Post-workout leg care

A few simple measures after a ride can help preserve your horse’s short- and long-term soundness.

The design of your horse’s legs help make him an athlete. His bulkier muscles are on his upper body, so his limbs are streamlined and relatively lightweight. Yet this efficiency has a cost—there’s not much protecting the joints, tendons and ligaments from the knee down. And many riding activities ask a lot of these vital structures. Studies have shown, for instance, that a galloping horse’s superficial digital flexor tendons are utilized to near their failure threshold. It’s no surprise that equine legs are so prone to injury.

But you can minimize your horse’s risk in a variety of ways, including being careful about footing, taking time to warm up properly and avoiding working him to exhaustion. And these efforts don’t have to stop when you dismount. In fact, how you care for your horse’s legs after a workout can make a big difference in his short- and long-term soundness.

Effective post-workout leg care combines action with attentiveness: taking specific measures while keeping an eye on particular things. Here’s what you need to do.

Learn about your horses legs

Before talking about liniments, hosing or wraps, we need to start at the foundation of leg care, which is establishing what is normal for your horse and noticing when things aren’t the way they should be.

A personal feeling a horse's fetlock
Regularly inspecting your horse’s legs will give you a sense of what “normal” is for him.

Although the basic anatomy is the same, every horse’s legs will be slightly different. Individual conformation, as well as life experiences, influence the contours and textures of a horse’s limbs. Consider how your own knees—maybe slightly knobby, with the scar on the left from an old biking accident—are different from everyone else’s. With this in mind, go over your horse’s legs just to learn what is normal for him. To recognize whether a bump discovered after a ride is new, you’ll need to know if it was there the day before.

A leg inspection is easy to do and doesn’t take long. Stand your horse in an area with good light, with a helper if he isn’t likely to be patient. Then, run your hand down the length of each of his limbs, from elbow to coronary band. Take time to explore the contours of his knees, hocks and fetlocks, feeling the anatomy underneath the skin and familiarizing yourself with the bony knobs and bumps. Pinch your fingers together slightly as you run them down the back of his leg. This will give you a good feel of the tendons. Locate the thin splint bones sitting on either side of each cannon bone and feel their length until they taper off down the leg. Don’t forget the coronary band: Walk your fingers around its circumference, feeling where the firmness of the hoof and softness of the limb merge.

As you go along, stop and investigate anything unusual like ruffled hair, softness on a joint, or a lump on what you’d expect to be a smooth surface. If your horse is sound, chances are these are normal for him, perhaps evidence of earlier, healed injuries. (Point them out the next time your veterinarian visits for a professional opinion.)

Make a mental note of each unique feature. If it helps, write an actual note or take a picture with your phone. By doing this check daily on each leg, as part of your grooming routine (or at another time when you aren’t distracted), soon you’ll have learned the unique landscape and quirks of your horse’s limbs.

You’ll also want to practice feeling your horse’s digital pulses. An artery runs down either side of the sesamoid bones, on the outside edge of the fetlock joint. You can feel it under your fingertips as a cord-like structure that “rolls” slightly as you drag your fingers across the skin. Apply slight pressure to feel the pulse through the artery, and practice on all four limbs.

Now that you know what normal is for your horse, you’re ready to tackle the most important part of post-workout leg care: The after-ride inspection.

Inspect your horse’s legs for trouble

After you’ve unsaddled your horse and walked him long enough for his respiratory rate to return to normal, inspect his legs. Follow the same routine as you did to learn the landmarks—running your hand over the structures and stopping to pinch, poke and feel when necessary. You’re looking for anything that you would consider abnormal for your horse—a change in texture, such as a thick spot on a tendon or soft swelling on a joint, or an unexpected temperature, such as a warm spot on a coronary band that wasn’t there before. Check his digital pulses as well. Inflammation in the limb can cause the pulse to become stronger and “bounding.” It will actually be easier to feel than in a normal situation.

Keep in mind that, physiologically speaking, some of these changes are to be expected: A horse working in splint boots during the summer months is likely to have warmer legs. If his heart rate is still elevated from a workout, his digital pulses are going to be more prominent. Wait until he’s calm and cool to begin your assessment.

If you find something amiss in your post-ride inspection, watch your horse move at a walk and maybe a jog; if he limps or moves stiffly, you have cause to call the veterinarian now. I always want to hear from a client right away if her horse is lame after a ride. It’s always easier for a veterinarian to see an injury in the acute phase and craft a treatment plan from the get-go. The reality is, I often don’t get called for two or three weeks, when I’m less able to influence healing.

On the other hand, if you find an abnormality on your horse’s limbs and he seems sound, don’t shrug it off. Even small changes can be signs that a bigger problem is developing. Studies have shown that many injuries that seem “sudden” and acute are actually the end result of ongoing micro-traumas. Small stresses on a tendon or joint over many months aren’t given a chance to heal and accumulate until they reach an often tragically literal breaking point. Many times, the only clues that these small injuries are occurring are an area of fluid accumulation or heat that lingers after a ride.

If you find a suspicious area, wait an hour and check it again. If the anomaly is still there or has worsened, call your veterinarian. I will often tell a client in this situation to keep an eye on it for a day, but I like knowing what’s been going on if I am called later. In the meantime, I might instruct a client to try a few things to help speed up the natural recovery process—things which I will outline in the rest of this article—and check on the horse again in a few hours or the next morning.

