Treating The Lame Horse

Physical Therapy

Equine physical therapy aims to minimize inflammation, swelling, and pain, and increase mobility and flexibility. Treatment for equine lameness typically involves passive range of motion exercises or walking, coupled with one or more of the therapies below. In some cases it is combined with a systemic anti-inflammatory agent and/or a topical anti-inflammatory sweat such as DMSO or capsaicin.

Heat or Cold Therapy for Equine Lameness

The use of ice or heat is often a controversial topic. In many instances, heat and cold therapy are alternated to maximize the beneficial effects of each. Both forms of treatment have a place in successful recovery from lameness; however, you should always consult your veterinarian before applying either to an injury.

Cold/Ice Therapy: Upon injury, tissue damage can result in excessive swelling, potentially increasing damage to the area and delaying recovery. When ice is used immediately following injury, swelling and inflammation are minimized and blood flow to the area is slowed to reduce hemorrhage and bruising. Because the inflammatory response is slowed, pain is reduced. Often the muscles at the site of injury respond by becoming tense. Cold controls muscle spasms, allowing the affected muscles to relax.

In addition to using ice therapy on soft tissue injuries such as bowed tendons, cold temperatures penetrate deep into the tissues, reducing the inflammatory effects on bone and in joints.

Cold therapy should be used initially at the site of injury to limit inflammation, but is also used in rehabilitation from the injury and to treat chronic (long-term) conditions, often after exercise.

Cold treatment options include cold water hosing, ice wraps/boots, and cold-water hydrotherapy.

Heat Therapy: The general rule of thumb is that heat should not be applied immediately following an injury, but rather during the healing phase, and after inflammation is controlled with cold therapy.

Warm moist heat increases blood flow to the affected area, providing nutrients and removing metabolic waste products, thus encouraging the healing process. Heat acts as a painkiller by stimulating the nerves in the skin to interfere with the nervous system”s ability to recognize pain.

Heat is typically used during rehabilitation of a lame horse prior to exercise to decrease muscle stiffness, increase flexibility and range of motion, and thin joint fluid to minimize friction in the joint.

Heat therapy options include heat packs, warm water hydrotherapy and, for deep tissue healing, ultrasound.

IMPORTANT CAUTION: A horse should never be left unattended when heat or cold therapy is used.

Massage Therapy

Massage increases lymphatic and blood circulation. When coupled with passive range of motion exercises, massage helps to minimize scar tissue formation and increase flexibility. Massage is an essential and simple preventive therapy that minimizes injury in the healthy or recovering horse.


Hydrotherapy, either cold or hot, combines the therapeutic effects of massage and temperature.

Therapeutic Shoes

Therapeutic horseshoes absorb or reduce the concussive forces placed on injured limbs, or limbs with poor conformation. Shock absorption is particularly important in preventing and treating injuries to the knee, or carpus.

Other Treatment Methods

Therapeutic ultrasound reduces swelling, accelerates healing, and decreases pain by stimulating the production of endorphins.

Low-level light therapy, or laser therapy, increases lymphatic and blood flow to the injured area. Light therapy reduces swelling, aids the removal of waste products, and stimulates endorphins, the body”s natural painkillers.