written by Abby Dickinson
Simple yet effective, hot and cold therapies have been used for centuries. Both techniques aid limiting damage, speed of healing and healing quality for both horse, and rider. With methods of hot and cold therapies coming at little expense, there is no reason not to use them in the face of injury or discomfort, but how do they work? When should they be used on the horse? Which application method is the most effective? And are there any dangers of using this natural therapy?
Cold therapies, known as cryotherapy, is the application of a cooling substance or source to a specific area. Application of cold will cause blood vessels to become narrower (vasoconstriction), therefore reducing blood flow to the area. Cryotherapy is often used on injuries to aid in the reduction of bruising and haemorrhaging. The decreased blood flow will also aid reducing inflammation, and therefore pain sensitivity, to the area where it is applied.
When Should Cold Therapies Be Used?
Cold therapies should be used as soon as possible, after an injury has occurred. Dependant on the type of injury, different methods of cold therapy application can be utilised, to reduce discomfort, chance of infection, or the possibility of further damage.
Within the first 24-hours of an injury being sustained, cold therapies should be the only temperature therapy utilised. This will aid with pain relief, reduce swelling, and may help restrict bleeding. Cold therapies can be used up to 48 hours after the injury was sustained and requires repeated exposure throughout the period, for the therapy to cause an effective result.
- Cold Hosing – should be completed as often as possible for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time. Once bleeding has stopped or is only minor, a downward positioned trickle of water will help flush away any small bits of dirt in a wound. Swellings and bruising will also benefit from cold hosing, a 0-10°C water temperature showing the best effect. Most horses tolerate cold hosing well, providing they are given the appropriate time to adjust to the icy temperature. Cheap, easy and used by elite-level riders, cold hosing is the most commonly used cold therapy out there!
- Ice Boots – these are great for treating hoof pain, such as bruising, and have been suggested to aid in the prevention of conditions such as laminitis in certain situations. Cold therapies are not a treatment for laminitis though, and it is always recommended to consult your vet when horses are suffering from the condition.
- Leg Wraps – these provide a quick and easy application of a cooling source. They keep both you and your horse safe, if a hose is not their cup of tea!
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- Cold Packs – Also good for those horses who hate water, cold packs can be left in your first aid kit, so they are ready on-hand when you need them. Banadage the cold packs, in towels, to the injury site.
- Ice Cubes – these may be difficult to get hold of in the yard environment. However, in the later stages of healing, coming to the yard prepared, with ice cubed wrapped in a towel, can provide an effective cooling source. Avoid applying ice directly to the skin, as this may result in damage or discomfort.
- Cooling Gel/Clay- although less effective than physical forms of cooling, clays and gels have shown to have some cooling effect. However, once they are dry they will become insulating, so ensure they a removed before this happens!
Hot therapies, otherwise known as thermotherapies, include the application of a heat source on to the horse. Application of heat causes blood vessels to widen, in turn causing increased blood flow to the area where heat is applied. Increasing blood flow results in greater oxygen and nutrient transportation to the area, therefore promoting healing. The promotion of blood flow can also aid with relaxing muscles and increasing elasticity of connective tissue in the specific area, suggesting better performance.
When Should Heat Therapies Be Used?
Heat therapies should be gradually introduced to your horse’s recovery regime, after injury. Too much heat too soon, can cause hemorrhage, so it is important to take a progressive approach to introduce heat for the full benefit of both hot and cold temperatures. Heat is safe to apply 24 hours after no increase in swelling is observed. Alternating between hot and cold therapies, gradually increasing the time heat is used and decreasing cold therapy usage per session, will allow for the transition to heat therapy-only usage.
When swelling is minimal, heat therapies should be applied on their own. This will promote blood flow to the area, eliminating residual inflammation, promoting nutrient flow, and therefore healing of the area.
Heat can also be useful before exercise and for horses suffering from arthritis. Application of heat can increase soft tissue elasticity, flexibility, and suppleness of muscles during exercise. Heat also has a mild pain relief effect.
- Poultices – poultices are commonly used on wounds. The heat source increases blood flow, acting as an effective method to draw out infection.
- Hot Compress – material, such as a flannel or Gamgee, soaked in a bowl of water then wrung out can provided an effective form of heat therapy too. However, you must ensure that the material is repeatedly soaked in hot water, to ensure it stays warm.
- Heat Packs – these can be stored in your first aid kit, so they are ready when you need them. They are cheap and a great go-to in emergency situations!
- Hot Water Bottles – perfect to cover larger areas and can be bandaged to the horse for security. Only partly fill the hot water bottle, ensure the water is not boiling, and it does not come in direct contact with the skin, to prevent discomfort or further damage. They are great on back muscles, especially before riding, for increased suppleness.
- Leg Heat Wraps/Boots – there are lots on the market, some reflecting the horse’s own body heat (LeMeuix Reflexion Therapy) and some that you simply pop in the microwave (Arma hot/Cold Joint Relief boots). They might not reach the temperature required to aid healing, but research suggests heating the lower legs of horses causes a relaxation effect – great for a pamper session!
Potential Dangers of Hot and Cold Therapies
Too much of anything is a bad thing and the same applies to hot and cold therapies usage. Intense heat or cold can cause further damage, discomfort, and possibly result in you getting hurt in the process, if your horse has a negative reaction. Also, application of hot and cold sources for pro-longed periods can potentially cause damage to the skin and underlying structures. Introduction to the therapy should be gradual to ensure as little distress as possible.
Cryotherapies should be applied for no longer than 20 minutes intervals. When using a cryotherapy, movement of the cold source is key; it is recommended cold sources are moved regularly to ensure underlying tissues are not damaged. You should not leave your horse unattended at any point throughout the application
With thermotherapy, it is advised to apply heat for no longer than 20-minutes per interval too. Make sure to establish the temperature of the heat source on your own skin, to make sure it is not too intense that it will burn your horse’s skin. You will also need to keep your horse warm after use of thermotherapies, using rugs to ensure they do not cool down too quickly. Keeping your horse warm is especially important when using sources of moist heat, such as heat compresses, as evaporation will lead to rapid heat loss. Similar to cold therapies, throughout application, you should never leave your horse unattended.
It is advisable to always speak to your vet first before applying temperature therapies, especially in regard to injury healing.