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.
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.