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EQUINE HYDROTHERAPY - advocating for your equine friend

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advocating for your equine friend

a frosty nose of a horse

The equine therapy industry can be overwhelming to any owner, but it can be further complicated when you have the stress and worry of rehabilitating or safely enhancing your own horses’ performance. There is not only a myriad of therapies available, but the effectiveness and ‘correct’ way to execute it can be so confusing. Furthermore, our reliable veterinary surgeons don’t have all the answers when it comes to who to use and especially how to do it when it comes to equine hydrotherapy. So how can we ensure the safety of our equine friends?


Equine hydrotherapy has been designed to provide horses with a controlled and safe environment for exercise and rehabilitation and whilst this article will focus on the use of underwater treadmills, hydrotherapy does include pools, spas, water walkers, and salt oxygen therapy too. Even the use of a hosepipe, is a form of hydro therapy!


This innovative treatment involves a treadmill submerged in a water tank, allowing horses to walk or trot in a low-impact, supportive aquatic environment. The theory behind equine water treadmill therapy revolves around harnessing the physical properties of water to enhance overall conditioning, rehabilitation, and l well-being in horses.

One key principle is the buoyancy offered by the water, which reduces the gravitational forces acting on the horse's limbs. This buoyant effect helps alleviate stress on joints, tendons, and ligaments, making it an ideal rehabilitation tool for horses recovering from injuries or surgical procedures. The reduced weight-bearing allows for controlled and gradual exercise, facilitating the rebuilding of muscle strength without excessive strain on recovering structures.


Additionally, the water resistance encountered during under water treadmill therapy contributes to a low-impact workout for the horse. As the horse moves against the resistance of the water, it engages and strengthens muscles, promoting cardiovascular fitness and overall conditioning. The resistance can be adjusted to accommodate varying levels of fitness and specific therapeutic goals, making it a versatile tool for horses at different stages of rehabilitation or training.


Equine hydrotherapy is particularly beneficial for addressing obesity, arthritis, or musculoskeletal issues. The controlled under water treadmill environment allows for precise monitoring of gait and movement patterns, enabling veterinarians and equine therapists to tailor the therapy to the individual needs of each horse. The combination of buoyancy and resistance fosters a dynamic and controlled exercise regimen that supports the horse's recovery while minimising the risk of further injury.


Beyond its physical benefits, water treadmill therapy can have positive psychological effects on horses. Many horses enjoy the water experience, and the low-impact nature of the therapy can reduce anxiety associated with traditional land-based exercises.


In summary, equine water treadmill therapy is a well-founded approach rooted in principles of hydrodynamics and equine physiology. Whether used for recovery from injury, general fitness, or performance enhancement, equine water treadmill therapy stands as an innovative and valuable tool in the comprehensive care of horses.


So, let’s look a little deeper into some research conducted by the international Equine Hydrotherapy Working Group (EHWG). Water treadmill exercise is a popular training method for sport horses and racehorses, with its benefits including enhanced aerobic capacity, increased range of motion, and back flexibility. It aids in the improved utilisation of arthritic limbs while minimising segmental accelerations and reducing impact shock. However, the efficacy of such programmes depends on selecting a water treadmill protocol that induces physiological and gait adaptations aligning with specific training or rehabilitation goals.


A recent survey examining equine water treadmill use across 41 global venues revealed substantial protocol variations. The combination of increased water depth and high speeds could pose challenges for unbalanced, uncoordinated, or underprepared horses, potentially exacerbating injuries. The survey did not necessarily reflect best practices, as fifteen venues had less than 12 months of experience at the time of the survey. Out of the 40 respondents, 15 reported injuries to horses and 3 reported injuries to handlers during water treadmill exercises.


The influx of new, relatively inexperienced users and the absence of formal training programmes in equine hydrotherapy emphasised the need for guidelines to ensure the safety of both horses and handlers, as well as the overall welfare of the horses involved. In 2020, the EHWG developed guidelines for best practices, addressing the imperative to establish standards for the responsible and effective use of equine water treadmill exercise.


If a rehabilitation programme for horses is conducted by someone who is not trained or qualified, several potential issues and risks may arise. These can impact the effectiveness of the rehabilitation process and, more importantly, the health and well-being of the horse. Here are some potential problems:


  1. Ineffective Treatment: Without proper training and knowledge, the individual may not design an effective rehabilitation programme. This can result in a lack of improvement or, in some cases, exacerbate the existing condition.

  2. Increased Risk of Injury: Inadequate knowledge of anatomy, biomechanics, and appropriate exercise protocols can increase the risk of injury during rehabilitation. This is especially crucial when dealing with specific injuries or conditions that require precise handling and exercises.

