7 Ways to get the most from liniments and poul­tices

Here’s what you need to know about two types of prepa­ra­tions that have soothed the limbs of horses for gen­er­a­tions.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Heather Smith Thomas with Chris­tine Barakat

Here’s what you need to know about two types of prepa­ra­tions that have soothed the limbs of horses for gen­er­a­tions.

There’s no short­age of high-tech ways to care for your horse’s legs. From di­ag­nos­tic imag­ing tools to re­gen­er­a­tive stem cell ther­a­pies, sci­ence seems to reg­u­larly yield ad­vance­ments in the area of equine limb care. Yet, some things never change. In barns across Amer­ica a cen­tury ago, bot­tles of sharp-smelling lin­i­ment or buck­ets of sticky poul­tice were al­ways at the ready to soothe the ev­ery­day aches and pains of hard-work­ing horses, and you’re just as likely to find these prepa­ra­tions in mod­ern-day tack rooms.

Liniments and poul­tices are main­stays of horse care for a good rea­son---they are re­li­able, in­ex­pen­sive and pose min­i­mal risk of side ef­fects when used with some com­mon sense. It’s no sur­prise, then, that horse own­ers con­tinue to in­cor­po­rate these prod­ucts into their man­age­ment reg­i­mens.

Still, it’s never wise to let fa­mil­iar­ity sub­sti­tute for un­der­stand­ing. Us­ing liniments and poul­tices just be­cause we al­ways have, without a deeper knowl­edge of how they work, can limit their ben­e­fits. To get the most from these time-honored mix­tures, you’ll want to learn more about them. Here’s what you need to know.


Liniments are in­tended to soothe sore mus­cles and aid in re­cov­ery af­ter ex­er­tion. They work in two ways---by cool­ing tis­sues via evap­o­ra­tion and in­creas­ing blood flow to the area.

As a horse ex­er­cises, en­ergy stored in his cells is re­leased, nat­u­rally heat­ing up mus­cles, lig­a­ments and ten­dons. This nat­u­ral process, by it­self, isn’t harm­ful. In fact, warm tis­sues are more pli­able, which is why a warm-up pe­riod be­fore any phys­i­cal ex­er­tion is so im­por­tant for both peo­ple and horses. But once ex­er­cise is over, heat is as­so­ci­ated with in­flam­ma­tory pro­cesses that can dam­age cells and tis­sues. Cool­ing the limbs may help pre­vent po­ten­tial in­jury re­lated to this lin­ger­ing heat.

Of course, cold wa­ter or ice will read­ily chill a horse’s mus­cles, but liniments are of­ten eas­ier to man­age and can speed up the cool­ing process. Most liniments con­tain al­co­hol or witch hazel, both of which evap­o­rate more quickly than wa­ter, so they cool tis­sues faster. It’s not an ei­ther-or propo­si­tion, though: One of the most com­mon uses of liniments is to add a splash or two to a bucket of wa­ter and then sponge that di­rectly onto the horse. Many horse own­ers re­fer to this as a “brace” and it’s a pop­u­lar af­ter-work rou­tine at race­tracks and barns with hard-work­ing equine ath­letes.

In ad­di­tion, liniments that con­tain in­gre­di­ents such as men­thol or cam­phor also serve as coun­terir­ri­tants, mean­ing they ir­ri­tate the skin just enough to in­crease blood flow to the area. This in­creased cir­cu­la­tion may help speed cleanup of cel­lu­lar “de­bris” and re­pair any mi­cro­dam­age to the mus­cles, ten­dons and lig­a­ments fol­low­ing stren­u­ous ac­tiv­ity. It also pro­duces a dis­tinct “warm­ing” sen­sa­tion. The trou­ble with coun­terir­ri­tants, how­ever, is that they can be too ir­ri­tat­ing to the point of dam­ag­ing the skin. Us­ing too much of a prod­uct or wrap­ping over it can lead to blis­ter­ing. In ad­di­tion to ac­tive cool­ing and coun­terir­ri­tant in­gre­di­ents, liniments of­ten con­tain oils, aro­matic ex­tracts, an­ti­sep­tics or coat con­di­tion­ers. The many op­tions avail­able al­low you to find one that best suits your horse’s needs. You’ll also have choices in delivery meth­ods: In ad­di­tion to straight liq­uids, some liniments are avail­able in gel forms that will al­low more tar­geted ap­pli­ca­tion.

