August 23, 2021
There are so many aspects of horsemanship - from feed, turnout, and exercise to grooming, veterinary care, and their comfort. It's no wonder we spend so much time at the barn. When it comes to your horse's comfort, making sure his muscles, joints, and soft tissues stay healthy is a top priority, and therapeutic treatments can help.
Why would your horse need a special treatment?
Horses are athletes - no matter the discipline. But all horses benefit from more than just grooming and a carrot after a ride. Like humans, a horse's body has wear and tear, past injuries, arthritis, stiffness, and soreness. Adding beneficial treatments into your horse care routine helps your athlete feel better.
Professional therapies for horses may include chiropractic adjustments, laser therapies, massage, or acupuncture. Horse lovers can also add support in the form of warming and cooling treatments.
Heat therapies, or warming treatments, work to loosen your horse's body. Usually done before a ride, they serve to prep your horse's body for movement and exercise. The matter of warming up your horse is quite literal.
Cooling therapies serve to reduce inflammation in the body. As your horse trains, repetitive motions and heat in the legs can influence those wear and tear patterns that occur, both through aging and exercise. Cooling therapies also provide natural pain relief.
Heat therapies for horses
Heat works by using its energy to speed up a cell's metabolism. As a result, more oxygen is needed in those cells, and the blood vessels expand to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to the area.
You may imagine that heat therapies involve microwaving something or using a blowdryer on the hot setting. But, it's much easier to warm your horse up with a long walk or even a lunge. Motion is lotion, and warming lotion at that. Or, try some other topical treatments like liniments or therapeutic blankets.
Horse liniments work by acting as counter-irritant. Liniments first serve to cool the area as witch hazel, alcohol, and sometimes acetone evaporate. After 15 minutes or so, the warming sensations take over. The other ingredients, usually camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol, irritate the skin. This sensitivity causes the localized blood supply to increase and bring in warmth.
If you need to target one area of your horse's body, opt for a gel, lotion, or spray. Liniments are also available in body wash formulas to use as a whole body rinse. Some of these washes require dilution, so read the instructions.
You will also want to compare the ingredients to your horse show organization's prohibited substance list. While liniments are topical, a horse may accidentally ingest some while scratching themselves with their teeth or lips. Capsaicin in liniments is a derivative of spicy peppers and is sometimes used to create hypersensitive legs to prompt a horse to jump higher. Several horses in the 2008 Olympics tested positive for this particular ingredient. When in doubt, check with your vet about liniment suggestions.
Using special fabrics is a fantastic way to deliver warming therapy to your horse. Your horse can wear the blanket, pad, or wrap as you do other things. One fabric, Welltex, works to change your horse's body heat into infrared heat and send it back into your horse.
The advantage of using a therapeutic fabric is the wide variety of body parts that can be covered. Sport boots and polo wraps cover lower legs, saddle pads work as you ride, and hocks and knees have form-fitting wraps.
When to use warming therapies
Horses benefit from warming up before exercise, with a chronic injury that has passed the initial days or weeks of inflammation, or after exercise.
Horses most benefit from special blankets before a ride to prepare the muscles for work. Pair this with a productive warm-up walk, and your horse will thank you.
Liniments are helpful after riding, usually not before. Because they bring such heat to a localized area, the heat your horse's body created while working may amplify this to an uncomfortable level. Save liniments for a post-ride massage instead.
Cold therapies for horses
Ice isn't the only cooling therapy. Poultice is another cooling treatment and works well in conjunction with ice treatments for maximum benefit. The cooling effects help with swelling, removing heat from legs, and provides pain relief as the tissues numb. Use your ice treatment first and follow with poultice.
A poultice treatment is a long-acting way to draw heat from a horse. Clay is the typical base of a poultice and may dry out over time. Don't toss it, instead add some water to rehydrate it.
Today's poultice options often include soothing herbs or essential oils. These additional ingredients may be more warming, as the Epsom salts poultice variation. The salt makes a drawing salve, which is wonderful for hooves. The instructions should tell you if a product is warming or cooling.
You can apply a poultice with a touch of water to the leg and leave it. You may find lots of shavings and dirt the next day, though. You can also wrap the wet clay with a paper towel and use a standing bandage for several hours.
Boots are the typical way to deliver cooling effects to a horse's legs. Most ice boot systems have an interior pack or gel that gets popped in the freezer. Some boots vibrate, some are static.
Horses should wear the ice boots for 20 to 30 minutes unless directed otherwise by your vet. To assist the leg in the initial cool off, wet the lower leg with a hose or wet cloth. Water will pick up some of the heat. As a bonus, a wet leg will also get a little cooler. It's safe to say that winter temperatures make wetting the leg a bad idea, but it's an option in warmer seasons.
Roma Ice Boot, Single Boot
After a long day of hard work, soothe your horse's hot, tired legs with the Roma Ice Boot. Simply throw this reusable boot in the freezer and securely attach it to your horse's legs for fast relief from swelling, heat, and pain. Sold individually.Shop This Product
Horseware Ireland Ice-Vibe Boots, Pair
Horseware Ireland's rechargeable vibrating massage Ice-Vibe Boots may be used before or after exercise or during rehabilitation to effectively treat and soothe strains, ligament, and tendon damage. These neoprene boots are contoured to fit your horse's lower front or hind legs with soft binding, secure, adjustable Velcro straps.Shop This Product
When to use cooling therapies
Treat fresh injuries with ice therapies, according to your vet's plan. The other time to use a cold treatment is after exercise.
Ice boots and packs can target areas that your horse may have some soreness, like hocks or stifles. Using a system on the lower legs to remove built-up heat from wearing boots is also a great idea. Targeted ice won't help cool a horse's body temperature down, but a cool shower will and is great for hot weather.
What about using both warming and cooling treatments?
There are some instances when a horse is supported with both warming and cooling help. For a horse with arthritis, warming helps stiff joints loosen up to prepare for exercise or turnout. After work or play, ice can bring down any additional inflammation brought on by stress to the joints.
You may also find that your horse has specific preferences, especially after working. Muscle soreness can be relieved by both warm and cold; it's largely subjective. The irritating ingredients of liniments may sting too much, in which case you could treat your horse's large muscle groups with a therapeutic blanket. Other horses may prefer a cooling treatment, like a cold bath, over their body.
The beauty of horses is their uniqueness. Getting to know their preferences is part of building that relationship, as is making sure their bodies and minds are well cared for.
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