One of the most valuable allies in the “doctor’s” kit of every horseman ought to be water — simple, soothing, inexpensive, and most often readily available. The application of water, a.k.a. hydrotherapy, to encourage healing brings plenty of advantages in many equine injuries. In spite of the many advancements in veterinary medicine, hydrotherapy remains a solid therapeutic modality on the front lines of first aid treatment as well as extending benefit into the healing period thereafter.
Veterinarians frequently counsel horse owners to cold hose an injury for a duration of about 20 minutes. Many horse owners quickly realize the benefits of this practice and will often have hydrotherapy well underway even before the veterinarian has arrived to tend to an injury.
Initially hydrotherapy serves to cleanse an open wound of dirt and debris. A clean wound is not only the first step to effective healing, it is also valuable therapy for ongoing healing. This first step in cleaning will be important whether the wound is sutured or left to heal as an open wound.
If the injury is left to heal as an open wound, hosing the wound for 20 minutes daily encourages further healing. This process can be repeated every day for weeks after the injury depending on the wound’s progress.
The beneficial effects of hydrotherapy extend beyond cleansing the injury. Hydrotherapy is also remarkably effective at controlling and regulating the three main symptoms of inflammation — heat, swelling and pain.
These three processes are natural and functional responses to injury, yet they can overwhelm and slow the healing process. Hydrotherapy appears to modulate the horse’s natural mechanisms to heal an injury by capitalizing on the stimulating effects of improved circulation.
Both the immune system and tissue regeneration appear to be enhanced as well. The timely application of cold hydrotherapy to a laceration, blunt trauma, or strained and/or sprained soft tissue constricts and decreases the permeability of blood vessels at the injury site and thus reduces the amount of fluid accumulation.
Cold therapy reduces the tissue’s demand for oxygen and so limits the triggers for hypoxic injury. Contraction of the vessels due to the cold also encourages the movement of fluid from the affected area, further reducing swelling. One of the often overlooked benefits of cold hydrotherapy is that of analgesia and pain relief.
Invariably the afflicted site shows noticeable improvement and appears less painful for the horse. Horses quickly learn to accept and enjoy the benefits of hydrotherapy. Owners often comment on the favourable influence hydrotherapy will have on their horse’s overall attitude.
There are numerous variations on the theme of hydrotherapy. Cold therapy is recommended until the initial inflammation has subsided. Once the injury feels cool to the touch, heat can be applied to encourage blood circulation to the affected area. Hosing with warm and/or tepid water can be done if such is readily available. Hot compresses can also be utilized to accomplish this end. When heat is applied to the surface of an injury it causes the blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow to the site bringing nutrients and oxygen to the injured tissue.
Although dry heat from lamps or heating pads can be helpful, moist heat from compresses are better able to penetrate deeper into the tissues. However, if heat is applied too early after an injury the heat can spur undesirable inflammation. Therefore, as a general rule one would apply cold if the injury is warm and/or hot and apply heat if the injury feels cool/cold. The change of therapy from cold to hot can take from days to a week depending on the nature and severity of the injury.
Contrast baths are another practice that can be used to stimulate healing. An alternating series of warm (not hot) and cold applications are used to encourage the movement of nourishing fluids into the affected area and removal of stagnant fluids out of the healing site by cycling dilation and contraction of blood vessels.
It is important not to overlook the inexpensive nature and extremely wide margin of safety hydrotherapy offers. As such, it presents strong arguments in its favour, bringing a multitude of advantages to horse owners when presented with acute injuries or wounds.