Let’s face it – horses are active animals and it’s inevitable almost all of them will sustain an injury such as a muscle pull or strain at least once in their lives. But what are the best ways to deal with it? While conventional medicines may have their place when a horse is in serious pain, many alternative therapies can ease discomfort and promote healing.

For this article, we asked several veterinarians and other equine care experts for their input on how to support muscle injuries in a holistic or integrative way.

Dr. Dan Moore: Nutrition

When I approach muscle trauma, I think of diet, because good nutrition can prevent injuries and be used as therapy. Protein, including amino acids; fats, specifically omega fatty acids; and minerals and vitamins, especially from natural sources, are all critical to health and healing. Protein is the main component of muscle while omega fatty acids structurally surround every cell as part of the cellular membrane. They also nourish joints. Minerals and vitamins can be considered “spark plugs” that actually make every activity work to begin with. Without these nutrients, muscles, tendons, ligaments and other tissues are certainly more prone to injury and simply can’t heal if already injured. Because most grains and hays are grown in poor soils, it’s best to supplement these nutrients on a daily basis. I also suggest daily antioxidants because any time there is an injury, “waste byproducts” of inflammation need to be removed from the body. Glucosamine helps rebuild the connective tissue or “glue” that holds joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments together. A supplement that contains both glucosamine and antioxidants is ideal.

Dan Moore is a practicing holistic veterinarian known as the Natural Horse Vet or simply “Dr. Dan”. He has been featured on RFD TV’s “Ask Dr. Dan” series as well as the Outdoor Channel and is founder of The Natural Horse Vet, an online source of information, products, and services about natural alternatives. His mission in life is to find alternatives to drugs and chemicals for people, pets, and horses, and he has formulated dozens of products. www.thenaturalhorsevet.net

Robert McDowell & Cath McDowell: Western herbs

Herbs support and stimulate the horse’s healing potential by working with his body. Anti-inflammatory herbs might include white willow bark, Maritime pine bark and devil’s claw. Millet and linseed, herbs high in silica and gamma linoleic acids, support muscle and ligament strength, while comfrey, yarrow and horsetail support the actual replication of healthy cells. These herbs are also traditionally known to reduce scarring and minimize the chance of re-injury. Corked muscles benefit from a topical application of herbs. Linseed oil with added arnica and wintergreen can stimulate circulation to the affected area, reducing swelling and allowing freedom of movement. Arnica topically applied to a sore muscle (as long as there is no wound) is excellent first aid to help prevent bruising of the area. When considering a serious muscle injury with massive swelling and possible infection, we want to support the lymphatic system with herbs like violet leaves and fenugreek. Yarrow as a topical application along with calendula can act as an antiseptic and is very beneficial for open wounds and exposed damaged muscle. If you attempt to speed healing beyond the horse’s ability to handle it – for instance by masking pain with nerve blocks or pain killers – you will run into trouble. The same applies if you are too cautious and keep the horse wrapped up in cotton wool. Balance is the key. In short, a holistic look at recovery encompasses the cause and severity of the injury, as well as environment and genetic potential. The herbs used depend on the circumstances, and rehabilitative exercises are essential to allow the recovery to progress without re-injury.

Robert McDowell is a fully qualified human practitioner, taught by world renowned classical herbalist Dorothy Hall. He has been in practice for over 25 years, and has been treating horses with herbs for over 18 years. Cath McDowell is also qualified with Dorothy Hall, is an EFA Level 1 coach, and has a passion for classical dressage. She coaches students and manages Kellosheil Park where the couple has a Holistic Equine Rehabilitation farm and equestrian centre. www.herbal-treatments.com

