Back pain is often implicated as a cause of poor performance, so how can veterinarians and owners help a horse's back return to health? New research results suggest adding an underwater treadmill to your horse's fitness regimen might help relieve back pain and increase range of motion.

Underwater treadmills are widely used in rehabilitation centers for horses with varied clinical presentations, including poor performance related to back pain, but the effects on the biomechanics of the horse's back remained largely unclear. A team of researchers from Utrecht University's Department of Equine Sciences led by Wim Back, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, Specialist KNMvD (Equine Surgery), Certified Practitioner KNMvD (Equine Practice), recently set out to evaluate the equine back's biomechanical responses to underwater treadmill exercise.

During the 10-day study, the team measured changes in back movement including axial rotation (how much the back bends along its length from head to tail), lateral bending (how much the back bends to the left or right), and pelvic flexion (how much the back rotates in an arc around the spine) during water treadmill exercise at different water depths (hoof, fetlock, knee, elbow, and shoulder joint levels). The team used 12 riding horses for the study and evaluated the horses' movement on Days 1 and 10 using two high-speed video cameras.

Key findings from Back's study included:

  • The horses' axial rotation movement increased significantly when the water level was at the carpus (knee) and higher;

  • Horses' lateral bending of the back decreased significantly at water levels t