As any horse caretaker knows, horses are going to hurt themselves at some point. They play rough and have a knack for finding trouble where they can. And with injury, comes pain. No one wants to see their equine partner in pain. We would do just about anything to ensure their health, safety and comfort. However, and I’ll probably get a lot of push back for saying this, pain has a purpose when it comes to equine injury recovery. It is the body’s way of letting us know “Hey! There’s a problem here! Don’t do that.” Depending on whether you are dealing with an acute or chronic issue, there are factors that you might want to consider when contemplating how to balance your horse’s pain management with the healing process.
During the acute phase of an injury, it is important to manage inflammation and ensure that the lymphatic/circulatory system can clear waste material from the injured tissues. While pain, heat and inflammation are the body’s natural response to injury and are meant to keep the horse from doing further damage, they can also create problems in the long-term if allowed to go unchecked. This can possibly set the horse up for chronic issues later on. Because of this, anti-inflammatory drugs may be administered by a veterinarian to help aid the healing process along and keep pain and inflammation levels under control. Other treatments such as hydrotherapy, red lighting, PEMF, etc. are also very beneficial during the acute injury phase.
Limiting the movement is important in certain situations. Horses may be put on stall rest for a period of time. And this is where we run into a bit of a dilemma. If the horse is feeling great because it’s on pain relievers, it can be challenging to keep them stalled up. They can hurt themselves if they get too worked up, pacing, getting anxious being cooped up. Then when they are let out, they explode with energy. The purpose of the pain is meant to keep them from doing things that they shouldn’t. So managing pain can be a balancing act at best in these situations.
Chronic injuries tend to develop when either an acute injury has not healed properly, or something is being continually aggravated and re-injured over and over again over a long period of time. A good example of the chronic issue is the development of arthritis in joints or calcifications due to long term stress/inflammation to an area of the body.
Chronic injury treatments are often focused on symptom relief rather than looking at the root cause of the problem. Treatments offered to correct the issue are often very costly or just simply not offered at all. We want our horse to be pain free and/or to be able to continue to ride them. So we trust that the solutions being offered are the answer. All to often though they end up only providing temporary relief.
This is very typical with performance horses. There is a need to keep them working successfully in whatever discipline they’ve been trained in. For example, a performance horse developing arthritis in the hocks from the stress of their work receiving hock injections. The injections ease the pain/inflammation in the hocks so the horse can continue to do the same work that is causing the pain/inflammation in the hocks. The body is trying to say “Hey stop doing that! It’s causing damage!” But we’ve just silenced that voice with the injection. The damage is still occurring, the horse just can’t feel it until the injection wears off. Then they get another one.
Getting To The Root Of The Pain
Instead of focusing on treating symptoms, let us work harder to get to the root of the problem. Maybe we should consider the suitability of the horse to the task being asked of it. Does the horse’s conformation make it a good candidate for the job? Is the horse older and perhaps needs to move into a “lighter” form of work (or play), or even retirement? Are there underlying issues contributing to the stressed area that could be addressed through bodywork or physical therapy? Something as simple as adjusting how your horse is trimmed can have a huge impact on your horse’s entire body and the stresses on the bones, ligaments and tendons.
So yes, pain has a purpose. It’s not always something that should just be covered up. The pain gives us clues into what is going on in our horse’s body and helps to protect the horse from doing further damage. We should pay attention to what the pain is telling us. Is it acute or chronic? Is there something going on elsewhere in the body contributing to the issue? Let us think more like detectives rather than throwing a bandaid on the issue. By taking all these things into consideration, we can then be the best possible advocates for our equine companions.
This information is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or condition, nor is it meant to replace regular veterinary care. Always remember to consult your veterinarian before beginning any treatment plan on your horse!
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork, using essential oils for animals and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the “whole horse”.