What Should I Know About Cold Ther­apy?

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Q I know cold ther­apy is an op­tion for my horse, but I’m not sure how to use it. For in­stance, how long should I ice my horse’s legs, when do I use hot ver­sus cold ther­apy and why should I ice my horse af­ter a work­out?

Name with­held by re­quest


For acute in­jury to soft tis­sues, in­clud­ing fas­cia, mus­cle, ten­don and/or lig­a­ment tis­sue, ice is of­ten the first and best treat­ment. Vet­eri­nar­i­ans tend to rec­om­mend ice for the first 24 to 72 hours post-in­jury, but times can vary depend­ing on the lo­ca­tion and sever­ity of the in­jury. For laminitic horses the stan­dard pro­to­col is to ice the feet for the first 72 hours to re­duce the in­flam­ma­tion in the hoof, which starts al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter a trig­ger­ing event. The faster you can halt the in­flam­ma­tory re­sponse the bet­ter the horse’s chance of re­cov­ery will be.

When ic­ing your horse, it is im­por­tant to keep in mind that the treat­ment method needs to stay at a ther­a­peu­tic level of cold long enough to re­duce the tem­per­a­ture in the horse’s limbs. For post-work­out care most vet­eri­nar­i­ans rec­om­mend 30 to 45 min­utes of cool­ing. Peo­ple some­times won­der if the hoof will freeze if set in ice for too long, but this is not a concern. The thick hoof cap­sule (horny wall and sole) helps pro­tect in­ner tis­sues of the foot. When feet start to get cold, blood can flow from the small­est ar­ter­ies di­rectly into the veins with­out hav­ing to pass through the smaller cap­il­lar­ies. The horse has de­vel­oped this pro­tec­tive mech­a­nism to keep his feet from freez­ing.

The use of hot ver­sus cold ther­apy also de­pends on the in­jury. Ap­ply­ing ice can im­prove a va­ri­ety of soft-tis­sue in­juries by de­creas­ing blood flow to the dam­aged area and slow­ing the me­tab­o­lism of the sur­round­ing tis­sue so it is less likely to suf­fer dam­age from swelling and con­stric­tion. Heat ther­apy is best for chronic pain and in­juries with­out swelling. A gen­eral rule of thumb: Use ice for acute in­juries or pain and with in­flam­ma­tion and swelling. Use heat for mus­cle pain or stiff­ness.

Ice and cold ther­apy af­ter a work­out help to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion whether you see it or not. Heat in the ten­dons, lig­a­ments and joints cre­ates cel­lu­lar dam­age, which can lead to ten­don dam­age, lig­a­ment dam­age and arthri­tis in the joints. These con­di­tions will ul­ti­mately af­fect your horse’s sound­ness.

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