff or irritated joint. I try to feel as much of what’s going on underneath me as possible, meaning stride changes in tight circles, the length of their stride, and how they carry themselves.

The most important part of being a good horseman or -woman is listening to what your horse is trying to tell you. Being proactive in their joint maintenance with all of the tips I mentioned above is a great way to care for them, but in the end, you must know your horse and feel your horse.

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