Everything Else Veterinary

Clinging onto Clay?



Leg cooling after galloping – 1995 and 2015

As much as we horse people love to jump on the ‘innovative new product’ bandwagon, in a lot of senses we are still firmly shackled to tradition. So we love our sparkly techno-fabric blingy breeches, but we have a secret hankering for cold autumn mornings so we can dust off the old faithful pair of full suede chaps; we buy complicated but beautifully constructed 5-point breastplates but end up going XC in a good old-fashioned breastgirth that last saw service on the hunting field in 1985; we have feed bins full of specially formulated mixes for every sort of work-level, but when the horse needs a bit more oomph it’s down to the feed store for a big sack of rolled oats.

You see, at heart, we love the traditions of eventing, many brought with us through time from the ‘golden era’ – when horses were big, bold and strong, saddles were like rocks and you could fall off twice XC and still go home in the money (once you’d emptied most of the water jump out of your boots and collected your hat which you lost courtesy of a low-hanging branch somewhere just after the Irish bank).

OK, so I jest, but although much from the ‘good old days’ still stands up to scrutiny today, some practices really deserve to be ditched. In particular, clay. Tradition is the sole reason I can think of why people are still clinging onto clay. Study after study proves that the best possible treatment for tendons after strenuous exercise is cold water. The research is more than 10 years old. The science is simple. Tendons exercised under strenuous conditions can heat up to as much as 45C. Tendon cells are pretty hardy critters – much more so than most of the other cells in the body – but even they struggle with repeated heating to this level. Then we add boots, which do a great job of preventing knocks and bumps, but not too great a job of letting the air get to the legs, and the tendons are cooking away during our XC rounds like the family roast clad in tin foil. Surely logic (if not the plethora of scientific papers on the subject) decrees that the quickest way to cool legs post-exercise is to wrap them in something cold? Actually, cold running water has been proven to be best, but this is rarely practical, and ice is both easy to obtain and apply, and very close behind in the effectiveness stakes.

I still scratch my head when I see people in the lorry park at an event with their plastic gloves on ‘slapping and wrapping’. It’s taken me a long time to work out why people still do it – surely the proven efficacy of cold-therapy is no secret – but I think I’ve finally got to the bottom of it. It’s tradition, you see. Tradition and ritual. The mysterious pot of clay with its faintly medicinal smell, the ritual of scooping it out and smoothing it down the tendons, the all-important paper wrapping (competitor number/cut up feed sack/brown paper – everyone has their own favourite); followed by the gamgee and the bandaging. It feels like an old-fashioned act of medicine with a hint of magic. Something an apothecary might prescribe. It is satisfying and you feel as though you have done something tangible for your horse – applied the healing unguents and left them to work their stuff. Except that they don’t. We’ve proved that now. And in fact worse than not working, they may even be harmful by preventing the all-important cooling of the tendon cells.

So while I’m all in favour of a lot of things from the good ol’ days – I happen to own a feed bin full of oats and an old breastgirth that my mother-in-law’s pointer ran in ‘way back when’ – some traditions have outstayed their welcome. I would like nothing more than to walk through a lorry park without seeing a single clayed leg. Keep the pot in your tack room if you like. Bring it out occasionally, take the top off, sniff it, dip your finger in it and feel the warmth as it sets. Use it as a facepack for all I care. But for goodness sake, keep it away from horses’ legs.

About the author

The Eventing Vet


  • Don’t quite agree with this – clay has been used for thousands of years and its many properties include antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, draining, detoxifying, increasing of circulation and healing of skin. All from a natural material that animals in the wild seek out by instinct. Agree though that running cold water is best for cooling. Hose down first, wrap in clay after if you like!

    • Agree with your comment. Clay has also shown to keep the temperature of tendons down longer after apication as opposed to simply rapid cooling which can cause problems also. Id be interested to see where this ‘research’ is you mention

  • Cold water hosing /proper application of ice is effective yes. I agree with the above comments that clay is also effective and indeed horses like other animals seek it out for cooling and other purposes. However, my biggest concern having used clay for years (30 years eventing now!), is the potential for a severe adverse reaction. I heard hearsay many years ago now of a top event horsebeing put down after a severe rreaction to clay. I disregarded the gossip and continued to use a very pure clean clay many times, then one day one of my horses reacted very badly (there were no lumps, bumps or cuts yet his legs filled severely. I have used ice ever sinc.