When A Horse Injures A Leg

Cold Therapy For Acute Musculoskeletal Injuries

Written by Preston Hickman, DVM, Wichita Equine and Sports Medicine

When a horse injures a leg, many times the first - and best - course of action is to cool the area as quickly as possible using cold water or ice. Your immediate goal is to try to reduce inflammation and swelling in order to minimize tissue damage and speed healing. Cold Therapy slows the inflammatory process so that other treatments, such as medications, can begin to take effect.

Care must be taken, however, whenever cold therapy is applied to a limb. Ice used incorrectly or applied for too long can potentially damage the skin and underlying tissue. To maximize the therapeutic benefits of ice or cold therapy, follow your veterinarian’s instructions exactly.

How Cold Therapy Can Help:
Horse Leg Therapy Cold therapy can improve a variety of conditions such as: tendon, joint, muscle and other soft tissue injuries by decreasing blood flow to the damaged area. Cold therapy slows the metabolism of the surrounding tissue so it is less likely to suffer damage from swelling and constriction.

Cold Therapy Goals:
- Reduce Inflammation
- Reduce Swelling
- Dissipate Heat
- Alleviate Pain
- Slow Bleeding

Types of Cold Therapy:
The best method for applying cold therapy will depend on the type and location of the injury, and the materials available. Rigid or flexible compresses will depend on the contents and will need to be determined based on the area you are treating. Crushed ice releases its cooling properties more quickly and the pack will conform more readily to the shape of the limb. A bag of frozen vegetables (such as peas & corn) is also a convenient and ready-made ice pack.

Chemical ice packs such as the "blue ice" commonly used in picnic coolers also work well.

Commercial cold compress bandages designed for specific parts of the horse’s leg are also available and have a proven track record. Another option for lower limbs is to use a bucket or ice boot filled with ice water. Running cold water over the injury site with a hose is also a convenient way to reduce heat and swelling at the injury site.

General Recommendations:

  1. Consult your veterinarian and explain the symptoms and location of the injury.
  2. Immediate veterinary attention should be sought in cases of severe lameness or if the horse resists moving.
  3. Cold therapy is recommended in many acute musculoskeletal injuries, and initial application as soon as possible. The first 24-48 hours are critical.
  4. Use proper leg bandage techniques so you can position the cold therapy without constricting the blood supply to the leg or damaging tendons.
  5. The rule of thumb is 15 minutes on, 5 minutes off, until heat and swelling are perceptibly reduced.
  6. Repeat cold therapy every 4-6 hours within the first day of treatment, or as otherwise recommended by your veterinarian.
  7. Do not place ice directly against the skin if there is an open wound.
  8. Utilize several layers of cotton gauze to protect tissue and absorb fluids.
  9. If possible, place a cold water bandage on the area between treatments to prolong the benefits and help reduce swelling. Again, make sure to use proper leg bandaging techniques.
  10. Get veterinary help if the lameness lasts longer than 1 day without significant improvement.
  11. Although horses are very resistant to frostbite, good animal husbandry and commonsense techniques should be employed to prevent frostbite.

Bandaging Guidelines:
Commercially available cold wraps and chemical pouches that produce a rapid freezing reaction when activated, or chemical ice packs, are all especially useful additions to first aid kits.

The use of gauze or bandaging material such as 3M Vetrap or equivalent, along with bandaging tape that has enough strength, stretch and cohesion to conform to the leg and hold the ice pack in place, will improve your quality of life. Wrap in a spiral pattern, overlapping layers with smooth, uniform pressure. Be careful not to bandage the leg too tightly or create any pressure points. Some veterinarians recommend wrapping from front to back. While your horse is recovering, pay close attention to its progress. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you observe any of the following:

  1. Increased pain or lameness.
  2. Discharge from a wound that has a foul odor, unusual color or seems to be excessive.
  3. Excessive swelling.
  4. Increased warmth at the injury site.
  5. Elevated body temperature (100F+ or –1 is considered normal).
  6. Recumbency - horse spends an abnormal amount of time lying down.
  7. Lack of appetite or depression.

Talk with Your Veterinarian: If you have questions or concerns, your equine veterinarian will be your greatest asset. He or she can address problems that need to be handled or alleviate any unnecessary worry, or pain and suffering by your horse. It is a health care partnership, with your horse’s well being at the heart of it.

About the author:

Dr. Preston Hickman practices veterinary medicine in Wichita, Kansas, specializing in equine podiatry and sports medicine. He combines traditional veterinary medicine with video gait analysis to diagnose physical problems and abnormal motion in horses. His experience as a farrier and chiropractor allow him unique perspective into biomechanical movement. Dr. Hickman has worked extensively with horse wellness issues as Assistant Medical Director for the Louisiana Racing Commission, overseeing four tracks and 16 veterinarians. Dr. Hickman has a background in mixed practice, equine and bovine veterinary medicine, as well as veterinary consultation to feedlots.

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