When to ice your horse


The benefits of icing your horse’s leg are far and wide, and can help keep your horse healthy and comfortable. Ice therapy is easy, fast, and provides pain relief, reduces inflammation, and can help with the healing process.  But WHEN to ice your horse?


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The best times to ice your horse:


After exercise.


  • After a ride or lunge, a few things happen to your horse’s body as related to the heat generated in his body and the movement of his joints. The blood flow to his muscles and joints and tissues increases to facilitate his movement and the oxygenation of those hard-working tissues.


  • This increased blood flow also brings with it enzymes that are associated with inflammation. When he starts to cool off, that blood supply and enzyme travel can pool in his muscles and joints. This is one way that soreness and stiffness happen.


  • Icing after a workout helps constrict those vessels, which in turn reduces the accumulation of inflammation-causing factors in your horse.


  • It’s been shown in human studies that post-exercise icing, not hot and cold water therapy, aids in recovery and a faster return to peak performance levels. The dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness is also reduced after ice therapy.


  • Exercise also creates heat and damage to soft tissues, which is greatly helped by ice therapies. As your horse’s body warms up, it literally warms up. Add to this the use of leg protection, and the lower limbs can get quite heated. Heat in the tendons, ligaments, and joints creates cellular damage on a microscopic level, which creates tendon damage, ligament damage, and arthritis in the joints on a larger scale over time.


horse in ice boots on front legs

After every ride. Ice what ails your horse.


After an injury.


  • Injuries are one case where you have a few things going on. The wounded tissue is going to bleed. The wounded tissue is also going to swell. This is painful, and you might be able to feel the heat and see the inflammation.


  • Wounds and injuries are flooded with blood, which can damage the surrounding tissues. And then you have the actual bleeding. Ice therapy can slow bleeding down, which can be helpful in an emergency situation in addition to pressure. If your horse is bleeding excessively, apply pressure and call your vet right away. Your vet can advise you about adding ice therapy to the wound to help with bleeding.


  • Because cold therapies act to constrict blood vessels, the damaging inflammation is reduced. So is the pain associated with the swelling.



During rehab and physical therapy.


  • Any injury is going to take a while to heal completely. Like weeks or months. If a horse has a tendon or ligament injury, or had surgery, or is in physical therapy and rehab for any reason, icing can be a part of his life.


  • We know that cold therapies work to constrict the blood flow and tissues, keeping the swelling from escalating and affecting larger areas beyond a wound or injury. But what happens next is good for those fresh injuries as well as the older injuries that are recovering.


  • When cold therapy is removed from your horse, the vessels slowly begin to open up again. This allows fresh blood to flush the area, and bring with it it’s own anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial elements.


  • As an injured horse is returned back to his job, the ice therapies can help alleviate any extra inflammation that is placed on those tissues that are adjusting to being used again.


Dr. Melissa King from Colorado State University describes how she uses cold therapy on a particular horse that had stifle surgery.


“Immediately post-operatively we have this on to ice his stifle. He had some acute typical swelling associated with post-surgery, but since he’s been out of surgery now for almost a month and a half, two months, and we continue to use it. And I think that’s one of the things that you know, us as veterinarians in vet school, we learn that oh, you should really only need to apply ice during the acute inflammatory phase. But if the horse is still having some swelling and some pain, cryotherapy is still very, very useful as a pain modulation device. And so in particular, Cash is still getting iced right after he walks in order to help with that pain modulation purpose.”


horse in buckets of ice

It’s hard to stand by and watch a horse suffer from laminitis. Ice helps relieve the pain, keep it going for 48 hours OR MORE at the first sign of trouble.


Ice or specific medical issues, like arthritis and laminitis.


  • Arthritis in horses is a great example of a condition that can be helped by both heat and ice. Arthritis is inflammation of joints, which can be painful and create stiffness. At the simplest of levels, heat will warm up a joint so that it can be comfortable. But, after exercise, ice therapy can be used to take out the inflammation. One good tip about arthritis for any horse or human – move it! And heat and ice can make movement more comfortable.


  • And then there’s the dreaded laminitis. One thing is for sure about laminitis, and that’s the pain and damage caused by the swelling inside of the hoof. The current understanding is that hooves in continuous ice for 48-72 hours is helpful in treating laminitis. It definitely helps your horse to be more comfortable. And yes – continuous ice.


How long should ice remain on your horse?


  • I wish I had a definite answer here. Most human studies say 20 to 30 minutes, and with the exception of laminitis, that is a great place to start. Your vet can help you determine what’s best for your horse.



hot or cold blanket for horse back

Genius designers have found ways to ice all parts of your horse.


Icing your horse seems like bunk.


  • I get that. So many many many people think icing is hard, time-consuming, expensive, and just not worth it, or their horse doesn’t need it because he’s not a Grand Prix horse. My vet summed it up nicely when she said “It’s not the level of the work, it’s the repetitive nature of the work. The wear and tear”.


  • Icing is a preventative measure, as well as something to help your horse heal from injury and disease. It can be as inexpensive as frozen peas (what else are they good for?) or you can invest in a continuous circulating system for thousands of dollars. Obviously, there are amazing systems in between the peas and the circulating systems, too.


  • And as far as the time goes – you can ice your horse and clean your tack at the same time. WHAT? Tack needs to be cleaned? I jest. Despite boarding my horse, I still have about an hour of barn chores and grooming that I do every time I see my horse. Is he icing as I’m mulling about? YES he is. And for the record, he’s a 1992 model, did the GP for over a decade, and is sound and happy at his age. And still runs away with me regularly, and of course, I let him!


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03/11/2024 01:32 pm GMT
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