  3. Failure to Recognise Warning Signs: Trained professionals are better equipped to recognise subtle signs of pain, discomfort, or stress in horses. Without this expertise, the person overseeing the rehabilitation may miss crucial warning signs, leading to delayed intervention.

  4. Improper Technique: Rehabilitation often involves specific techniques, exercises, or therapies. Without proper training, the individual may perform these incorrectly or when they are contraindicated, reducing their effectiveness, or causing harm to the horse.

  5. Lack of Progress Monitoring: Professionals are trained to monitor and adjust rehabilitation programmes based on the horse's progress. Without this oversight, there may be a lack of systematic evaluation, hindering the ability to adapt the programme to the horse's changing needs.

  6. Neglect of Psychological Considerations: Rehabilitation is not only physical but also psychological for the horse. Untrained individuals may overlook the emotional well-being of the horse, potentially causing stress or anxiety, which can hinder recovery and cause further injury.

  7. Legal and Ethical Concerns: In some instances, there may be legal and ethical considerations when it comes to providing care, including rehabilitation, for animals. Unqualified individuals may inadvertently work outside their scope of practice or ethical standards.

  8. Waste of Resources: If a rehabilitation programme is ineffective or causes harm, it can result in a waste of time, effort, and financial resources. Properly trained individuals can optimise the use of resources for the best outcomes.

  9. Compromised Long-Term Health: Inadequate rehabilitation may not address the root cause of the issue, leading to long-term consequences for the horse's health, performance, and overall well-being.


In summary, it's crucial to have qualified and trained professionals oversee equine rehabilitation programmes to ensure the best possible outcomes for the horse. This includes veterinarians, musculoskeletal therapists, and other professionals with expertise in equine rehabilitation that form the multi-disciplinary team (MDT).


To avoid potential issues and risks associated with unqualified individuals attempting to rehabilitate a horse, owners can take several proactive steps:

Seek advice from a veterinarian before starting any rehabilitation programme. A thorough veterinary examination can help diagnose the horse's condition and determine the appropriate course of action.


Work with professionals who have specific expertise in equine rehabilitation, such as equine veterinarians, physical therapists, or rehabilitation specialists. These individuals should have a thorough understanding of equine anatomy, physiology, and rehabilitation techniques. Ideally, they will have done extensive Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or completed a regulated course.


While owners may not have the same level of expertise as professionals, it's beneficial to educate themselves about the basics of equine rehabilitation. Understanding the principles and goals of rehabilitation can help owners make informed decisions and communicate effectively with the professionals involved.


Verify the qualifications and credentials of individuals providing rehabilitation services for the horse. Qualified professionals typically have relevant certifications, degrees, or experience in equine rehabilitation. Check these with the professional bodies they are registered with to ensure their membership is up to date.


If rehabilitation is to be conducted at a facility, visit the premises beforehand. Assess the equipment, safety, and overall professionalism of the facility. Established rehabilitation centres often have experienced staff and proper infrastructure.


Once a rehabilitation plan is established, follow the advice and recommendations of qualified professionals. Consistency and adherence to the prescribed programme are crucial for the success of rehabilitation. A collaboration between vet, musculoskeletal (MSK) therapist and hydrotherapist is the most beneficial way to work.


Pay close attention to the horse's behaviour during rehabilitation sessions. If there are signs of distress, discomfort, or unusual behaviour, communicate this promptly to the professionals overseeing the rehabilitation and if in doubt, you can ask to stop the session.


Schedule regular veterinary check-ups to monitor the horse's progress and adjust the rehabilitation plan as needed. Veterinarians can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of the programme. Recording progress with video footage can make communication quicker and easier, so keep a digital log.


Understand that rehabilitation is a gradual process, and improvement may take time. Establish realistic expectations and be patient with the recovery process.


If any unexpected or adverse effects occur during rehabilitation, report them immediately to the professionals involved. Prompt communication allows for timely adjustments to the rehabilitation plan.


Rehabilitation protocols may evolve over time. Stay informed about any updates or advancements in equine rehabilitation techniques to ensure the horse receives the most current and effective care. You can stay informed by visiting both the Institute of Equine Hydrotherapists (IEH) website (professional body) or VetHed’s website (training provider).


By taking these proactive steps, horse owners can contribute to the well-being and successful rehabilitation of their animals while minimising the risks associated with unqualified individuals attempting to oversee the process. “Will you be a trusted advocate for your horse?”



1 comentário

Adam Ford
Adam Ford
05 de abr.

Such an insightful blog on Hydrotherapy! Thanks Your Horse & Country Magazine and IRVAP

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