Ice boots are an effective way of proactively preventing injury in racehorses and help to support recovery by maintaining and promoting healthy ligaments, tendons and joints in the legs.
Cold therapy is common among professional athletes, such as AFL footballers who routinely step into ice baths or head to the beach to ease aches and pains following a match.
Powerful and quick racehorses pounding the turf are no different; with ice frequently used in training and after racing to remove inflammation and accelerate healing.
The Victoria Racing Club (VRC) began providing post-race access to ice boots for all horses racing at Flemington on 2019’s AAMI Victoria Derby Day to support recovery and injury prevention.
What are ice boots?
Ice boots are cooling wraps strapped to a horse’s legs, which reduce inflammation and help prevent and treat ligament, soft tissue and tendon injuries.
Horses typically wear them for 20-30 minutes after a strong gallop.
“Horses are at their maximum potential [for injuries] when they’re at full gallop,” leading equine surgeon and veterinarian John Russell said.
“A lot of the time, you don’t even know they’ve had a sprain until a day or two later. Icing straight after a race takes down all the inflammation immediately and doesn’t allow that inflammatory response to take hold.”
How do ice boots work?
Essentially, cold therapy works by constricting blood vessels, which helps flush waste out of the area and reduces swelling and tissue damage.
In racehorses, applying ice boots to legs helps kick-start the natural healing process following intense and repetitive movements, and proactively prevent injury.
“Inflammation is the enemy at the end of the day,” Dr Russell said.
"We try as much as possible not to use medication [to reduce inflammation]. If you use them too much, too often or in high doses, it can actually be detrimental to a horse’s health.”
Ice boots help with blood flow and aches and pains, and if you can get that blood flow going quicker it’s far better for them. - Michael Moroney
What injuries can ice boots prevent?
Dr Russell said ice boots work best in preventing tendonitis and tendon injuries.
When horses gallop, their tendons reach a critical temperature that over time can lead to significant damage.
“Horses’ tendons are almost at their functional limit when they gallop, so every gallop there’s a degree of this history. It’s just physics. You need to get straight onto it and remove that heat.”
What types of ice boots exist?
There are countless ice boots on the market.
At Flemington, the VRC first introduced vinyl ice boots – which are filled with cubed ice – but now also offers ones that are frozen and then wrapped around a horse’s legs.
Other varieties use ice gel to cool horses’ legs, while some trainers simply wrap horses’ legs in thick plastic bags and place them in buckets of ice and water.
Dr Russell works with leading trainers such as Ciaron Maher and endorses a unique method for icing horses he learnt while working under legendary Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien at his famous stables, Ballydoyle.
“They really like their icing. Aidan’s a very organic trainer and virtually doesn’t use any medication,” he said.
The method involves placing flake ice or crushed ice into elastic Tubigrip socks, then moulding and fastening them to horses’ legs.
Dr Russell brought the knowledge with him when he moved to Australia and introduced it while working for Lloyd Williams. He now uses it frequently alongside Maher.
“When I went to Macedon Lodge [Williams’ stable] we iced all our horses regularly and it got rid of all sorts of problems like shin soreness, foot pain and especially tendon and ligament injuries. When you’re rehabilitating a horse you want to keep the inflammation down as much as possible, so I incorporated that into my rehab program.”
What impact do ice boots have on racehorses?
Flemington trainer Michael Moroney uses ice boots that are soaked in a cold bucket of water in order to crystallise, as part of the daily management of his stable’s horses.
“Every horse who gallops here [Flemington] and does any fast work at all gets them on after they work,” Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Moroney said.
“We like to cool their legs down as quickly as possible to prevent any ligament issues and take the heat out. Ice boots help with blood flow and aches and pains, and if you can get that blood flow going quicker it’s far better for them.”
A renowned trainer of stayers (horses who perform better over long distances rather than shorter sprints), Moroney commended Flemington’s introduction of ice boots and increased steps to protect the wellbeing of horses, saying he believes they can boost longevity.
“Stayers get a bit more pressure; they’ve got to take more work and longer fast work. It’s when horses are under fatigue that they tend to suffer injuries, so it certainly helps them.”
(Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)