Diving into equine hydroptherapy: the benefits of water for horses

Credit : Al Shaqab

Thursday 14 March - 12h15 | Ian Clayton

Diving into equine hydroptherapy: the benefits of water for horses

Like human athletes, horses can suffer from a wide range of ailments related to their physical activity. Those can include tendon and ligament issues, sprains, strains, swelling, bruising, joint problems, splints, fractures, arthritic pain and laminitis (inflammation of the feet). In response, an array of physiotherapy prevention and treatment options has been developed over the years for animals, including equine hydrotherapy. Below, a look at this equine care approach.

 - Diving into equine hydroptherapy: the benefits of water for horses

Equine pool and treadmill at Kingsclere's Park House Stables
Credit : Kingsclere

First of all, as Leppy Richmond-Watson, former chairman of Britain's Association of Chartered Phyiotherapists in Animal Therapy has noted with regard to the situation in that country, "Physiotherapy is a complementary therapy, not an alternative to veterinary care…. It is not only essential that a vet is consulted before a physio treats a horse, but it’s also a legal requirement. ACPAT members all carry insurance." And as is the case for humans, specialists like the elite-level level equine osteopath George Oduro also work on horses using targeted methods.

In any case, these days, equestrian facilities such as Kingsclere in Great Britain and Al Shaqab in Doha possess equine hydrotherapy facilities. The rationale behind this has been described by Christy M. West in the Horse: "Humans hear it often when it’s time to get back in shape after an injury or surgery: 'Get in the pool.' Doctors know the increased resistance and buoyancy of water makes you do a significant amount of muscular work to move while providing very low impact/stress on bones and joints, so it’s an ideal rehabilitation method. The same concepts apply to horses, and veterinarians can prescribe hydrotherapy (also called aquatic therapy) for rehabilitation in the form of swimming pools or underwater treadmills."

Elsewhere, researcher Melissa R. King has explored the clinical management of equine musculoskeletal injuries using such pools or treadmills in her paper 'Principles and Application of Hydrotherapy for Equine Athletes': "Hydrotherapy has become a key element within equine rehabilitation protocols and is used to address range of motion, proprioception, strength, neuromotor control, pain, and inflammation," she notes. "Various forms of hydrotherapy can be tailored to the individual's injury and the expected return to athletic performance."

King draws a parallel with the human experience: "Hydrotherapy is a commonly prescribed treatment option for managing primary musculoskeletal injuries and reducing or limiting harmful compensatory gait abnormalities in people. Exercising in water provides an effective medium for increasing joint mobility, promoting normal motor patterns, increasing muscle activation, and reducing the incidence of secondary musculoskeletal injuries caused by primary joint pathology. Humans with lower extremity osteoarthritis show a significant increase in limb-loading parameters, improved joint range of motion, and a significant reduction in the severity of balance deficits following aquatic exercise. The enhancements in muscle strength and function associated with aquatic exercise also significantly improve proprioceptive deficits, poor motor control, and abnormal locomotor characteristics typically found in osteoarthritic adults."

In her description of the recovery of racing champion Well Armed in Horse Racing Nation, Terri Cage provides a useful overview of equine hydrotherapy, including drawing a distinction between different approaches: "Equine hydrotherapy is practiced in many forms other than just swimming, including cold saltwater therapy and underwater treadmills.... even as simple as running water, which can reduce pain and swelling in a horse."

Others have further distinguished between hydrotherapy ("involving therapeutic exercise in the form of swimming or walking in water") and balneotherapy ("which involves simply bathing"). And bearing in mind that in some regards equines are not natural swimmers, at least one study has found that when it comes to the workload of horses on underwater treadmills, "Water height [has] a greater impact on exercise intensity than speed."


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