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.
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.
HOT AND COLD: LINIMENTS
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.
DRAWING POWER: POULTICES
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 BEST RESULTS
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.