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 ice packs or very cold water. Your immediate goal is to try to reduce inflammation and swelling in order to minimize tissue damage and speed healing. Ice slows the inflammatory process while other treatments such as medications can begin to take effect.
Care must be taken, however, whenever cold therapy is applied to a limb. Ice wraps 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 and keep in mind the recommendations contained in this document.
How Cold or Ice Can Help
Applying ice or cold therapy can improve a variety of tendon, joint, muscle and other 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. Cold therapy helps to:
- Reduce Inflammation
- Reduce Swelling
- Dissipate Heat
- Alleviate Pain
- Slow Bleeding
Applying Cold or Ice
The best method for applying ice or cold therapy will depend on the type and location of the injury, as well as the materials you have at your disposal.
Ice packs may be either rigid or flexible depending on their contents. You will need to determine what works best for the area you are treating.
You can make an ice pack using a resealable plastic bag to hold slab or crushed ice. 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) or frozen ice pops 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 ice bandages designed for specific parts of the horse’s leg are also available.
There are also special chemical pouches that produce a rapid freezing reaction when activated. Chemical ice packs are especially useful additions to first aid kits.
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.
1. Contact your veterinarian and explain the symptoms and location of the injury.
2. Request immediate veterinary help if lameness is severe or the horse resists moving.
3. If cold therapy is recommended, begin the initial application as soon as possible. The first 24-48 hours are key.
4. Use proper leg bandage techniques so you can position the ice pack without constricting the blood supply to the leg or damaging tendons.
5. Apply ice for approximately 5 minutes at a time, but no more than 10-15 minutes. A rule of thumb is 5 minutes on, 15 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. Use a damp cloth or sheet cotton as a buffer between the ice pack and the horse’s skin to protect the tissue and dissipate the cold.
8. Chemically activated cold packs may require more layers of fabric to buffer the skin and prevent frostbite.
9. Do not place ice directly against the skin if there is an open wound. Utilize several layers of cotton gauze to protect tissue and absorb fluids.
10. If possible, place a bandage on the area between treatments to prolong the benefits and help reduce swelling. Again, make sure to use proper leg bandaging techniques.
11.Get veterinary help if the lameness lasts longer than one day without significant improvement.
Although the bandage will only be in place for a short period of time, it is still important to follow these safety guidelines when applying an ice bandage:
- Place a cloth between the ice pack and the skin.
- Use gauze or a bandaging material such as 3M Vetrap Bandaging Tape that has enough strength, stretch and cohesion to conform to the leg and hold the ice pack in place.
- 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, outside to inside-counterclockwise for left legs, clockwise for right legs. This prevents tendons from being pulled outward from the cannon bone and vessels and reduces the likelihood of constriction. While your horse is recovering, pay close attention to its progress.
Contact your veterinarian immediately if you observe any of the following:
- Increased pain or lameness.
- Discharge from a wound that has a foul odor, unusual color or seems to be excessive.
- Excessive swelling.
- Increased warmth at the injury site.
- Elevated body temperature (100F+ or –1 is considered normal.
- Recumbency - horse spends an abnormal amount of time lying down.
- Lack of appetite depression.
Talk with Your Veterinarian
If you have questions or concerns, your equine veterinarian will be your greatest asset. Do not hesitate to call. He or she can address problems that need to be handled or alleviate any unnecessary worry. It is a health care partnership, with your horse’s well being at the heart of it.