This article was originally published in the Las Cruces Bulletin on December 18, 2015
The obvious fact that makes the management of pain in an animal so difficult is the inability of the animal to actually tell us in words what is happening. We can certainly speculate with injuries and illness and know that a horse is hurting; even likely pinpoint the location of the pain. And having a clear guideline is profoundly helpful.
In cases where we do not have clarity or certainty, we can observe the horse for “pain indicators.” These include, but are not limited to, increased heart rate, rapid respiration, sweating and shaking. A horse in pain might drop to the ground and roll violently or press himself against walls or fences. He might throw his head about or kick out in anguish. It is important for us to stay safe and alert when evaluating and treating horses that hurt.
A Veterinary exam can rule out some causes of symptoms and pinpoint areas of trauma or imbalance.
Medications that suppress the symptoms are necessary, but equally important is discovery of the cause of those symptoms. Relief is realized by addressing the actual cause of pain after that pain is lessened.
In general: cold is applied to new, acute injuries and heat is applied to old, chronic injuries. In cold weather, application of blankets to the body and deep bedding in a proper pen with shelter will aid in comforting the horse and speed up healing. Leg injuries will usually require some type of support through bandages and/or boots to the leg and the hoof. If a single leg is injured, support of the remaining three legs will aid healing by keeping them from becoming stressed and injured.
The horse is walking on “digits” — each leg is the equivalent of one of our fingers, so extra loading of uninjured parts can escalate to increasing injuries and pain.
Internal pain can be the result of digestive disturbances, even ulcers. A Veterinarian can properly assess the horse’s condition and supply the medications that relieve immediate suffering. The reasons for internal distress can be determined and any future reoccurrences prevented with proper diet, abundant water, an anti-parasite program and a stress free environment.
Inflammation can be a common cause of pain and anti-inflammatory drugs help short term in the beginning. Herbs that can prevent inflammation over long term use (ingested) are: white willow bark, celery seed, turmeric root, meadowsweet, yucca root, boswellia and devil’s claw. Herbs for external use as infusions are: arnica, comfrey, peppermint and rosemary. Essential oils for pain are peppermint, lavender and anise seed. Do not use any drug or herb on pregnant or lactating mares without professional guidance.
Pain in a horse’s hoof can often be caused by bruising which can lead to abscesses that can be excruciating! Soaking the hoof in very warm epsom salt water for 30 minutes 3 times daily will draw out pain and abscesses. If you suspect a horse’s hoof sole has been bruised on a ride, dose him with homeopathic arnica or belles remedies as soon as possible. This can prevent or reduce the bruising.
Pain can be like a ghost that appears and disappears in a horse’s life.
Tracking it down, identifying causes and choosing treatments can be challenging but rewarding. In the end, we must always see the horse as a whole and support the body’s good health at all times.