Liniments and Poultices for Horses
Updated December 7, 2022 | Reviewed By: Andris J. Kaneps, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSR
Liniments for Horses
A mainstay in wash stalls and grooming boxes, liniments are liquids or gels that are applied on the horse’s skin. A liniment provides superficial cooling or warming and some level of pain relief by temporarily soothing stiff or sore muscles and joints. Think BenGay for horses – that icy hot feeling with an unforgettable smell.
Equine Liniment Ingredients and Directions
Liniments are typically alcohol, witch hazel, or oil-based. Ingredients such as camphor and capsaicin (from chili peppers) are often found in formulas designed for warming up areas of the body. While formulas with alcohol, menthol, eucalyptus, or wintergreen can reduce inflammation and can be useful in cooling down a hot horse. The alcohol evaporates quickly from the horse’s skin, which helps cool down their skin’s temperature.
Liniments may be labeled as topical antiseptics, meaning they’re safe to apply on superficial scrapes or cuts to help ward off infection. It’s important to carefully read each product’s label and directions. Not all liniments are created equal. Their active ingredients, application methods, strength, and aftercare can vary. The consequences of applying them incorrectly can mean burning or irritation for your horse.
Some products may also contain ingredients, such as capsaicin, that are considered forbidden substances by the USEF or FEI. Pay close attention to the liniment’s label if you are planning to compete. It’s always wise to ask your veterinarian if it’s the appropriate product to use for that specific situation.
Benefits of Liniments for Horses
- Temporary, superficial relief of minor soreness and stiffness
- Topical antiseptic properties
How to Use Liniments on Horses
- Diluted with water and then applied as a bath or after the horse is towel dried
- Applied at full strength directly onto the horse’s skin (ex. shoulders, topline, loins, stifles)
- Applied as a skin brace (same theory as an aftershave) on the legs and then dressed in a standing wrap (commonly called “setting up”)
- Sweat wrapped with a cellophane layer under a cotton bandage to trap heat and reduce fluid build-up in the distal limbs
Examples of Liniments Being Used in the Barn
- Before training as a preventative for relieving chronically sore or inflamed areas
- After training to ease muscles, arthritis, or problem spots like windpuffs
- To treat fungal or bacterial conditions on the skin or hooves
Poultices for Horses
Poultices are moist, combinations of clays – kaolin (white clay) or bentonite (clay from volcanic ash)— glycerin, herbs, minerals, and antiseptics. Poultices, depending on the ingredients, are used to relieve inflammation, pain, and swelling. On the foot, they may be used to draw out sole bruises and abscesses and can act as a cushion to provide comfort. Poultices are also great for after training or competition to improve tissue recovery.
For perspective, a wide variety of clays have been used on horses for as long as we have cared for horses. Still, active research is continuing on the effects of poultices
Equine Poultice Ingredients and Tips
When a clay-based poultice dries, it draws out excess fluid from the tissues, and the evaporating water pulls out some of the heat along with it.
Osmotic (Epsom salt or sugar-based) warm poultices are often used for hoof abscesses, bruises, or sole injuries to soften the area, draw out fluid, and reduce inflammation. Epsom salt or granulated sugar may be mixed with povidone iodine (Betadine) to combine the osmotic effects of the salt or sugar with the antiseptic effect of the iodine. This type of poultice is easy to mix and apply to the affected foot under a hoof bandage.
Body heat from the horse’s legs and from the standing wraps typically applied over top will gradually warm up the cold mixture. [KS2] To counteract that warming, many horsemen will place pieces of damp brown paper, newspaper, or cuts from the paper lining of feed bags directly over the wet poultice. This helps maximize the poultice’s benefits by keeping the area moist and cool for longer. Animalintex is a dry poultice dressing that has both hot and cold applications. Therefore, Animalintex can have many different uses from reducing swelling to drawing out hoof abcesses, depending on the temperature of water you soak it in before applying.
Again, some poultices can contain ingredients, such as lavender, that are considered forbidden substances by the USEF or FEI. So, make sure you read the poultice’s label carefully if you are planning to compete.
Benefits of Poultices for Horses
- Temporary pain relief to ease sore or stiff muscles
- Osmotic (fluid-drawing) agent to reduce inflammation and swelling
- Supports faster recovery
- Poultices for hoof packing may also provide some cushioning for sore feet
How to Use Poultices on Horses
- Warmed (not hot) for treating pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion
- Cooled (stored in the fridge) for use as a preventative therapy for tendons, ligaments, joints, and muscles before or after exercise
- Alternating warm and cool temperature poultices
Examples of Poultices Being Used in the Barn
- Spread on thickly to cover from the knees/hocks to the fetlocks, encasing the tendons and ligaments of the lower legs, after a competition or long day on the trailer
- Part of a sweat bandage where the poultice is applied to the leg, covered with lightweight plastic wrap, then bandaged over top to prevent or reduce limb swelling
- Packed onto a hoof abscess to soften the area and encourage drainage
Liniments vs Poultices
It is always recommended that you speak with your veterinarian for advice before applying a liniment or poultice, and to patch test any new product on a small area before applying on the horse’s entire body. Some general differences between liniments and poultices to keep in mind include:
Liniments – opt for a liniment to jumpstart your horse’s circulation and for chronic stiffness. You can apply these after a tough workout to help your horse feel better, more refreshed, or as a brace. Apply liniment over an area you know is particularly sore, but not over an inflamed area, wound, injury or for lameness.
Poultices – veterinarians may recommend a poultice for an acute injury, such as a horse having a big, warm and swollen leg, to draw out the heat and swelling. Or, they can be used on the feet such as packing a hoof is you have a bruise or abscess.
- Bastos, et al. Assessment of clayey peloid formulations prior to clinical use in equine rehabilitation. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(10), 3365