Equine aquatic conditioning and rehab

What researchers and veterinarians are discovering about equine aquatic conditioning and rehab

Veterinarians have been using swimming, underwater treadmill work, and other forms of hydrotherapy in equine rehabilitation and conditioning protocols for years. Historically, they’ve based their recommendations largely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. While questions remain, in recent years researchers have learned a significant amount about how aquatic therapy benefits horses.

Aquatic Exercise 101

Swimming pools, underwater treadmills, cold-water spas, and even beaches are gaining popularity as equine conditioning and rehab tools.

“The main benefit of exercise in water, whether that’s walking on a water treadmill or swimming in a pool or open water, is the ability to exercise the horse with reduced loading or concussive forces,” says Persephone McCrae, PhD, who studied water treadmill use in horses for her doctoral degree. “Musculoskeletal injuries are typically associated with repetitive overloading of the structures within the limb,” and buoyancy limits these forces.

And, she adds, because water is denser than air, horses must work harder at slower speeds during aquatic exercise, leading to improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle development.

The reduction in weight-bearing also promotes range of motion, or flexibility, through the limbs and back, says McCrae, now the lead scientist for research and development in the Animal Science Division at Myant Inc., a textile computing company in Ontario, Canada. “This is important in terms of reducing the risk of future injury, as well as for promoting rehabilitation through improved biomechanics, even while the horse may not be fully weight-bearing on ground.”

As for drawbacks, there are a few: Horses must acclimate to aquatic modalities, which can take time, and even after training some don’t take to it well.

Further, hydrotherapy isn’t a magic bullet for rehabbing all issues. “There are cases (for which) aquatic training is not advised, particularly when lacerations or abrasions of the skin are involved, as this may place the horse at risk of developing an infection,” McCrae says. “There are also concerns associated with long durations spent in water, especially for the integrity of the hoof.”

The reduced skeletal loading that’s so advantageous for healing also results in decreased stimulus for bone to become strong. So, while the muscular and cardiovascular systems might gain conditioning, the skeletal system does not, or it might even become weaker if the horse is on stall rest.

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