How compression, cold, and hot therapies help your horse’s legs

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How compression, cold, and hot therapies help your horse’s legs

Compression, cold and heat therapy are three of the common ways that horse owners use in treating their horses’ legs and keeping them in great athletic shape. New horse owners might be confused with the difference between each type of therapy. In this article, we will take a closer look at these methods and learn the specific situations where they might help your equine buddy:

Compression socks

Compression socks for horses work similarly to those that are designed for humans. When the socks are worn, they apply even pressure and increase circulation across the leg. The use of elastic compression socks helps exert mechanical pressure on the horse’s skin surface. This stimulates circulation, rather than contributing to circulatory stasis, or slow blood flow (especially of the legs). Equine compression socks and bandages offer evenly graded compression through its fabric that is specifically made for vascular support. The use of this type of elastic compression has been proven to have medical benefits and is effective in treating equine edema. 

A study published in the Equine Medicine journal compared the influence of traditional bandaging material with elastic compression garments on lymph flow in horse’s legs. Ten horses with a tendency for swollen legs were examined under sedation with lymphangiography. They injected on the horses’ lymph vessels a special contrast fluid that can be seen through an X-ray. They found out that with the use of traditional bandages, the fluid seemed to stop on its tracks, but with the use of elastic compression garments, the fluid maintained a normal flow.  

This means that by helping to move fluid throughout the leg, compression socks and bandages may help increase circulation which helps to flush out extra fluid along with lactic acid, thus reducing soreness. Horses can also wear compression socks while traveling to help ease muscle fatigue. Made of breathable and moisture wicking material, horse compressions socks work while keeping your horse’s legs dry and cool.

Horse owners must note, however, that due to its powerful qualities, horse compression socks should only be used for a few hours at a time, specifically about two to four hours. According to a research conducted by Prof. Van Rautenfield from Hanover Medical School in Hanover Germany, wearing compression socks for one hour can be equivalent to a two-hour ride. Because horses can be extremely unpredictable, it is not recommended that you leave the stockings on overnight. The horse may tear at the stocking, or if they lie down and get up, the stocking may move, bunch up and cause further congestion in the limb.

Horses can wear compression socks as they are being supervised or monitored during turn out, work out sessions, an event, competition, trail ride or during transportation. The socks could temporarily help reduce the congestion of lymph fluids in the leg while the leg is not wrapped. 

Cold therapy

Inflammation is a common symptom in equine injuries, especially if they involve damage to the soft tissues. Inflammation is caused by an increased blood flow to the damaged area. When this happens, inflammatory enzymes are released and this can lead to further damage to tissues.

Cold therapy applied to such an injury in its early stages will help decrease blood flow, minimising damaging effects. Since cold therapy acts as a sort of local anaesthetic, which numbs the skin, cold therapy can also help reduce pain. It’s just like applying ice packs on human backs or ankle injuries.

Icing is recommended to be done during the first 24 to 48 hours following your horse’s injury. Apply cold therapy two to three times a day; your goal is to lower the temperature of the tissue in question from its existing level to 59–66 degrees Fahrenheit (15–19 degrees Celsius), although any temperature decrease will still be helpful.

Ice is also a good maintenance tool for horses with recurring problems, especially those recovering from a serious injury. Also, if your horse has a weakened tendon from an old injury, or a suspensory ligament that’s easily strained during exercise, they’ll benefit from a routine icing following every session of hard work. For this type of icing, one 20-minute session directly after exercise is typically enough.

Heat therapy

Heat therapy, also known as thermotherapy, is one of the most comforting forms of therapy available and is usually accepted well by horses and ponies. It is easy to apply and has many benefits. Heat promotes increased metabolic activity and nerve activity, which leads to an increased demand for oxygen. Heat is crucial in the widening of the blood vessels (vasodilatation) that increases blood flow and therefore delivery of oxygen and nutrients. Heat therapy also helps in the metabolism of waste products, leading to better recovery and increased repair process because more oxygen and nutrients are available.

Generally, hot therapy is used for treatment of wounds, but is also beneficial for muscle spasms. Since hot therapy relaxes muscles, this makes it a great pre-workout regimen. Ways to apply hot therapy include applying hot hot water with a hose or bucket, using a heating pack and applying ointments. Since heat therapy can present a danger to your horse if applied incorrectly — high temperatures can cause tissue damage —, contact your veterinarian so they can show you how to do it correctly.

Got a question or anything I can help with? My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at You can drop me a line here. Good luck!

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