Post-workout leg therapies for horses

Some specific measures can safeguard your horse’s legs after a workout. Most of them won’t be unfamiliar—in fact, you’ve probably done them all before—but what you might not realize is exactly how they benefit your horse. In a nutshell, all these therapies aim to accelerate the body’s natural recovery process after a workout, restoring the physiological status quo faster. Here’s a closer look at the various therapies, as well as what you can do to maximize their benefits.

Turn out is a simple “therapy” that can help dissipate fluid and heat in legs after a workout.

Physiologically speaking, icing does a few things. For starters, it’s analgesic, meaning it reduces pain associated with the activity. But its most important effect is to encourage vasoconstriction. When a horse is working hard, the capillaries that extend into his muscles, tendons and ligaments expand to bring in needed blood. You need that wide-open flow in the height of activity, but when the activity is done, that excess flow will persist—even for hours—and will bring in now-unneeded fluid that contains mediators and enzymes associated with inflammation. You don’t want that sitting around in tissues. Not only does it provoke an inflammatory process, but pooling fluids will stretch tissues, making them less elastic over time. Once you lose the elasticity in tissues, particularly in the lower limbs, you can’t regain it, and the horse may then be prone to fluid accumulation—known as “stocking up.” The sooner we can get them back to their baseline circulation the better, and icing helps with that.

You can’t ask a horse to sit in a tub of ice after a workout, though. The easiest way to apply cold therapy to a horse’s limbs is with water straight from the hose, although that might not be as effective as other methods. Research suggests that the target temperature for cryotherapy is around 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), much colder than what typically comes from a tap. There are many commercial cooling boots and wraps you can buy, but I’ve also seen horses trained to stand in large muck buckets filled with ice. You need to ice limbs for only about 15 or 20 minutes after a difficult workout to obtain the benefits. If you had noticed any heat or swelling in your post-workout leg inspection, check again after icing—if it hasn’t diminished, give your veterinarian a call.

Liniments and poultices. These are mainstays of post-workout leg care, and you’ll find them in nearly any barn. They help restore a limb to its pre-workout state in two different ways.

Liniments work under the principle of cooling the leg. Typically alcohol- or menthol-based, they evaporate quickly, taking with them the heat that built up in the limb tissues during exercise. Heat in a limb is normal as a horse exercises. It comes from increased circulation in the area and the release of stored energy. That heat is helpful during activity because it keeps structures pliable, but after exercise, residual heat can injure tissues and is associated with secondary inflammatory processes that come with the enzymes and mediators I mentioned earlier.

Heat eventually dissipates on its own, but if we can speed that process up, we may be able to prevent some potential damage. Poultices are similar to liniments in that they often contain cooling ingredients, but they are intended to “draw out” fluids from between cells, reducing any lingering inflammation and preventing swelling. Wrapping over a poultice adds yet another aspect of post-leg care I’ll explain more about in our next section.

I rarely recommend a specific liniment or poultice product to a client. People typically already have their favorites that they are most comfortable using, and that’s fine. What I will tell people, however, is to research what is in each product they use and understand the purpose of the ingredients. Then, closely follow the directions laid out by the manufacturer. What you don’t want to do is try homemade concoctions recommended by a friend’s brother’s farrier’s uncle. It’s easy to do research these days on the Internet. That, combined with some common sense, will serve you well.

Wrapping. Putting wraps on a horse’s legs after a hard workout is a time-tested tradition. And while it may not do what you think it’s doing, it can be very helpful.

First, keep in mind that wraps can’t “support” tendons or a ligament in a lower limb or reduce the load these structures bear. What wraps can do, however, is provide compression of the tissues to prevent fluid from pooling. As I explained earlier, when fluid settles in a leg following a workout, the inflammatory enzymes collect and tissues stretch, both of which can be damaging. Wrapping a leg closes up the spaces between cells where fluid can collect, preventing stocking up and helping the leg return to its pre-workout state faster.

The problem is that wraps that are done badly are worse than none at all. If you are not experienced and confident in your ability to apply a standing bandage, ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it or assess your ability. It’s not difficult to wrap well, but it’s not something you can just figure out on the fly.

Also be selective about when you wrap. Putting standing bandages on a horse in Georgia in July is going to heat the tissues and may cause more problems than they would solve. Again, common sense is critical.

If you do apply wraps after a workout, they need to be left on for only six to eight hours—overnight at the longest. And remember that wrapping only prevents a generalized “stocking up” of the leg; it won’t address any specific swellings related to trauma. If you find a welt in a tendon following a workout, skip the wraps and call your veterinarian.

Turnout. This last “therapy” may be the easiest to implement. Movement helps dissipate fluids and heat after strenuous exertion. It restores circulation to pre-workout levels and prevents stocking up. That’s the very reason that walking your horse is a key part of the cooling-out process. Think of top-level event and racehorses: After serious exertion they are put on a hot walker for as long as an hour. You don’t need a hot walker to do this. Your horse can handle it himself if given enough space.

If it’s feasible, after you’ve completed your post-ride check and leg care routine, turn your horse out in a pasture or small paddock. He will naturally walk from hay pile to water trough or mosey slowly as he grazes. The benefits of this continued motion extend to the rest of his body as well, as he’ll be able to stretch and move his larger muscle groups. Even if he’s tired and doesn’t seem to be moving much, he’s still better off outside than he is in a stall. Leave him out for as long as you can; there’s really no downside if he’s in a safe area and is happy.

Whether your horse runs, jumps, piaffes or spins in pursuit of your chosen sport, caring for his legs after the saddle comes off is crucial to that effort. From careful inspection to thoughtfully applied therapies, post-workout limb care isn’t just a good habit; it’s good horsemanship.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #451

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