The benefits of hydrotherapy for horses

  • Taking the waters has been practised as a therapeutic treatment for centuries. There are accounts through the ages of injured wild animals found standing in shallow streams, drawn by instinct to the water’s cooling and healing properties as a means of reducing pain and aiding recovery.

    Probably the best known exponent of sea water was trainer Ginger McCain, whose treble-Grand National-winner Red Rum was exercised daily on Southport Beach. In his early days, the horse was plagued with chronic foot problems, later kept at bay, according to Ginger, thanks to the natural healing properties of his back yard training ground.

    With the availability of equine therapy pools, swimming horses is becoming increasingly part of the regular training programme for equine athletes. As with people, swimming is beneficial in horses for conditioning the muscular and cardiovascular systems without subjecting the limbs to concussion.

    Well-known endurance vet Rod Fisher points to the possible application of underwater treadmills in fitness programmes as a “useful form of exercise without putting strain on joints”.

    As well as a fittening tool for providing strenuous exercise, particularly through resistance training, gentle swimming can be valuable for rehabilitation of horses recovering from injury. For competition horses suffering from tendon or ligament injury with a high risk of recurrence, swimming can be a useful way of reducing the fast work necessary to bring top-level athletes back to peak fitness. However, experts say any swimming programme should be carried out carefully, as horses are not naturally strong swimmers, and the action can exert pressure on the chest area.

    Aside from swimming pools, the 1990s saw a wealth of advances in equine spa technology. Spas sprung up across Europe and in Australia over the decade, but still the veterinary profession was not convinced of the benefits.

    It took independent trials in Australia by Professor Evan Hunt at Sydney Orange University, to promote the benefits of cold water spa therapy for horses with leg injuries. Professor Hunt, a vet, admitted to being an arch-sceptic before the trials, in which he first conducted studies on 27 horses. The tests produced improvements in a range of conditions from bowed tendons to suspensory ligament problems and chronic fetlock synovitis.

    Professor Hunt conducted his first trial over the winter, but initially found that he was unable to get the same results during the summer months. Experimenting with different water temperatures showed that the colder ambient temperature in winter had been beneficial.

    Next, Professor Hunt experimented with the salinity of the water to produce the optimum mix. He widened his research, and in the next 65 horses tested, found a rapid response to treatment in the case of open wounds, with improvements being seen in patients with everything from laminitis to navicular syndrome and severe skin lesions. There was even evidence that hoof growth was stimulated and scarring reduced.

    Leading osteopath Karen Robertson, who works alongside the British Paralympic team treating both people and horses, says she has worked with horses that have benefited from the treatment.

    “I would recommend it for tendon problems, for example where there is deep or superficial flexor tendon injury or damage to the suspensory ligament,” she says. “I have never used the therapy for lacerations, but it seems that spas with highly mineralised water and oxygen jets can be useful for tendon problems and healing abrasions.

    “For horses training on hard surfaces, hydrotherapy can be a useful way of reducing the concussive effects by assisting with the healing process,” adds Karen. “Using swimming as part of a fitness programme will in turn reduce the amount of work needed on concussive surfaces.”

    Horse magazine, Jan 2005

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