Determining which therapeutic aid to use for your horse, be it ice or heat, largely depends on what type of condition you are treating as well as your Veterinarian’s input.
Typically speaking, ice or other cooling technique is used for acute injuries and post exercise care and support. Acute injuries occur suddenly. A good example of this is the horse that is doing his best rodeo impression during turnout and becomes one with a fence. When you take him to the barn, he has a swollen lower leg and a hitch in his giddy-up.
You may also want to cool your horse's legs after he exercises. This takes the heat out of your horse's soft tissues, tendons, and ligaments to help prevent long term damage, reduce post exercise soreness, and remove any pain from arthritic joints.
Typically speaking, heat can sometimes benefit chronic injuries. Chronic injuries or conditions develop over time. A good example of a chronic condition is arthritis of the hocks or the horse with a sore back. Heat can often help your horse's joints and back loosen up for riding. This is especially helpful if your horse likes to be stiff and uncomfortable as your ride begins.
And here’s where is gets confusing and why you need to involve your Veterinarian. Horses are masters of getting by until it really stinking hurts. If a horse has a sore left hock, he may appear and feel sound for months, until possibly his right front tendons are a bit sore from compensating and then he becomes “off”. You may think, oh, he has an acute tendon injury, or you may find the hock soreness first. It’s difficult to determine the egg vs. chicken in this scenario, therefore it’s hard to determine a chronic vs. acute situation. You and your Veterinarian together can figure it out, and with that information, proceed forward with an icing or heating plan.
It’s not uncommon to treat some injuries with both cooling and heating. You may find that you initially treat an acute injury with cooling methods (usually the case), and after the initial inflammation goes away, your Veterinarian suggests a heating treatment. You may also find that your Veterinarian suggests icing immediately after exercise, and treating with heat later in the day. This may be the case for arthritis.
It’s important to remember that when icing and heating, more is not always better. Using ice for more than 20 or 30 minutes can actually increase inflammation, and using a heating treatment like DMSO in the initial stages of swelling can add even more swelling to the injury. You may find that your horse needs short treatments several times a day, which are easy to do around your barn chores.