Poultice: Getting Down and Dirty by L.A. Pomeroy
Healing clays have been used by indigenous cultures since before recorded history. Easily accessible and even more easily applied, mud served a dual purpose as personal adornment, and protection, like a second skin, against harsh elements and biting insects.
Our forebears also discovered that mud not only offered protection but relief, probably revealing its topical healing properties after inadvertently soothing a painful bee sting or swelling. A plain old dirt mudpack will still work in a pinch if you, or your horse, are stung on the trail, but as the art of poulticing was refined, the search for materials with even higher water-holding capacity began.
The solution was clay.
Two common choices are Kaolin (white clay) and Bentonite (clay from volcanic ash). For example, Arenus’s SORE NO-MORE® Cooling Clay Poultice combines Bentonite clay with its award-winning arnica based liniment for a silky smooth consistency that is easily applied and washed off. No added chemical or drugs, just herbs that have been used for centuries.
The benefits of poultice lie in its efficient combination of water/hydrotherapy and absorption. Modern sports fabrics tout their ability to wick moisture from the skin’s surface and, as a poultice dries, it does much the same thing: pulling, or “wicking” fluids from the tissue underneath and into the clay.
Moist clay also has a cooling effect, encouraging heat from inflamed tissue or infection to equilibrate with the clay’s lower temperature; as water in a poultice evaporates, heat goes with it, creating a “cooling” as well as soothing treatment.
When To Use It
Poultice is one of the safest and surest proactive steps a horse owner can take to stop problems before they start. After a hard workout, it can be applied to cool down legs, i.e. tendons and soft tissue, especially when liniment has been added in lieu of plain water. It’s an excellent choice to ease minor sprains/strains, target aching muscles, and draw out bacteria and toxins from puncture wounds and similar infections.
If it’s a fresh injury, i.e. one that is still “hot,” you’ll want to cool it down. For maximum cooling effect, poultices can even be chilled before applying, using ice water.
For old tendon/ligament injuries, sore feet in winter, or for reducing muscle tension and/or joints that tend to stiffen after hard work or from arthritis, a poultice using warm water is an option. Warmed plain, or liniment-enriched poultices also draw out hoof abscesses quicker.
During the warmer seasons, a poultice can also offer relief from irritating bites and insect stings, act as a buffer against further assaults, and protect sensitive skin from the damaging effects of sunlight (especially on light-colored horses prone to burns). Just remember that poultices are most effective when wet, and can irritate skin if they dry out too much before they are removed.
How To Use It
Applying poultice to legs or hooves is as easy as (mud) pie. First, always ensure that the surface you are treating is clean and wet (remember the importance of “hydrotherapy”). Next, scoop an “egg”-sized dollop of poultice into your hand. Using the egg analogy, the size depends on the length/diameter of the horse’s leg or size of hoof. A big sport horse might need a goose-sized application; a pony might require a quail.
Using one, smooth stroke with the palm of your hand (not fingers), spread the poultice evenly down the leg and to the top of the fetlock. Keep some water handy if you need to smooth things out. If it’s your first time applying a poultice, wrap with plain brown paper that has been allowed to soak in a bucket of water. Use only paper unless you’re experienced with how plastic wrap impacts/increases the heat exchange process and can recognize signs of over-irritation or scurfing.
Wrap the wet paper over the poultice (it will stick). Then place a clean, standing wrap, i.e. quilt, over the wet paper. Quickly wrap over the quilt with a clean bandage/leg wrap. Be certain the wrap lies smoothly and evenly and is completely secure.
It’s A Wrap
Never poultice more than once every six to 12 hours, and thoroughly remove the poultice once it has dried, either brushing the dried clay off, or hosing it with water. Evaluate its progress. Is there more or less swelling, heat, or infection? Are you seeing the desired result?
As important as knowing when to poultice is when to stop. Between applications, let the leg or hoof “stabilize.” This offers a base line to work from before assessing the next round of treatment.
This “base line” can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, after which you can determine what the next step in treatment should be. These steps might include:
- Hosing the leg with cold water to counter the effects of inflammation by cooling the leg.
- Wrapping the leg with a mild to moderate support to create a gentle “pressure bandage” (this deters accumulation of, or helps dissipate, edema)
- Checking with your veterinarian for a second opinion
- Taking a wait-and-see approach for another 24 hours
- Reapplying poultice
Under absolutely no circumstances should a leg or hoof be poulticed more than twice in any 24-hour period.
When infection, inflammation, or the strains/sprains of competition and daily horse life need relief, before turning to medication, consider the ages-old tradition of poultice. Never has the adage “older than dirt” rung more true.