If you’ve ever used a post­work­out cream on your own tired mus­cles, you’re fa­mil­iar with the cool­ing/warm­ing cy­cle as­so­ci­ated with liniments and how it can help you feel less achy. It’s not un­rea­son­able to be­lieve horses have the same ex­pe­ri­ence. And while liniments can make a horse feel bet­ter af­ter a work­out, it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that they can’t re­pair in­juries. They are sup­port­ive care, at best. A horse who is in­jured or ac­tively lame needs ve­teri­nary at­ten­tion.


The coun­ter­part to liq­uid liniments are thick, goopy poul­tices. Typ­i­cally clay or Ep­som-salt based, these prod­ucts are smeared onto legs af­ter a work­out. Like liniments, poul­tices have a cool­ing ef­fect, but they also con­tain in­gre­di­ents that “draw out” fluid from be­tween cells via os­mo­sis, re­duc­ing in­flam­ma­tion. The draw­ing ac­tion of poul­tices also makes them use­ful in the treat­ment of hoof ab­scesses be­cause they can “pull” pus out of the hoof.

Poul­tices have a long his­tory in both hu­man and equine medicine. Also called a cat­a­plasm, a poul­tice by its most gen­eral def­i­ni­tion is any moist mass ap­plied to a body part with an in­tended ef­fect; bak­ing soda and wa­ter mixed to­gether and spread on an itchy bug bite is a poul­tice, as is mus­tard rubbed on a per­son’s chest in an ef­fort to re­lieve con­ges­tion. There are many tra­di­tional home­made poul­tice recipes, in­cor­po­rat­ing ev­ery­thing from pump­kin to onions, but for cool­ing your

In ad­di­tion to ac­tive cool­ing and coun­terir­ri­tant in­gre­di­ents, liniments of­ten con­tain oils, aro­matic ex­tracts, an­ti­sep­tics or coat con­di­tion­ers.

horse’s legs, the com­mer­cial va­ri­eties con­tain­ing the white clay called kaolin, ben­tonite clay from vol­canic ash or Ep­som salts are prob­a­bly your best op­tions.

Once ap­plied to equine legs, poul­tices can be wrapped over or left un­cov­ered. If you’ll be wrap­ping over a poul­tice, it’s com­mon prac­tice to ap­ply a layer of damp brown pa­per (the kind that usu­ally lines feed bags works well) over the poul­tice be­fore ap­ply­ing stand­ing wraps. The pa­per pro­tects your wraps from the mess and keeps the poul­tice moist, pro­long­ing its ef­fects. Wrapped poul­tices are typ­i­cally left overnight, and when you un­wrap the leg, you’ll prob­a­bly want to hose it clean. Some poul­tices can also be left un­cov­ered. The clay will dry on the legs and then can be brushed off later. Some poul­tice prod­ucts have the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents em­bed­ded in a cot­ton pad that can be moist­ened with wa­ter then ap­plied to the area and wrapped over. These will be more ex­pen­sive but much less messy.

Be­cause poul­tices re­duce in­flam­ma­tion they can be re­garded as more of a “treat­ment” than liniments. In fact, your vet­eri­nar­ian may di­rect you to ap­ply a poul­tice to an in­jured limb as part of a treat­ment plan. In ad­di­tion to ben­e­fits from the poul­tice it­self, the mas­sag­ing ac­tion of ap­ply­ing it, the warm­ing ac­tion from wraps and the cool­ing from hos­ing the leg clean again will all con­trib­ute to the on­go­ing re­cov­ery.

Thick clay poul­tices also have a pop­u­lar non-ther­a­peu­tic use. Be­cause a layer of poul­tice will keep in­sects from land­ing di­rectly on a horse’s skin, many own­ers in buggy ar­eas will keep their horse’s legs coated in the sum­mer months. This, the the­ory holds, can cut down on fly-re­lated stomp­ing and as­so­ci­ated hoof cracks and shoe loss.


For as low tech as they are, liniments and poul­tices aren’t fool­proof. In fact, you could hurt a horse if you use ei­ther of these prod­ucts in­cor­rectly. Fol­low these seven guide­lines to en­sure your ef­forts don’t do more harm than good:

1. Avoid home­made con­coc­tions. As in­trigu­ing as it may sound, a “se­cret” lin­i­ment for­mula you heard about through the barn grapevine could be a recipe for dis­as­ter. Too much of an ir­ri­tant or any in­gre­di­ents mixed at the wrong ra­tio could cause se­ri­ous dam­age to a horse’s skin. The rea­son cer­tain fa­mous lin­i­ment for­ma­tions have been around for cen­turies is they have a rep­u­ta­tion for not caus­ing prob­lems--trust that ex­pe­ri­ence. Also con­sider that you’ll likely spend more mak­ing

Be­cause poul­tices re­duce in flam­ma­tion they can be re­garded as more of a “treat­ment” than liniments

a home­made prepa­ra­tion that will just con­tain many of the very same in­gre­di­ents you’ll get in a com­mer­cial prod­uct.

