I have competed in many equine disciplines, from jumping to endurance to steeple chasing. I’ve seen at first hand the risks that each discipline poses and can fully appreciate how injuries can mean the end of a horse’s career. From what I’ve observed, a horse’s recovery and long-term career is greatly influenced by the treatment it receives during and after an injury. The first 72 hours are usually the most critical.
Traditionally, horses were stood in cold running streams or walked in the sea as an aid to the treatment and prevention of leg problems. Today, cold hosing is standard for cooling down horses after exercise. Sea water in particular, with its very high salt content, has an anti-inflammatory effect which facilitates healing and helps guard against further injury. However, the temperature of the water is not normally cold enough to affect the structures most often involved in injury.
To properly understand how the use of cold saline water can be beneficial, we need to review how the body reacts to strains, cuts and bruises. When soft tissue is injured by a cut, tear or concussive trauma, the body releases enzymes and proteins causing the surrounding blood vessel walls to dilate and become more porous. Lymphocytes are directed to the site, passing through the porous membranes and entering the injured tissues to begin fighting the infection.
The extra fluids, carrying the oxygen and proteins for tissue repair, pool around the injured area, causing oedema (swelling), which helps immobilise the injury. Tissue damage also triggers the secretion of hormones. These cause much of the pain the horse feels in order to prevent the overuse of the affected limb. Additionally, increased blood flow to the site of the injury results in a rise in temperature in the tissues there.
Inflammation – a double-edged sword
The three main symptoms of inflammation – pain, heat and swelling – occur in varying degrees, depending on the site, nature and severity of the injury. The downside of inflammation is that it may rage out of control and hinder the healing process, resulting in secondary tissue damage. In addition, blood vessels in the injured area are put under increasing pressure by the fluid build-up, thereby slowing down the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid.
The safest way to break the destructive cycle of secondary cell injury and excess swelling is to use the horse’s circulatory system to sweep away excess fluids that have collected in the tissues.
While anti-inflammatory agents may reduce swelling and heat, they may also mask pain. In addition, using corticosteroids to control heat and inflammation may shut down the entire healing process. The two natural ways of encouraging the dispersal of excess fluids are through the application of heat or cold. Heat, however, is not normally applied to an acute injury.
Once the injury looks better and your vet thinks it safe, consider walking your horse. Hard, level surfaces are best. Start slowly and build up to an hour. Every day after the walk, feel the legs and area of injury. If, after six weeks, you are certain that the injury site does not become hot or swell up, the wound has healed enough to allow you to saddle up and start work – in very short increments at first.