Cryotherapy, or the therapeutic use of cold, is a powerful technique that riders use for several reasons. Most riders think to use cryotherapy on their horses for new injuries, but don’t necessarily consider the therapy for old injuries or for faster athletic recovery.
New injuries: When a horse is injured, whether it be a muscle damage, bone damage, or an open wound, the damaged capillaries leak blood into the surrounding tissues. This excess fluid causes edema, or swelling. Cooling down the tissues through the use of cryotherapy will constrict the blood vessels and help prevent excessive swelling. This results in less damaged tissues the body has to clean up, which in turn shortens the overall healing time.
When a horse strains or tears a tendon, it is the collagen fibers that are compromised. Collagen is a type of protein found in connective tissues throughout the horse’s body. When the collagen fibers are damaged, an enzyme known as collagenase breaks down the collagen in the tissues and helps healthy tissue to grow. Unfortunately, while tendons can heal, they tend to be weaker than they were before they were damaged. The strength of a tendon comes from the regular parallel arrangement of collagen fibers. When the new collagen fibers form and knit back together, they tend to do so in disarray, forming cross links over the lingering swelling. Having formed such weak links, the fibers don’t provide enough strength in the tendon and it is easily re-injured. Cryotherapy helps to keep the temperature low to minimize swelling, allowing the fibers to form straight lines, strengthening the tendon.
Icing, a form of cryotherapy, helps to reduce pain, but it is important to only ice for 20-30 minutes at a time to prevent vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels. For new injuries, icing 20 minutes then taking a 20 min break is advisable. It is best to do this for as long as possible, so those that have a water treadmill at their disposal can put it to good use.
Water treadmills are known to be a great form of exercise and therapy as they reduce concussion to the lower limbs. They are known to reduce recovery time by 50% or more. Many riders don’t realize that their treadmill can also be used as an icebox. The cold temperatures increase the oxygen levels in the water and increased oxygenation through the horse’s body will help release stem cells and growth cells which promote healing. The hydrostatic pressure of the water will reduce swelling and increase circulation, and the addition of salt can increase density which increases the pressure on the limbs to aid in fluid and waste dispersal.
Old injuries: Using cryotherapy for old injuries can be very beneficial, especially after exercise. New white blood cells have already begun to destroy the dead cells in the affected area, and the cold encourages even more white cells to enter which minimizes stress on the newly healed tissues. 20-30 minutes after exercise should be more than enough time.
Faster athletic recovery: Once a horse’s respiration rate has returned to normal, cryotherapy can help to alleviate soft-tissue and muscle damage (musculoskeletal injuries). During exercise, the capillaries expand to bring in blood, however the excess flow can persist after the exercise is finished. The excess fluid pools, leading to the stretching of tissues which can cause a horse to “stock up”. Icing or another form of cold therapy will help to close the vessels and prevent muscle soreness in the following days.
Overall, cryotherapy is a simple way to help a horse recover from a new injury, an old injury, or an exercise session. Riders tend to look for the latest technology to aid in recovery, forgetting that a form of cryotherapy lives in their freezer and is most likely cheaper and easier to use.