2. Don’t use liniments or poul­tices to sup­plant ve­teri­nary care. Liniments and poul­tices can be help­ful in the man­age­ment of sim­ple aches or very mi­nor swellings, but they are no sub­sti­tute for ve­teri­nary care when a horse is in­jured or lame. In fact, ap­ply­ing a coun­terir­ri­tant to a fresh in­jury could ex­ac­er­bate the in­flam­ma­tory process, wors­en­ing the sit­u­a­tion. If you’re con­cerned about the state of your horse’s limbs, start with a phone call to your vet­eri­nar­ian. It may be that part of the treat­ment is a lin­i­ment or poul­tice, but without a pro­fes­sional con­sul­ta­tion, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know.

S. Read and fol­low all the la­bel in­struc­tions. Once you’ve se­lected a prod­uct, use it only as it was in­tended. Some liniments are meant to be used only when di­luted with wa­ter; oth­ers can be put straight on the skin. Like­wise, some poul­tices aren’t meant to be wrapped over or left to dry on the skin. Read the prod­uct in­for­ma­tion and call the man­u­fac­turer if you have ques­tions. Also pay at­ten­tion to any “best by” dates and changes in the ap­pear­ance, tex­ture or smell of the prod­uct over time.

T. Be aware of the heat fac­tor. The heat gen­er­ated by a lin­i­ment or poul­tice with coun­terir­ri­tant in­gre­di­ents can be sig­nif­i­cant, and en­vi­ron­men­tal heat only com­pounds it. For in­stance, us­ing a lin­i­ment un­der wraps in a trailer dur­ing the sum­mer months can cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where the temperatur­e un­der the ban­dages lit­er­ally burns the skin. Err on the side of cau­tion if you are wor­ried about cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects of heat.

U. Wrap care­fully. An ap­pro­pri­ately ap­plied lin­i­ment or poul­tice can cause harm if cov­ered with in­cor­rectly ap­plied stand­ing wraps. Con­trary to what you might have heard, there is no sin­gle “cor­rect” way to wrap a leg, but there are many mis­takes that you could make in the process, from wrap­ping too tightly to leav­ing ban­dages on for

The sim­ple act of ap­ply­ing a lin­i­ment or poul­tice pro­vides one of their big­gest ben­e­fits—these prod­ucts re­quire you to fo­cus on and touch your horse’s legs.

too long. A poorly wrapped leg can cause dam­age to ten­dons or be­come a trip­ping haz­ard. If you are un­cer­tain about your wrap­ping skills, ask your vet­eri­nar­ian to pro­vide you with a quick les­son (make the re­quest prior to your next rou­tine visit so ex­tra time can be sched­uled in).

6. Don’t ap­ply liniments or poul­tices to in­jured skin. Ei­ther prod­uct ap­plied to bro­ken skin, be it from a wound or other con­di­tion, can be un­com­fort­able for the horse and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The in­gre­di­ents of liniments and poul­tices aren’t in­tended to be ap­plied to ex­posed tis­sues and can slow, stall or even re­v­erse the heal­ing process. If your horse has a wound or dam­aged skin, skip the liniments and poul­tices un­til that has re­solved en­tirely.

7. Take your time. The sim­ple act of ap­ply­ing a lin­i­ment or poul­tice pro­vides one of their big­gest ben­e­fits---these prod­ucts re­quire you to fo­cus on and touch your horse’s legs. As you work, take your time to re­ally “read” your horse’s limbs. New in­juries will feel warm and soft. Wind­puffs around the fet­locks are squishy and may be tran­sient. Old in­juries are cold, firm and con­sis­tent. You want to be so fa­mil­iar with the con­tours and char­ac­ter­is­tics of each in­di­vid­ual leg that you’ll read­ily no­tice any changes. You don’t need to panic over each lump and bump, but be­ing aware of them is the first step in de­cid­ing what ac­tion may need to be taken.

Liniments and poul­tices aren’t just sooth­ing for horses. For care­tak­ers, there’s a cer­tain com­fort to be found in the rit­ual of wash­ing a sweaty horse down with a minty brace or smooth­ing a cool poul­tice down a del­i­cate leg. It’s no won­der they’ve been a tack-room staple for more than a cen­tury and will likely con­tinue to be for gen­er­a­tions to come.

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