Do I reallly need to ice the legs after I ride?
When I bring up the topic of icing your horse’s legs after exercise, I always get the following answers:
- But he’s sound, I don’t need to.
- It takes too long.
- It’s too difficult.
- My horse does this, that, the other when I try and ice him.
So lets take these concerns one at a time. Of course, as with all things medical and therapeutic, talk to your Veterinarian and your horse’s team about icing and cold therapy. Some cases (like old injuries) can benefit from cold and/or heat therapy. If you suspect an injury, call your Veterinarian before proceeding with any treatments. You can always do some supportive care while you are waiting for your Veterinary appointment based on your Vet's suggestions.
My horse is sound! No need to ice.
That's great! Let's keep it that way! Exercise, especially when wearing boots or polo wraps, creates heat in your horse’s body. Focusing on his legs, the lower limbs get heated, often to the point they are sweating under their leg protection. Heat in the tendons, ligaments, and joints creates cellular damage, which creates tendon damage, ligament damage, arthritis in the joints. These conditions will ultimately affect your horse’s soundness. Ice and cold therapy helps to reduce this inflammation, whether you see the inflammation or not.
The leg on the left is one hour post exercise. The red and orange and yellow places are heat. The leg on the right (same horse) has been cooled with ice therapy. Photo courtesy of Icehorse.net
There is also no perfect footing, no perfect training, no perfect conformation, no perfect horse. What we aim for as horse caretakers is to do the best we can with what we have, and help our horse recover and prevent long term damage that we can’t see. It's the “wear and tear” that one day will have a have a huge impact on our horse’s comfort.
Hocks are a common area for arthritis... icing helps! This is a "wear and tear" condition in some horses.
It takes *FOREVER* to ice my horse’s legs.
Well, not really. There are mountains of data on how long the optimal icing time if for horses, people, dogs, probably even turtles. Ice and cold therapy works to reduce the blood flow to heated and inflamed tissues. After about 20 minutes, the constricted blood vessels that make this happen start to open again. So what can you get done in 20 minutes while your horse is getting his cold therapy?
Routines can make your barn life easy and simple - so when you are done with a ride, incorporate icing. If it’s hot, your horse needs a shower. This is perfect, as cold therapy and icing effectiveness is helped with damp or wet legs. If your horse doesn’t need a shower, use a wet rag to dampen your horse’s legs before icing.
While your horse is chillin’ and marinating in the cross ties, you have the perfect 20 minutes to supervise him while clean his bridle and saddle, brush off his saddle pads and boots, and maybe even start to polish your own boots. You can also organize your tack box, brush your horse down after his ride (so many benefits to grooming after exercise!!), and maybe even practice braiding. These are things to do anyway, why not have the company of your BFF??
If it ails him, you can ice it.
It’s too difficult.
It’s actually fairly easy, the more you do it, the easier it is. You just need a freezer and a system. I keep my Ice Horse boots near the fridge and freeze, so after a ride, I pop in to grab a carrot from the fridge, Ice Horse FirstIce® packets from the freezer, and the boots from the shelf. Minutes to put on, then carry on with your routine. On show days, if you don’t have a portable freezer, you can use a cooler to keep your ice packs nice and cold.
What’s really difficult is dealing with arthritis, early retirement, and chronic pain in your horse.
My horse doesn’t like it, he wiggles, I can’t deal with him when I try and ice him.
This is a totally legit concern, and one that has many ramifications. First, you need to find a way to retrain your horse to accept cold therapy. I can guarantee you that during his life with you, you will find a leg of his that is gigantic, stove pipe looking, three legged lame. Aside from having your Vet out pronto, it’s very likely that icing and cold therapy will save you loads of money and time as it can prevent a bad injury from getting much, much worse. If he can’t deal with this treatment, you are going to be in quite the pickle.
Second, there’s a point where your horse takes over and becomes the boss, deciding what he will and will not deal with. Too bad. It may start with icing, it may end up with him developing much more unsafe practices. Get the help of a respected trainer with behavior experiences to help you out. Any time you are training your horse (which is every single second you are with him), you have the opportunity to help him and help you. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens.
You don’t need to fight your horse with ice boots. You can let him become accustomed to the idea of cold therapy by first getting him used to the ice boots, then the ice boots with inserts that are not cold, then with the ice inserts after they have been in the freezer a bit, and then when his legs are damp or wet. It’s a process! Working on desensitizing your horse can be fun and challenging!
Why do you ice your horse?