Liniments have been used in barns for as long as horses have been worked hard. In fact, some liniment formulas are over 100 years old, having undergone few if any changes. The fact is, liniments work. They’re a vital part of caring for horses.
Most liniments work on the counterirritant principle. The major active ingredients have a somewhat irritating effect on the tissues, which increases blood supply locally. The most familiar of these are eucalyptus, menthol and camphor, which produce the familiar cold-then-warming sensation on our own skin.
The cold is a direct effect of these chemicals on local nerve endings. There’s a sensation of cooling, but the tissue temperature isn’t really lower. When the liniment also includes a base that evaporates quickly — like alcohol, acetone or witch hazel — there’s also a temporary local cooling from the evaporation effect that lasts for a few minutes.
Over the next 10 to 20 minutes, the sensation changes to warming as the mild local irritation kicks in. At this point, the skin surface where the product was applied becomes truly physically warmer. The chemicals also keep the local nerves occupied so that pain sensations are diminished for one to several hours.
Herbal/plant ingredients with counterirritant potential are also common in many liniments. These include wormwood, peppers, creosol, turpentine, thymol, and other extracts or oils. Peppermint and spearmint have effects similar to the other minty ingredients but aren’t as profoundly counterirritant.
Calendula has both astringent and anti-inflammatory effects, with some pain-relieving properties. Topical echinacea can also be anti-inflammatory. Many liniments also include capsicum from red pepper for its pain-blocking effects.
In recent years, gel-based liniments have become popular. Both gels and liquids will achieve the same effects. Many people find gels much easier to work with than liquids, with much less loss/waste due to runoff or spills. However, gels tend to be more expensive, and many gel bases tend to build up and flake. Unless you really prefer gel’s easier application, we’d stick with liquids. For better control when rubbing the liquid in and less waste, try using a spray bottle to apply the liniment to the skin then brace it into the leg as you normally would.
How To Use Liniments
• Diluted in a water bucket and applied liberally with a sponge, like a bath rinse. This body wash/brace after heavy work will soothe and invigorate hard-worked muscles. Follow product directions for dilution, as most liniments should not be used full strength on a hot horse.
• Rubbed into the legs to soothe and relax after hard work. Wraps may or may not be needed, depending upon what you want to achieve. You can also use a liniment as the base for a mild sweat wrap, but consult the label instructions. Liniments applied as leg braces can be diluted with witch hazel or water and used as a rub under standing wraps.
• Massaged into tense, sore muscles anywhere on the body or ligament soreness, especially in the stifle or shoulder. Apply the liniment either full strength or diluted, per instructions, and massage in down to skin level. You can cover the area with plastic or plastic with an underlying towel soaked in warm water to increase the effect.
• Soothe stiffness and pain associated with chronic ligament/tendon or joint problems in the lower leg by applying full strength immediately before work. After work, once the horse is bathed and cooled, apply a liniment full strength and leave unwrapped, or dilute for use under wraps. Most liniments must be used with care when wrapping. Follow product directions.
• Decrease persistent swelling/edema in chronic injuries. You can also ease swelling in fresh injuries once the acute inflammatory phase is over, which is usually three to five days.
• Always wash and rinse area thoroughly before using liniments.
• Do not apply liniments full strength on areas covered by tack.
• Vigorous massage increases irritant effects.
• Use extreme caution with strong liniments when applying after exercise and/or a hot bath (pores are open).
• With horses that have sensitive skin, do a 24-hour spot test first. The skin on the back of the pastern is a good spot to use.
• Never wrap legs when using a new liniment for the first time. Apply and leave legs open for the first three days to check for sensitivity/scurfing, especially with products we have marked as strong irritant potential.
• Avoid liniments with strong irritant potential on sites of active inflammation. Inflamed areas are always more sensitive and will blister or scurf more readily.
We divided liniments into chemical-based ingredients and herbals/naturals for our trials.
The herbal-based products, which we will discuss in an upcoming issue, tend to be less harsh and not as strong. These have a more gentle warming action that’s easier on sensitive-skinned horses.
This article focuses on the chemical liniments and includes products with high concentrations of menthol, camphor or salicylates. While these ingredients might be technically considered “natural,” they’re strong ingredients that are likely to have major effects with confirmatory thermography readings, so we compared them to the chemical/stronger liniments that have similar indications.
All the liniments in this chemical-based trial had from mild-to-marked counterirritant potential, so we didn’t use them on fresh injuries. We used them for body washes, leg braces and on chronic injuries and sore muscles.
Surface thermography gun readings were used to determine warming vs. cooling effects. Pain-relief was recorded by improvement in freedom of movement and response to palpation or flexion.
Products were applied once or twice daily to chronic problems. No drugs or anti-inflammatory/analgesic herbs were given. Veterinary recommendations regarding appropriateness of exercise were followed. Horses in work with chronic problems were kept on their normal routine.
You’re likely going to need more than one liniment type on hand. We didn’t find what we’d consider one “all-around” liniment that serves every need for every horse. Therefore, we broke our recommendations into different uses:
Post-work body wash/brace: The top contenders were Vetrolin, Absorbine Veterinary Liniment, Bigeloil, Choate’s Liniment and Dr. Benson’s Rx Massage.
The Dr. Benson’s was too thick to mix easily unless using very warm water and, even at recommended dilutions, made our horses “dance” a bit too much to really be considered soothing.
The other four all mix easily in either cold or warm water, cut through sweat well, and leave the horses relaxed and comfortable but alert. If one of these is already your favorite, no reason to change, but Vetrolin and Choate’s Liniment get our nod due to price.
Routine post-work care of lower legs: The safest choices in this category, if there is any question regarding whether or the not the horse may have strained himself and need a supportive wrap, are Kwik and Doc’s Leg Tightener. Both can safely be used full strength under wraps and are effective at tightening the legs with out overheating. Kwik gets the nod for price, but the Doc’s Leg Tightener treated horses also showed improved freedom of movement.
Muscle soreness, acute: All the liniments in this trial help decrease muscle soreness. Any spasm also begins to ease as the warming effects of liniments take place. However, the best results in terms of reduction of spasm, rapid and long-lasting pain relief and obviously improved freedom of movement was with Choate’s Liniment.
Muscle and tendon/ligament pain, chronic: Before using on tendon/ligament areas, be certain any active inflammation has quieted down. All the liniments produced some temporary reduction of pain on palpation and spasm, but for deep relief of the most stubborn muscle and shoulder/stifle pain we’d go with Thermaflex first, followed by Absorbine Veterinary Liniment Gel, which is easy to apply.
Joint pain, chronic: We made this a separate category because the precaution to make sure there is no active inflammation going on holds especially true for joints. Once you’re sure the joint is cooled, lightly spray the problem area with Choate’s 15 minutes before work and again at night.
Persistent edema/stocking-up in healing injuries: Once you’re certain the acute inflammatory phase is over, Absorbine Veterinary Liniment or Bigeloil are the standouts for persistent swelling and stiffness while encouraging good healing. Use either full strength without wraps or diluted under wraps.
Recommendations At A Glance
2. Choate’s Liniment
Routine Post Work Leg Care:
2. Doc’s Leg Tightener
Acute Muscle Soreness Or Chronic Joint Pain:
1. Choate’s Liniment
Chronic Muscle And/Or Tendon/Ligament Soreness:
2. Absorbine Veterinary Liniment Gel
Persistent Swelling During Healing:
1. Absorbine Veterinary Liniment, Original
2. Bigeloil, liquid