Why ice horses’ legs after exercise?

horse leg cooling boots

As the weather warms, we are looking forward to riding out more and getting fit and ready for the competition season. With that comes the need to be proactive about recovery. Should you ice horses’ legs as part of this recovery? In this blog, we’ll explore the reasons why as horse owners, icing horses’ legs with ice boots may be a positive addition to our regular fitness programs.

What reasons are there to say you should ice horses legs?

Heat is naturally produced in the horses’ legs during exercise.

The horses legs do heat up during exercise which is no surprise. The tendons in the back of the lower leg, work hard expanding and contracting to create the power for the horse to be propelled forward. As they expand and contract, creating energy, they also generate heat. In a galloping horse, temperatures as high as 45°C have been measured in the Superficial Digital Flexor Tendon (SDFT). This has been hypothesised to be a major contributor to degenerative changes in the tendon of the horse. Tendon cell death has been shown to occur at temperatures of 45°C and over.

Many of us need to wear protective horse boots for exercise. There were no horse boots covering the horses’ leg in the studies mentioned, so it is reasonable to think the internal temperatures would be even hotter. Horse boots and bandages will markedly raise the temperatures of the leg because they create an insulating effect. It is interesting to note that the use of bandages has been banned in all competitions in Holland as of 1st April 2024 exactly because of this overheating issue.

Using ice boots for horses straight after exercise may help take the heat levels down as quickly as possible. This may limit the damaging effects of heat build-up. If you do have to wear horse boots, it is suggested that you look for air flow horse boots, such as Exoskeleton tendon and fetlock boots for horses. Exoskeleton airflow horse boots are tried and tested to keep legs cooler than other leading brands.

Exercise causes Inflammation.

Just as when we exercise, as the horse exercises, the muscles, tendons and ligaments work hard to move the horse in all different directions. This constant stretching and contracting naturally creates microtrauma, which are tiny tears in the tissues. These tiny insults to the tissues create damage, and in turn, inflammation. Inflammation is the bodies way of protecting and repairing the tissues. However too much inflammation can cause damage in its own right.

By cooling the tissue temperatures, it moderates the inflammation, it does not inhibit the inflammation altogether, so it does not prevent healing. A 10°C reduction in intra‐articular temperature may decrease the local metabolic activity up to 50%. Icing has been found to speed recovery and this could be because it moderates the inflammation.

Cryochaps ice boots for horses are one of the only ones on the market to add the benefits of compression. These ice wraps for horses have been found to markedly drop superficial leg temperatures which could be helping to decrease the inflammatory response.

Ice and compression reoxygenates tendons

Short bouts of icing horses’ legs could help the healing process by increasing the levels of oxygen delivered to the tendons of the leg. When you administer ice and compression the cold is driven deep into the tissues. The human Achilles tendon, which is the most similar in construction to the horses SDFT, as it is close to the skin with minimal fat covering, has been extensively studied on how ice and compression can affect microcirculation. When ice and compression is applied, blood flow at 2mm drops by 69%, and at 8mm drops by 47%. Oxygen content is also reduced by 43% during the ice and compression application.

On removal of the ice and compression what is then seen is a persisting increase of tendon oxygenation during rewarming which increases to 27% over the baseline level. Increasing oxygen levels accelerates healing. The science of why is because oxygen increases cell proliferation, re-epithelialization, and collagen formation. By using and removing Ice and compression boots for horses, you may be helping recovery and healing in the horses lower leg by increasing the oxygen content.

It was also found the relevant effects on microcirculation of combined ice and compression to take place within the first 10 min of application during a total 30 min application time. A recent randomised trial has also supported this, showing that 10 min of intermittent ice application is superior to a single 20 min cryotherapy treatment. This is the main reason why Cryochaps recommend 10-15mins only of treatment and repeat if required once the leg has rewarmed.  

Icing horses’ legs after exercise, should we?

In conclusion there seem very little negatives of why you should not ice horses’ legs after exercise. Cryochaps, ice wraps for horses, have been found to be one of the better brands of horse ice boot due to their extensive coverage and compression and recommended by Dr David Marlin