How do I know if I should ice or heat my horse?
In a horse world with easy questions and even easier answers, this is not one of them. (Sorry!) But here are some guidelines that can point you and your Veterinarian to the right direction. We want to always take care of and possibly pamper our horses, and that means caring for them in times of injury, or as a preventative measure. Determining which therapeutic aid to use, be it ice or heat, largely depends on what type of condition you are treating.
Ice also acts as an analgesic - so your horse feels less pain! #bonus
Typically speaking, ice or other cooling technique is used for acute injuries. Acute injuries occur suddenly. A good example of this is the horse that is doing his best rodeo impression during turnout and careens into a fence. When you take him to the barn, he has a swollen lower leg and a hitch in his giddy-up.
You may also want to cool your horse's legs after he exercises. This takes the heat out of your horse's soft tissues, tendons, and ligaments to help prevent long term damage.
Also typically speaking, heat can sometimes benefit chronic injuries. Chronic injuries or conditions develop over time. A good example of a chronic condition in a horse is arthritis of the hocks. Heat can often help your horse's back loosen up for riding. This is especially helpful if your horse likes to be cold backed before a ride.
You can find heating packs, just like you can find cooling packs.
And here’s where is gets confusing and why you need to involve your Veterinarian. Horses are masters of getting by until it really stinking hurts. If a horse has a sore left hock, he may appear and feel sound for months, until possibly his right front tendons are a bit sore from compensating and then he becomes “off”. You may think, oh, he has an acute tendon injury, or you may find the hock soreness first. It’s difficult to determine the egg vs. chicken in this scenario, therefore it’s hard to determine a chronic vs. acute situation. You and your Veterinarian together can figure it out, and with that information, proceed forward with an icing or heating plan.
So - some ways to go about cooling your horse:
-Cold water compression machines
Cold hosing is one way to cool an injury! It just takes hands on time, and can use a lot of precious water. But it's great in a pinch, and will help your ice product of choice work better if your horse's leg is wet.
And some ways to go about heating your horse:
-Some classes of lasers
It’s not uncommon to treat some injuries with both cooling and heating. You may find that you initially treat an acute injury with cooling methods (usually the case), and after the initial inflammation goes away, your Veterinarian prescribes a sweat or other heating treatment. You may also find that your Veterinarian suggests icing immediately after exercise, and treating with heat later in the day. This may be the case for arthritis.
It’s important to remember that when icing and heating, more is not always better. Using ice for more than 20 minutes can actually increase inflammation, and using a heating treatment like DMSO in the initial stages of swelling can add more swelling to the injury. You may find that your horse needs short treatments several times a day, which may be a pain in the butt, but think of the extra barn time!!
What has your experience been with cold and heating treatments?