Poulticing has been around as a first-aid measure for probably as long as there’s been mud. A plain, old, dirt mud pack is still a great way to instantly soothe things like bee stings. However, as the art of poulticing became more refined, emphasis was placed on a material with a high water-holding capacity--clay.
Poulticing effects are a combination of simple water/hydrotherapy, and the ability of clays to absorb some substances into their structure. As the poultice begins to dry, fluids are wicked from the tissue underneath into the clay. The moist clay is also cooling to the skin surface, and heat from the tissues will equilibrate with the cool temperature of the clay. As the poultice water evaporates, much of the heat goes with it.
A variety of substances are added to poultice clays to ”medicate” it. Methyl salicylate, menthol, camphor and peppermint oil enhance the feeling of coolness, are mildly anesthetic and also mildly counter-irritant. Other counterirritant ingredients (see our liniments article, January 2009) are also sometimes added. When used on an acutely inflamed leg, these ingredients can aggravate the situation or result in skin reactions when their concentration is high.
Ingredients like boric acid, ferrous sulfate and magnesium sulfate, as well as other mineral salts, will have a drawing and drying effect in addition to that of the clay alone.
Poultices are useful in several scenarios, each calling for a different type of poultice. For routine useto cool out hot, tired legs, use either a non-medicated or lightly medicated poultice.
If treating a fresh injury, to control inflammation, avoid medicated poultices that contain counter-irritants, as these ingredients will increase heat in the injured area. For maximum cooling, poultices can be chilled before use and iced water poured over them periodically.
Warmed poultices are best for muscle tension, joints that tend to stiffen up after hard work, old tendon/ligament injuries and for sore feet in winter.
Basically any condition that responds well to a counterirritant liniment can get a prolonged liniment effect from a warmed poultice. Warmed plain or medicated poultices also draw out hoof abscesses quicker. These poultices can be refreshed by adding warm water periodically.
Many people like to use poultices proactively after hard works, even if the horse does not have any particular problem. Use plain poultice if your primarily goal is to cool down the legs, or medicated for liniment-like effects.
Poultices can also soothe skin irritations from insect bites or stings. Use plain or only lightly medicated and nondrying poultice for this. Heavily medicated poultices may be too irritating. They will also protect from sun and further insect assault. You also need to be careful to gently wash off the poultice before it dries when using over irritated skin.
How To Apply
It takes a little practice to master the art, but anyone can learn how to apply a poultice. You will need the poultice, brown paper or plastic wrap (see sidebar) to go over the poultice, an inner quilt/cotton bandage and an outer wrap.
If you’re using paper instead of plastic, roll the paper up and allow it to soak in the water while you work. Start by wetting the horse’s leg. To keep poultice from building up on your hands, try rubbing them with a little oil or glycerin, or spray your palms with a baking spray. (That’s optional, of course, but it can really help.)
Keep a small bucket of water close by and wet your hands frequently. This makes it easier to mold the poultice and apply it evenly. Apply a layer of from 3/8 to 7/8 inches thick. Cover this with the wet brown paper or plastic, then apply the bandage and wrap as usual.
Poultice on the Road
The time your horse is most likely to benefit from poulticing, after a long hard day away from home, is also always going to be the time when you least feel like hassling with it. Good owner that you are, we know you will anyway. These are some ideas for making travel a little easier:
Poultice roll-ups. Before leaving home, lay out your brown paper outer wrap for poultice and apply the poultice to this in the desired thickness. The feed bag liners are ideal for this since they won’t fall apart. Cut the paper to a width that will wrap around your horse’s leg with about a 1- to 2-inch overlap. Do not apply poultice to the overlap. Do not moisten the paper before applying the poultice. When done applying the poultice, roll it up like a jelly roll, leaving the overlap free as a tab and store inside a large self-sealing plastic bag, like Ziploc. Force as much air as possible out of the bag. If bringing an ice chest, keep the bag in there for extra cooling effect. To use, place the roll on a flat area, hold it securely by the overlap and unroll.
Cut and apply poultice. Plastic bags can also be used for one step poultice and plastic applications. Choose a size that matches your horse’s cannon bone length (or use two sandwich-size bags per leg). Put a ball of poultice into the bag, one bag per leg. When ready to apply, simply spread out the poultice inside the closed bag then use scissors to remove the top and one side of the bag. Apply to leg. The quick-apply, ready-to-use poultice bags are also good to keep on hand in the barn refrigerator.
Bandages should always be removed before a poultice has completely dried out to avoid drying and irritating the skin. However, a poultice that is still a little wet is more difficult to remove than one that has completely dried. You may be able to brush off the dried poultice. Otherwise, use a sprayer attached to a hose (warm water ideal, but cold will work) and spray it off.
You can also use the scrubber side of a combination scouring/sponge for washing dishes to remove the poultice more quickly, but be careful not to irritate the skin.
As with liniments, we used poultices both as a routine/preventative after work and also for specific problems. There is a wide variety to choose from. The ideal one for you will depend on your specific needs.
If you only use poultices for acute leg problems like tendon or ligament issues, you will want either an unmedicated poultice or newcomer Sore No-More Poultice, our No. 1 choice in poultices. Sore No-More costs more than a plain poultice product, but it did a great job on a test horse with a sprain injury.
The three unmedicated poultices in our trial (i.e. no irritating ingredients) were Ice-O-Poultice, Uptite and Su-Per Tite-N-Up. They performed virtually the same, with Su-Per Tite-N-Up the unmedicated Best Buy.
For routine use after heavy works, select either one of these three plain poultices or one that’s mildly medicated, such as Uckele’s Pull Tight. This poutlice cooled rapidly and also had a good preventative effect against post work swelling.
If you only use poultice for drawing out hoof abscesses, you can’t beat Numotizine, our previous top poultice pick (August 2004). It’s a little more expensive but has very powerful drawing effects, won’t dry out under plastic, relieves pain and is antimicrobial.
For treating or preventing stiffness in old injuries or joints, and relieving muscle spasm, medicated poultices are perfect. You can even use them instead of a liniment rub down, if you prefer. Absorbine Antiphlogistine, a 2004 recommended product, is our standout for performance and long-lasting effect in medicated poultices. Best buy is Su-Per Kool-N-Tite, although it may be too strong for some horses. Su-Per Polar-Tite is runner-up with its lower potential for skin irritation, although it dries out fairly quickly. Be sure to use a thick layer and refresh it with warm water if leaving on overnight.
Horse Journal Staff Article.