Your Guide to Equine Health Care

Can Cold Therapy Safeguard Sport Horses From Injury?

Should you cold hose or ice your horse’s legs after riding? The answer is more complicated than you might expect.

Can Cold Therapy Safeguard Sport Horses From Injury?
For proposed benefits to occur, the treated limb should be cooled to a temperature between 10-15 degrees Celsius (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on where you live and the season, the temperature of water from your garden hose is probably significantly higher, in which case it’s not possible to cool a horse’s extremity to an optimal therapeutic temperature using a “cold hosing” technique. | Photo: iStock
Q. My friend always uses some sort of cold therapy on her horse’s legs after a ride, whether it’s just hosing him off with cold water or using ice boots. I’m familiar with using cold therapy for horses with injuries, but is this important or useful for sound horses, as well? Could it help prevent injury or unsoundness?

A. These questions touch on an interesting and potentially controversial discussion among medical and veterinary professionals. Most people are familiar with the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Historically, this has been a standard approach for dealing with sports-related injuries in human medicine. Similarly, cryotherapy, or cold therapy, has been widely used in veterinary medicine to treat our equine athletes. A quick Google search may return “ice” as a recommended treatment for musculoskeletal injuries. Interestingly, most recent research suggests that cold therapy might not be quite as beneficial as we once thought it was.

Taking a post-workout ice water bath is an age-old practice among human athletes that’s often referred to as cold water immersion. Take a walk down the barn aisle at an FEI-level eventing competition after the cross-country phase, and you’ll likely see a fair number of horses standing in buckets of ice water. Many human athletes and equine trainers alike feel that there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest cold therapy is beneficial for recovery after exercise. It’s hard to argue with a treatment that has for so long produced seemingly good results. But what does the science say?

The general idea behind ice baths is that lowering a body part’s temperature constricts the peripheral blood vessels, thereby minimizing the delivery of inflammatory mediators to the region and secondarily reducing edema (swelling). While this seems to be true in acute injuries, the verdict’s still out as to cold therapy’s exact mechanisms and benefits for post-exercise recovery and treatment of chronic injuries. Scientists have established that cooling can decrease nerve conduction, which may reduce soreness in the short term and create the perception of accelerated recovery after rigorous activity. However, studies have shown that the reduction of pain or soreness doesn’t consistently lead to improved function or performance and is certainly not a means of preventing

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Written by:

Matt Leshaw, DVM, is an FEI-treating veterinarian and practitioner in San Diego, California.

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