First Aid for Sprains and Strains in Horses

Horses playing and fighting may lead to sprains and strains.
Horses playing and fighting may lead to sprains and strains. Nick Savchenko

Horses are tremendous athletes and we use them strenuously in many athletic events and competitions or sometimes just for a fun gallop along the trail. Sometimes they become injured, however, if we ask them to perform a task they are not in fit condition for, or they suffer a strain or sprain (pulled joints, stretched ligaments or tendons) due to bad footing or some other situation that overstretches a joint or muscles.

The difference between a sprain and a strain is that a sprain injures the ligaments that connect bones together in a joint, while a strain involves injury to a muscle or to the tendon that attaches a muscle to a bone. Both types of injuries can be painful and the horse may be "off" in his stride or possibly very lame. The soreness may be the result of overwork, twisting the leg, or a sudden effort that disrupts a joint or pulls the muscle.

If a horse turns up lame after a gallop or any kind of exertion or athletic effort, a serious lameness should warrant a call to your veterinarian. He/she may need to examine the horse to determine the exact location and extent of injury. A veterinary examination may be necessary, to make sure there isn't a serious injury like a fracture or major disruption of a joint or tendon/ligament - and if there is, it will need veterinary care. In order to proceed with proper treatment, you need to know what you are dealing with.

Meanwhile, while you wait for the veterinarian to come examine the horse, the best thing you can do for first aid is limit the horse's activity and movement, and apply cold to the injured leg. Try to determine the general location of injury (pastern, fetlock joint, knee or hock, etc.) and focus your cold therapy on that area.

One of the best ways to initially reduce the pain and inflammation after an injury - whether it's a strain or a sprain--is to use cold, such as cold-hosing or an ice pack or ice-water. Applying ice or cold water is one of the oldest techniques, used by horsemen for many years, and still the most effective.

If the inflammation and potential swelling can be halted before it gets started, pain is minimized and healing is much faster. Managing pain can help a horse heal, because pain is a stress. Cold therapy has been proven in horses and humans to work very well on any acute injury during the first 24 to 48 hours following the injury. Cold tends to numb the nerves and dull the pain.

Cold also controls swelling and inflammation because the blood vessels shrink in the area where you apply cold, and thus there's not as much blood flow to cause heat and swelling. The body's immediate response to injury is to send more blood to that area.

There are many ways to apply cold, and what you choose will partly depend on the injury, its location, and how serious it is. In many instances, the water from your hydrant is cool enough (preferably below 55 degrees) for cold hosing of a lower leg, or you might stand the horse in a stream, or in water at the beach, or stand him with the affected leg in a bucket of ice-water. This has been the traditional treatment for strains and sprains.

The leg only needs to be in cold water for about 20 or 30 minutes at a time; you don't have to do it continually. Cold therapy usually works best, for most injuries, if you can do it for about 20 minutes at a time, at intervals throughout the day. That way you aren't keeping the leg too cold continuously.

Cold therapy is a wonderful tool for reducing swelling and inflammation, and safer for the horse than using medications like bute or Banamine. Cold therapy will accomplish the desired anti-inflammatory effect without the possible detrimental side effects of these drugs.

Ice boots on horse's legs.

Ice boots on horse's legs

When a horse has a strain or a sprain, managing pain can help the horse heal because pain is a stress.

If you don't want to spend the time tending to a horse standing in ice tubs, you could use commercial ice boots. The horse can walk around with these boots on and you don't have to worry about him knocking over an ice tub. Having a soaking boot in your first-aid supplies can be very handy; you can simply put the foot in the boot and pour in the ice-water.

Judicious use of cold therapy, begun immediately after the injury, can make a big difference in the outcome of the healing process for the horse.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.