More on icing, cold water salt spas

One of the current trends within the show community currently is icing horses’ legs or using the cold salt water spas at major events. Cryotherapy, or cooling a limb below normal body temperatures for extended periods of time, is an old horse owner’s trick that has taken a new spin. For years, athletes, both humans and animals, have been using ice post exercise to sooth aches and pains. This trend has seemed to pick up steam with the availability of cold salt water spa’s at major shows. We frequently have clients ask about when to use it, how it works and how beneficial it is.

Cryotherapy has been shown to help reduce inflammation, reduce tissue breakdown, and provide an analgesia to sore tissues. When a tissue gets damaged inflammation comes in to help heal this area. Inflammation is the body’s way of addressing injured tissues. When a cell gets damaged it sends out signals to the rest of the body to recruit healing factors to the injured site. Throughout this process white blood cells, cytokines and other components flock to the area. This process is beneficial to promote healing but when left unmanaged it can cause further damage to the site. Inflammation can be detected through swelling, heat, pain and sometimes change in tissue color. When tissues are chilled with cryotherapy it reduces the blood flow to that area and also slows down cellular metabolism. This prevents the invasion of more inflammatory components and reduces the damage done to the cells. In a show setting this therapy is beneficial because it provides pain relief to the area. From a rehabilitation/therapy side, prevention of excessive inflammation helps prevent further damage to the structures and can even provide a healing effect.

There are many indications to use cryotherapy, but the most notable one being laminitis. Laminitis is inflammation of the lamella within the foot. These lamella are responsible for attaching the coffin bone to the hoof capsule. Laminitis is an extremely painful and serious condition. For years, veternarians have struggled with the best way to treat or prevent laminitis. Continuous cryotherapy has been shown to be the most important treatment for laminitis. Studies have shown that it can reduce the length of the laminitic episode, reduce the severity of changes occurring within the foot and even prevent laminitis in horses that are at high risk. Often people think of laminitis as a horse that cannot walk and is extremely painful. This can be the case, but often in a horse show setting it is not as severe. Horses with sore feet and slightly increased digital pulses are likely going through a mild laminitic episode and could benefit from icing. Other injuries that benefit from some form of cryotherapy are cellulitis, tendinitis, desmitis, arthritis, joint synovitis/bursitis and skin irritations/conditions. With minor injuries or simple strain from increased work, cryotherapy alone may be enough to increase comfort in performing horses.

Options for cryotherapy range from simple bags of ice to elaborate salt water spas. This makes it one of the most accessible therapy options available to horses, owners and trainers on all levels. Bags full of water, ice and alcohol work great for taping to a horses feet for treatment of laminitis or sore feet. Soft Ride makes a product that easily allows for continuous ice therapy of feet and limbs. Leg wraps with built-in ice packs are available through a variety of companies, such as the Ice horse leg wraps. There are also systems that provide ice and compression together. These give you the combination benefits of cryotherapy plus compression. The compression factor helps deeper tissues become colder and drive out excess fluid. The Cadillac of cryotherapy is the cold water leg spa. These leg spas have water around 35 degrees Celcius and a high concentration of salts mixed in. The salt helps act as a poultice driving out inflammation and healing skin conditions. Many of these leg spas also have an aeration component. This helps insure that the cold water is continuously circulating over the horse. One more benefit of using cold water over ice is that the colder the water the more oxygen it holds. This oxygen rich water bathes the skin of the horse and can help with oxygen perfusion into tissues, slightly like a hyperbaric chamber is used.


Dr. Kate Workman graduated from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. She is one of the associate veterinarians and rehabilitation medical director. Hassinger Equine Sports Medicine has a rehabilitation clinic in Aberdeen, North Carolina and two mobile clinics that travel to major equine events across the US. You can email her at or visit

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