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. Henry S. Adair III, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR (American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation), Associate professor of equine surgery at the University of Tennessee, discussed hydrotherapy treatment protocols during the 2011 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 18-22 in San Antonio, Texas.
According to Adair, hydrotherapy has several physiologic effects on horses, including increased cardiovascular fitness, increased blood pressure, limitation of normal respiration (from water pressure on the body), changes in muscle activity throughout the body compared to walking exercise, increased muscle strength/tone with lower risk of injury (due to less weight bearing), and potential healing/preventive benefits for lower limb injuries and laminitis if the water is cold.
"Both (pools and underwater treadmills) are safe when used properly; however, devastating results may occur if used by untrained individuals or treating conditions in which these modalities are contraindicated," he cautioned. "Proper diagnosis of the condition, having properly trained personnel, acclimation o