Dr. Chris King: Movement

The horse is designed to move, so all body systems and processes work better when he moves throughout the day than when he’s immobile. While rest from vigorous activity is important following injury, strict confinement is seldom the best idea. In fact with soft tissue injuries, strict confinement beyond the first few days is a recipe for fibrosis (scarring) within and between tissues, which can result in a chronic gait abnormality. The goal when dealing with an injury such as a muscle tear is to engage the healing tissue to do what it is designed to do, while staying well within its current compromised loading capacity. While it is important that the rehab not cause any further tissue damage, it is equally essential that the tissue be engaged while healing. This focuses the repair process toward restoring normal function rather than just doing a patch job. Depending on the injury, the horse, the facilities and the footing, pasture turnout is sometimes the best form of rehab. At other times, stall or paddock confinement with frequent hand-walking is best. Provided that walking will not aggravate the injury, hand-walking should begin within the first few days of injury. As healing progresses, the duration and then the intensity of the exercise sessions should be gradually increased, using the horse’s comfort as a guide. Note: An accurate diagnosis should be made before any rehab begins. If the injury involves complete rupture of a structure, movement should be restricted until the compromised region is stabilized.

Chris King, BVSc, MACVSc, MVetClinStud, is an Australian equine veterinarian with 20 years of experience and advanced training in equine internal medicine and equine exercise physiology. She takes a wholistic approach to equine health and performance. Her practice, Anima – Wholistic Health & Rehab for Horses, is based in the Seattle, Washington area. www.animavet.com, e-mail king@animavet.com or call 425-876-1179.

Dr. Joyce Harman: Homeopathy

Homeopathic medicines can be easily used to help a horse heal faster and with less long-term damage. The first remedy to think of in any trauma situation is Arnica Montana. Use C or X, selecting the highest potency you have available: 6, 12, 30 or 200. Arnica helps with shock, inflammation and pain, and starts the healing process immediately. Give six to eight tablets every 15 minutes when the injury first occurs, then two to four times a day for three to five days after, depending on how fast the horse is recovering. Follow Arnica with Ruta grav, given one to two times a day for two to four days. If the horse is still stiff at the end of a couple of weeks, but feels better after warming up, follow with Rhus tox, giving a single dose two to three times a week for a week or two. Several weeks later, it’s beneficial to follow up with a couple of doses of Silicea given about a week apart, to help break up scar tissue that will have formed from overstretching the ligaments and tendons. Homeopathic remedies can be used along with any other natural treatments, including herbs and physical therapies.

Joyce Harman is certified in veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic and has completed advanced training in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her practice in Virginia uses 100% holistic medicine to treat all types of horses. Her publications include The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and The Western Saddle. www.harmanyequine.com

Dr. Ella Bittel: TTouch

TTouch, or Tellington Touch, is a powerful way to give almost instant pain relief to an injured animal or person. Even better, TTouch can reduce the bruising and swelling that would otherwise occur, thereby speeding up the healing process. TTouch is the body work component of a whole support system developed by Linda Tellington-Jones. In the last 25 years, this gentle method of helping the body heal itself has revolutionized what people can do for animals in physical or emotional distress. Check it out for yourself. Next time you find yourself saying “ouch!” after bumping into something, take a minute to soothe the hurting area: with the fingertips of one hand, move the skin (inside its range of natural elasticity) in very light, counterclockwise circles, quickly covering the entire area. In a situation like Apache’s, while waiting for the veterinarian, you could use an ice gel pack or bag of frozen peas to do the circles with until the initial impact has been significantly reduced. It might be necessary to use direct touch on an adjacent non-injured area until the work calms the horse. Adding TTouch to the treatment protocol is beneficial at any time after a traumatizing event.

Ella Bittel is a German veterinarian who lives and works in California. She has been specializing in holistic treatment options for animals for over 20 years. She offers veterinary acupuncture, chiropractic and cranio sacral work interspersed with TTeam/TTouch. Contact lovingplanet@verizon.net or 805-688 2707.

