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Where, When and Why Heat Should be Used!
Heat for Horses
Heat is usually accepted well by horses and ponies. It is easy to apply and has many benefits.
The Benefits of Heat
Increased metabolic activity and nerve activity.
This leads to:
- an increased demand for oxygen
- widening of the blood vessels (vasodilatation) which increases blood flow and therefore delivery of oxygen and nutrients
- improved metabolism of waste products, leading to better recovery
- more oxygen and nutrients are available for the cells
- relaxing muscle fibres
- increased pliability of connective tissue aiding flexibility
- maintaining freer joint movement with low resistance
Research suggests for an effect, tissue temperature needs to increase by at least 3 to 5°C from the resting temperature (Bockstahler et al, 2004). However using something that is too hot could cause discomfort and even damage to the tissue.
When should I use heat?
Heat is most suited to use for chronic conditions. Such as:
- muscle spasm which is very common in the horses’ back – especially in the lumbar region behind where the back of the saddle sits
- relaxation of general muscle stiffness – perhaps from an increase in workload or general wear and tear
- osteoarthritis and other joint stiffness – particularly common in the hock and fetlock joints
- chronic tendonitis – in other words, an old tendon injury that presents as a swollen tendon. This is common in the fore limb SDFT (superficial digital flexor tendon) and DDFT (deep digital flexor tendon) in race and ex-race horses, and in jumping horses. In dressage horses this is seen more in the hind limbs.
- bursitis – this in an inflamed pocket of fluid with the joint. Usually seen in the knee or in the hock.
Where can I apply heat?
Heat can be applied almost anywhere, so long as you can keep it in place for the required time. Use heat before exercising your horse to help warm the muscles and tendons. Heat should always be used at rest and care should be taken to not overheat vulnerable tendons in the lower limb.
If your horse is not in work then heat can be applied at any time of day when they are resting, either on the yard or in their stable. As a general rule, heat should be applied for around 20 minutes at a time up to 4 times a day.
When should Heat NOT be used?
Heat can have an adverse effect if used:
- in the acute stages of inflammation (the first 72 hours after injury or surgery)
- on an open or bleeding wound
In both of the above scenarios cold should be applied to aid vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood vessels). Read our article here on cold applications for horses.