Equine Injuries
By Erica Stoton

Injury is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a horse. Besides the pain associated with the injury, the horse's general health is undermined. It can take many weeks if not months for the horse to recover fully. Some orthodox veterinary treatments may not always prove effective and in many cases are cost-prohibitive for the average horse owner. But if care is not given, the horse may suffer needlessly. Injuries must be attended to immediately, and for the owner on a tight budget, natural therapies can provide a safe, effective, proven and relatively inexpensive form of treatment for common equine injuries, whether you have a riding pony or are campaigning a show horse.

There are many advances in veterinary science that have provided horses with new hope for recovering from injuries that used to mean death. These days it is less common for a horse to be euthanized, or put down, due to a fractured limb. However, even with the use of the latest scientific methods, equine injuries are not always successfully healed. For the owner who wants to consider alternative treatments, massage, acupuncture and other forms of physical therapy should be investigated thoroughly; herbal, homeopathic and dietary treatments are increasing in popularity and are proving to be very effective. When combined with diligence on the owner's part, natural based treatments offer the potential for full recovery and at a lower cost.

The most commonly used treatment for equine injuries is physical therapy. This has replaced harsh therapies like "firing" and "blistering" which hopefully have been abandoned. Physical therapy consists of stimulation of nerves and muscles to retrain them for their normal motions and builds the base upon which other treatments can be applied. Depending upon the veterinarian, he or she may recommend a certain type of exercise for the horse. A horse owner can build his or her own routine for physical therapy by considering the seriousness of the injury and the objectives that must be met in treating it. Broken or fractured bones and serious hoof injuries require low impact exercises. In these cases swimming is often the exercise of choice to begin with for most injuries. Herbs are often added to the water and are very beneficial. This may be followed by moving the injured limb by hand and hand walking your horse on soft, even ground. Increased intensity of the exercises then follows. No matter what the injury is, physical therapy is the most important part of rehabilitating an injured horse.

Massage therapy is becoming an increasingly popular treatment and preventative for both humans and animals. Most horses are enthusiastic when it comes to a good body rub. Massage is often employed before a horse is warmed up for exercise. This form of physical therapy is also used for treating muscle injuries. Massaging spastic muscle tissue improves blood circulation which helps increase oxygen levels at the injury site. It clears away metabolic by-products that accumulate in injured muscles and, if not removed, cause more lameness. It is most often used for spasms, stiff joints and sprains and strains. There are equine massage therapists throughout North America but it is also possible for the average horse owner to learn how to massage his or her own horse. Equine massage is generally accomplished by using the underside of your hands and fingers. Using this part of your hand, rub gently but firmly in long strokes in the direction of the lay of the hair. Massage may also be directed across the lay of the hair but never in opposition of it. Naturally, the best results are seen when massage is deployed in the area it is most needed. Feel for abnormally warm spots or areas that are tight or sore. These generally are the areas that should be concentrated on, with care. Treatment should last at least half an hour in most circumstances. Used in conjunction with other treatments it relaxes tight muscles and helps reduce swelling and pain. Be gentle and be aware of your horse's responses when performing massage and let your horse guide you. Both you and your horse will enjoy this extra activity.

Magnetic and electrical stimulation therapies have been used by some owners and breeders but are open to a lot of skepticism regarding their validity. If you choose either of these treatments avoid product marketing that points to miracle cures. Electro-stimulation therapy uses a device that directs pulses of electric current into the injured area. This causes contraction and relaxation of muscles. It is often used in muscle spasms or injuries where exercise is inadvisable. In some cases electro-stimulation therapy can be very harmful as it forces muscles to move in a violent and unnatural fashion and the results may be further injury.

The use of small magnets applied externally to the injured area provides a much safer treatment. Many process industries use strong electromagnets to improve flow of liquids or gases through piping. The technology in these cases is based on sound research. Likewise, there are magnetic fields in the body that affect calcium ions and blood vessels in the muscles. In theory, when injury has occurred these molecules get misaligned and this inhibits healing. The application of magnets helps rearrange the molecules and also improves blood flow through the blood vessels in the treatment area. This increases the blood flow to the injury site and thus aids healing. There have been several case studies on racehorses that prove the efficacy of magnets. These studies have shown that bone injuries that are slow to heal were greatly improved by the use of magnets. They can be applied to swollen, bruised, sprained or strained muscles. Pain relief is also provided to arthritic horses through the use of magnets.

Magnetic fields have been incorporated into many common equine apparatuses to make their use easier. Leg wraps with small magnets in them are used for leg injuries and magnetic blankets are useful for arthritis. There are also halters, saddle pads and bridles that have been adapted to this type of therapy. One important thing must be addressed and that is that magnets should not be applied to an area where there is broken skin due to the increased blood flow near the magnet. Extended use is also unnecessary. Magnetic therapy is not a cure all but it is a useful adjunct in healing the injured horse.

Chiropractic treatment for injuries is a therapy that is somewhat controversial. Bone manipulation is commonly employed for sore backs or where an unusual gait has been noticed. Equine chiropractors have their own system of diagnosis. The basic principle behind equine chiropractic is to correct a subluxation (a partial dislocation of a vertebrae) that is affecting the spinal cord and disrupting nerve function, which can adversely affect practically any part of the body and its systems. According to some veterinarians, the chances of subluxation of anything in a horse is quite slim and the use of chiropractic on horses is often useless and expensive. Other veterinarians use this therapy extensively and find much success with it. A sore back or unusual gait can be caused by factors other than a back problem, so the services of a chiropractor may not be the first choice in therapy. It is important to find a properly trained equine chiropractor who is suitably qualified and preferably certified by the American Veterinarians and Chiropractors Association (AVCA).

