Most horses, regardless of discipline, age, or injury, can benefit from rehabilitation at some time in their life.
Dr. Lori Madsen, DVM, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital who’s pursuing a specialty in sports medicine and rehabilitation, said, “Physical rehabilitation for animals is not just for athletes. The goal of this discipline is to help horses maintain a good quality of life by maintaining, improving, or restoring physical function.”
Rehabilitation aims to strengthen an injured area or minimize deficits in function as an animal ages, supporting the animal to regain proper alignment and movement.
A Multimodal Approach
Like physical therapy in people, rehabilitation for equine companions uses a multimodal approach- combining multiple techniques to achieve the best results.
“Strengthening exercises, stretches, and other techniques, such as hot or cold therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture, work together to help restore function,” Madsen said.
The specific needs of the patient determine the treatment plan. “In an acute injury one of the goals is to minimize inflammation,” she explained. Strategies often include rest, ice, compression, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Veterinarians typically avoid applying heat because it is already present in inflamed tissues, and the goal is to resolve the inflammation to allow the healing process to begin.
“After the initial inflammation subsides, we can start asking the patient to do more, such as passive range of motion exercises, stretching, and simple strengthening exercises,” Madsen said. “As the healing process continues, we can incorporate proprioception retraining and increase the intensity of the strengthening exercises.”
When rehabilitating a horse, the veterinarian’s goal is to physically challenge the horse without causing overexertion, which could result in a reinjury.
Where East Meets West
Chiropractic and acupuncture are often utilized in physical rehabilitation as part of a multimodal approach. Madsen, who is also certified in veterinary chiropractic, said when thinking about animal chiropractic and acupuncture, it is important to remember that those treatments are part of Eastern medicine, while traditional veterinary care is considered Western medicine. One of the fundamental differences between the two is in Western medicine, you go to the doctor when you are sick, whereas in Eastern medicine, you go to the doctor to remain well. Therefore, chiropractic and acupuncture seek to help maintain wellness and minimize injury or illness. However, they do not replace traditional veterinary medicine.
Veterinary physical rehabilitation offers benefits for any animal, regardless of fitness level or age. It focuses on a return to function after an injury by addressing the entire animal, as well as helping animals maintain and improve movement as they get older.