Dr. Kerry Ridgeway: Acupuncture and photonic therapy

Too often, injuries such as Apache’s are relatively lightly dismissed with the attitude that “an injured muscle will be sore for a couple days or weeks, but will basically take care of itself with time.” Therapy usually consists of a few days of “bute” (phenylbutazone) and rest. While the horse may appear to do well with this regime, he may end up with more serious consequences down the line. I firmly believe that the best care and treatment lies in the proper integration of conventional and complementary/integrative medicine. In addition to “bute” and rest, the strained muscles should be treated with ice or cold hosing. Following the “emergency” treatment for acute inflammation, acupuncture provides excellent healing support. It is very effective in alleviating pain and allowing muscles to relax; this “release” of the muscles can help minimize scarring and chronic contracture. Another benefit of acupuncture is that it increases what is called the “current of injury”, a major factor in the healing process. All cells in the body function on an electrical basis to get nutrients in and waste products out. During injury, the electrical signals, whether via neurolic or ionic systems, are interrupted. Acupuncture stimulates these microamp currents to get cellular function going again and allow healing. Low level lasers (photonic therapy) can be used to stimulate acupuncture points; with broad heads and multiple light emitting diodes, they can be used to increase circulation and decrease inflammation. The appropriate use of modalities such as acupuncture and photonic therapy can minimize muscle damage, speed the recovery period and be a key factor in returning the horse to his performance level.

Dr. Kerry Ridgway graduated from Colorado State University in 1964 and was a founding member of the Association for Equine Sports Medicine. After practicing conventional medicine for over 20 years, he decided to direct his focus toward acupuncture. He became certified through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) and the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA). Kerry and his wife, Christine, operate the EquiSport Center for Therapeutic Options, an equine sports medicine rehabilitation practice based on acupuncture, chiropractic, and physical therapy modalities. Call 803-643-9188.

Dr. Mike Stewart: Hydrotherapy

After the initial assessment, a horse like Apache should rest until the area stabilizes. During the first 24 to 48 hours, a cold compression will help, as will cold hosing over the injured area. After the condition stabilizes, swimming or underwater treadmilling are ideal for speeding the recovery of musculoskeletal injuries. Recovery time will be reduced by 50% to 74%, and the healed tissue will be saved from the bio-mechanical compensation that can commonly result from a hand-walking program. Because water decreases or totally eliminates the weight on the injured leg, the horse can use and stretch it out without hurting the weakened tissue. The goal of hydrotherapy is to allow the tissue to heal with as much range of motion as possible. After an injury, motion is limited, so the rehabbing process needs to loosen the area and make it functional. The sooner hydrotherapy can be utilized the less limitation is involved. On chronic cases, we use a full submersion Jacuzzi with heated jet (95ºF) to further loosen restricted muscles, joints and ligaments Hydrotherapy also allows the cardiovascular and psychological benefits of being in a full working program. Horses need a job to stay content and happy. While they are mending, their job can be tailored to what ever weight distribution is appropriate. This way, his legs and body are gradually put back into full work.

Dr. Mike Stewart is a native of Lexington, Kentucky, where his family raised standardbred horses. He graduated with honors from Auburn University School of Vet Medicine in 1984. He spent one year as an intern at Hagyard Davidson & McGee and the next 15 years with standardbred race horses. In 1997, he and his wife purchased what would become River Meadow Farm in Windsor, Connecticut. He currently enjoys a vet practice specializing in equine and canine lameness and their speedy resolution.

Problems with conventional medicine

by Joyce Harman, DVM

The usual conventional treatment for this kind of injury would be rest and phenylbutazone (“bute”) as an anti-inflammatory and pain killer. Bute has many side effects, the most common being ulcers. They can be in the stomach (visible with an endoscopic exam), or anywhere else in the intestines (these cannot seen with an endoscope). Symptomatically, horses may just go off their feed, but they can also severely colic. After the drug is stopped, the ulcers may continue to cause poor performance, grumpy attitudes, reluctance to work and many non-specific symptoms that can be difficult to diagnose. Anti-inflammatory drugs in general stop inflammation, which is what they are supposed to do, but inflammation is a part of healing, which means these drugs actually slow the process. Muscle relaxants are another class of drug that can be used to treat the muscle spasms, pain and stiffness that injured horses like Apache experience. These drugs, including methocarbamol, can make a horse feel better, but do little to heal the injury. Side effects can include mild relaxation; if given with tranquilizers, these effects may be greater.