Acupuncture is an unusual form of treatment that involves stimulating certain points on an animal's body. An acupuncturist uses extremely thin needles and inserts them into various points near, or related to, the site of injury. There are different principles behind this treatment, but basically it is believed that "meridians" or pathways of energy (Chi) in the body are interrupted during injury or illness and that stimulating these points helps restore the energy flow so healing can begin. Both acupuncture and acupressure (stimulating the points by pressing them rather than inserting a needle) can be useful for restoring proper flow of Chi. A proven principle behind acupuncture is that the properly placed needle stimulates the production of endorphins. This acts as anesthesia for pain and helps an injury to heal. The pain reducing power of acupuncture is incredible and some dentists use it in place of normal drug-based painkillers when they perform dental work. Acupuncture can be useful for very painful injuries, particularly those involving the lower legs, as it allows other treatments to be performed pain free. Great success is often achieved. It is important to find a properly trained acupuncturist, preferably one certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society.

Diet plays a major role in preventing and treating injuries. Hoof ailments such as laminitis, quarter cracks and bruises are usually caused by over stressing a horse and improper hoof maintenance, but a deficient or incorrect diet contributes to them. Injuries in general are more likely to occur in those horses who are in less than optimal condition and who do not get to exercise on their own. Dietary therapy includes supplementing the diet with certain vitamins, minerals and trace elements to improve the overall quality of the horse's normal diet. This may also mean decreasing much of the grain ration that most horses eat daily and increasing hay and grass intake. The wild horse never eats processed grains (grains at all are scarce, largely seasonal, and whole) but relies on grasses and shrubs for its nutrition. A more natural diet may help the domesticated horse to reduce the incidence of many common ailments and injuries. In the long run, a high-quality dietary supplement program for the horse helps maintain a strong body and immune system, especially during a stressful period.

Herbal treatments for equine injuries have become fairly common in North America. Herbs, when used knowledgably, are natural, gentle and safe for horses and are very effective in treating injuries of all kinds. Unfortunately, many herbal formulas are adulterated with chemical substances so it is best to use herbs raw or dried or as a pure tincture. (For competition horses, herbs that act as stimulants or have properties similar to banned substances cannot be used prior to a competition date.) Many herbal remedies can be used externally. Comfrey is an excellent herb that is applied externally for bruises, sprains and strains and broken or fractured bones. Echinacea is used to boost the immune system and acts as an antibiotic against infection. Calendula and tea tree oil are commonly used to cleanse wounds and help them heal. Witch hazel and white willow bark are useful for bleeding and pain respectively. Herbs are an excellent supplement to other therapies as they strengthen the body and provide certain properties needed for healing as well as nutrients. When used appropriately, herbs are proven safer than orthodox drug therapies, have few if any side effects, and work with the body to heal it rather than just suppressing symptoms.

Homeopathy is a medicine often shrouded in mystery and there is not very much accurate information readily available to horse owners. Homeopathy works on the principle that like cures like. A remedy is selected based on the symptoms. The symptoms of an injury or illness are observed and evaluated, and then a remedy matching those symptoms is chosen. Only one remedy is used at a time. A new remedy is only selected when the symptoms have changed and the first remedy is no longer suitable. Homeopathic remedies do not treat symptoms but stimulate the body to heal itself. Homeopathic treatments work very well in acute pain, bleeding, chronic lameness, and more. There are some homeopathic remedies that can be given for specific problems yet they are not limited to just those problems in their use. Homeopathic Arnica is specific for injury and bruising, Hypericum is for pain and nerve injury, Symphytum is for broken and injured bones, Phosphorus is for bleeding, to name a few. Most homeopaths perform an evaluation of your horse and his symptoms in order to determine the appropriate remedy. The average horse owner can select remedies for his or her horses with the help of an equine homeopathic practitioner or the use of a homeopathic repertory. The remedies may be given in pellet or liquid form so they are easy to administer. They are non-toxic and do not have side effects.

Today the advances in veterinary medical technology have provided horse owners with many possibilities for successful treatment. Natural therapies including herbs, homeopathy, massage, and magnetic and physical therapy are further improving the treatment of equine injuries. Many of these therapies are not new and they have only recently begun to be rediscovered as effective methods of rehabilitation. The "natural" approach is becoming increasingly popular for owners of both the hobby horse and racehorse.

In the past many equine injuries were often untreatable. In those bygone days the gun was taken out and old Paint was then buried in the back 40. Even for those owners with a small budget, today's options in healing can erase the mistakes of the past and give your pony a better life.

Erica Stoton ©2000

About the author:
Erica Stoton is a free-lance writer based in Winnipeg, Canada, a natural animal care consultant, and co-author of The Compleat Pet Herbal©, new software that educates pet owners on natural pet care. She also offers the pet industry a wide range of technical services and is a contributing editor for Animals Exotic and Small Magazine. She can be reached at estbizmail@aol.com.