Many riders use gel ice boots or cooling bandages for their horses’ legs. But do ice boots help horses? This blog article outlines whether and how ice boots and cooling bandages help horses.
We all know that tendon and ligament injuries are the most common lower limb injury in mature horses (e.g. Murray et al. 2006). These injuries include:
- Tendonitis of the Superficial Digital Flexor Tendon (SDFT)
- Suspensory ligament injury
- Deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) injury
- Suspensory branch injury
- Check ligament injury
- Annular ligament injury
- Collateral ligament injury
What Causes These Injuries to the Horse’s Lower Leg?
It is thought that the majority of injuries to the horse’s lower leg are as a result of repeated minor damage, rather than major, one-off events.
Wild horses spend the majority of their time walking. Conversely, domestic horses spend significantly more time at the faster paces. The horse’s anatomy has not yet evolved to cope with this level of activity. Tendons and ligaments that are just a few centimetres wide have to support 500kg of bone and muscle. Therefore, domestic horses require additional care and maintenance that wild horses don’t need.
When a horse is travelling at speed – galloping, for example – the tendons in the lower leg stretch and recoil. Strains of 16% have been recorded in the SDFT during exercise. The SDFT can fail anywhere between 15% and 17% when failure strains are recorded in the lab (Dowling et al 2002, Gerard et al 2005). Put simply, exercise may quite easily put enough strain on the horse’s lower leg tendons to cause injury.
It is the continuous repetitive loads we put on the tendons and ligaments during training that may result in damage to these tendons. The most common injury has been shown to be to the SDFT. The reason for this is likely to be that during intense exercise, the SDFT operates close to its limit.
When we examine the effect of exercise on the horse’s lower leg tendons, it is easy to see how these injuries occur and why they are so common.
Treating the Horse as an Athlete
Intense exercise causes damage to the tendons. Ever felt sore the day after intense exercise, be that going to the gym or even riding? This is as a result of the exercise-induced damage to your muscles, tendons and ligaments. This micro damage causes inflammation and therefore pain.
When it comes to our horses, the science is similar. We are unlikely to be able to see the micro damage in the form of swelling or lameness. However, you may start to see minor swellings if the horse’s legs are not given enough time to recover. Furthermore, other factors may also increase the likelihood of damaging the lower leg structures. Just like us, older horses become less flexible and their tendons become less stretchy. Fitness also has an impact. Again, just like in humans, a tired horse is more prone to injury. This is because as the muscles cannot expand and contract as quickly, the tendons take up the slack, taking on a bigger load as a result. Injury can then occur as a result of overstretch or a stumble.
We are often told to train on a variety of surfaces. This is so we can train our horses’ bodies to cope and make sure those tendons and ligaments have the strength to be versatile. Furthermore, adding fast work and hill work puts different loads on the legs, which also helps to strengthen the horse.
How Ice and Compression Boots May Help Horses
Using ice and compression after we exercise can help reduce inflammation and pain. It has been shown that we can recover quicker and perform better the next day if we use ice and compression after exercise. This principle can also apply to horses. Using Cryochaps gel ice boots for horses after any type of exercise can only help towards recovery. The icing and compression targets the micro damage, kick starting the healing process and making sure those tendons and ligaments are in the best possible condition for the next session.