The Importance of Cold Therapy for Managing Inflammation in Horses

March 13, 2024

The Importance of Cold Therapy for Managing Inflammation in Horses

Whether you’re involved in an equestrian sport like show jumping, dressage or three-day eventing, or you’re a non-competitive rider, we know you want your horse to feel his best. Optimal recovery from exercise & injury is crucial to horses’ wellbeing, performance & longevity. At a fundamental level, managing inflammation is the primary component of supporting the body's repair & healing processes. While there are various methods to help regulate the inflammatory response in equine athletes, cold therapy stands out as one of the most proven, time-tested, & highly effective approaches. This practice is relied upon by veterinarians & the world’s most experienced equine caretakers for good reason. 

Understanding Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s normal response to injury, infection, or irritation. A certain level of inflammation is normal & necessary for the body’s healing & defense processes, so inflammation is not all bad. Acute forms of inflammation show up as redness, swelling, heat, & pain, but chronic inflammation at the cellular level is more insidious. This means it may not have obvious outward signs until problems become more advanced. 

In horses, inflammation can happen in any area of the body & may be the result of strenuous exercise, injury, arthritis (degenerative joint disease), illness, parasites, stress, poor nutrition, & more. Inflammation is also the primary component of specific health conditions such as laminitis, cellulitis, & uveitis, just to name a few. Left unmanaged, inflammation can impede your horse’s recovery, compromise his performance, & lead to a cascade of chronic health issues. In hard working performance horses, managing inflammation of the tendons, ligaments, joints, & muscles is an important component of a comprehensive care & conditioning program. Keeping the horse’s lower limbs healthy is of utmost importance. 

The Role of Cold Therapy

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, involves the application of cold temperatures to targeted areas of the body. This therapeutic modality plays a pivotal role in managing inflammation by constricting blood vessels, reducing blood flow, & decreasing metabolic activity in the affected tissues. As a result, cold therapy helps mitigate swelling, alleviate pain, & promote healing. 


The Benefits of Cold Therapy 

  1. Reduction of Inflammation: By reducing blood flow to the inflamed area, cold therapy helps control the body’s inflammatory response, keeping excessive swelling in check & helping to reduce the risk of tissue damage.Cooling the tissue temperature to below approximately 66° F helps to reduce pain, edema (swelling), & the severity of laminitis, especially in the acute phase. 

  2. Pain Relief: Cold therapy numbs the nerves in the affected area, providing immediate pain relief & improving the horse's comfort level. 

  3. Normal Healing: Cold therapy promotes vasoconstriction, which minimizes the leakage of inflammatory substances into the surrounding tissues, thus supporting the body’s healing process. 

        Best Practices for Cold Therapy

        While cold therapy offers significant advantages, it's essential to implement correctly to maximize effectiveness & ensure the horse's safety: 

          1. Consult Your Veterinarian: Your horse’s vet is the best person to determine whether cold therapy is recommended to treat the injury/health concern in question, & what form of cold therapy would be best.  

          2. Acute vs. Chronic Considerations:Cold therapy is generally most appropriate fornew injuries, especially during the first 24 to 48 hours (or longer, if heat & inflammation are still present in the tissues). 

          3. Research indicates that the therapeutic benefits of cold occur when the tissue temperature reaches a range of 59° to 66° F. 

          4. Treatment Duration: Limit cold therapy treatment sessions to 15-20 minutes each to prevent tissue damage or adverse reactions resulting from prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. 

          5. Stagger Treatment Intervals: Allow sufficient breaks between cold therapy applications to prevent overexposure & allow tissues to return to normal temperature. For example, your veterinarian may recommend cold therapy treatment every 2 to 4 hours during the first 24 to 48 hours after injury. 

          6. Protect the Horse’s Skin: Using hard ice packs against the injured part of the body creates a risk of damaging superficial tissues by localized freezing. Be sure to provide a barrier, such as a towel or wrap, between the horse’s skin & the ice.   
          Essential Cold Therapy Tendon Boot

              Applications of Cold Therapy in Horses

              Cold therapy can be administered through various methods, including: 

              1. Ice Baths: Studies have shown the direct contact of ice water with the horse’s skin is the most effective way to cool inner tissues. Therefore, this may be the optimal method when treating an acute injury. (Note that cold immersion of the horse’s foot & lower limb has been shown to reduce the severity of laminitis. Laminitis treatments should only be conducted under the careful guidance of a veterinarian). 

              2. Cold Hosing: The most common day-to-day method used by equine caretakers. Cold hosing (allowing cold water to gently run over the inflamed area of the body) is a proven method of applying cold treatment, especially to the horse’s lower limbs. 

              3. Ice: Equine caretakers may simply put ice inside a plastic bag & hold/wrap that to the affected area (taking care to provide a protective barrier between the ice & the horse’s skin to prevent tissue damage) or freeze water on a paper cup and rub that on the site of the inflammation.  

              4. Ice Packs: Applying ice packs directly to the affected area can also be a cost-effective approach. However, this method also requires a layer of protection between the skin & the ice pack to prevent tissue damage & additional injuries. Additionally, hard ice packs are heavy, difficult to use under bandages, & may be uncomfortable for the horse. 

              5. Frozen Gel Packs: Treatment packs that stay pliable when frozen are a much easier option than hard ice packs. Not only do they conform to the horse’s leg/other body part being treated, but some also have a built-in layer of material to help protect the horse’s skin. 

              6. Cold Therapy Machines & Whirlpool Boots: These devices provide a combination of cold therapy with compression or massaging action of moving water for horses’ lower legs. They are a larger up-front investment, & it may take some training to have your horse confidently stand during these treatments, but they can be a great option to consider. 

              7. Ice Boots & Wraps: One of our favorite options because of the convenience. With similar effects of cold hosing, they have the benefits of pliable gel packs mentioned above, & you can treat a targeted area with the potential added benefit of compression. 

              EquiFit’s Cold Therapy Collection 

              Essential® Cold Therapy Tendon Boot

              IceAir™ Cold Therapy Boot

              GelCompression TendonBoots™

              Hot/Cold Therapy BackPack™  

              GelCompression HockBoots™

              Hot/Cold Therapy TendonPak™ with Elastic Wrap 

              GelCompression KneeBoots 


              Summarizing Equine Cold Therapy Benefits 

              Cold therapy is a cornerstone in the management of performance horse soundness. It offers a safe, effective, non-invasive means of alleviating discomfort, reducing swelling, & promoting healing. It is important for horse owners, riders, & equine caretakers to understand the role of cold therapy & the best practices for its application. With this knowledge & the right tools, we can enhance our equine partners’ well-being, recovery & performance, ensuring they stay happy, healthy, & sound for years to come. 


              Kaneps, Andris. (2000). Tissue temperature response to hot and cold therapy in the metacarpal region of a horse. Proc Am Assoc Equine Pract. 46. 208-213. 

              Kaneps, A., King, M. (2020). Practical Equine Rehabilitation: Review of Available Modalities. 

              Miklowitz SL: Thermal Agents in Rehabilitation. 2nd Ed. FA Davis Co, Philadelphia, 1996 

              Smith, Roger. (2008). Tendon and Ligament Injury. AAEP Proceedings. 54. 475-501. 

               “Cold Therapy & Ice Bandages.”