How to treat soft tissue injuries on horses

Knowing how soft tissue injuries occur will help you alleviate your horse’s pain and speed up the healing process, writes Kim Dyson.

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If you’ve been a horse owner for any length of time, chances are you’ll have had a horse pull up lame on you. And when you think about how a horse is “constructed” – with a massive body atop impossibly thin legs – it’s a wonder injuries don’t happen more often.

That aside, it’s always worrying when you see that head-bobbing motion at the trot, or worse still, limping at the walk, especially when it’s coupled with a hot or swollen leg. We own a very sweet mare called Censation. She’s due to foal down in a month. Unfortunately, the geldings don’t seem to understand what it’s like to be pregnant, and the result of their irritation with her ended in a nasty biting and kicking match. The geldings came off second-best.

One, Nala, has a massive haematoma on his neck. And, while it’s always important to contact your vet when something like this happens, it’s also helpful to understand what goes on internally to cause such an intense reaction. This will enable you to alleviate pain and accelerate the healing process. When a horse suffers from such an injury, the surrounding cells sustain trauma as well. Called “primary traumatic damage,” it’s the body’s immediate response to acute stress.

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Blood is sent racing to the site in an effort to begin regeneration, but the resulting hematoma, or rapid blood accumulation, is also associated with pressure, pain and nerve damage. Compounded by “secondary hypoxic injury,” which robs the area of oxygen and so damages more cells, it leads to additional swelling that ultimately delays recovery. By employing RICE, the acronym for “Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation”, you can do much to reduce swelling and relieve pain, while at the same time minimising cell and tissue damage. And the “ice” part, the application of cold, is the key.

Cold acts as a localised anaesthetic, controlling pain and quieting muscle spasms, and it lowers the metabolic rate of the injured and healthy cells. It also decreases oxygen demand, which will help to avoid secondary hypoxic injury. And, when cold is applied in combination with compression therapy, which reduces swelling once it’s occurred, you have a highly efficient method of treatment.

Take an old tea towel and fill it with crushed ice. Gently move the ice in circular movements around the site of the swelling. Movement is essential, so as not to burn the surrounding tissues. You can also give your horse rescue remedy – 10 drops every hour – until signs of improvement are seen. This will speed up the recovery time. Arnica is also an invaluable remedy for healing soft tissue injuries – administer 10 drops hourly for two days, then 10 drops four times a day.

Meanwhile, to keep potential injury at bay, it’s important to examine and palpate your horse’s legs before and after exercise, as tissue stress can easily occur, and many of these stresses aren’t easy to detect, even with proper training. And, equally as important, be sure to routinely apply cold compression.