Equine Physical Therapy Must Be Individualized
Physiotherapy can improve muscle development and help rehabilitate horses recovering from pain or injury. However, developing a custom program for each horse’s unique situation is critical to prevent stimulating the wrong movement patterns, said one equine biomechanics expert.

“It’s important to be knowledgeable about what you’re doing with physiotherapy exercises and select appropriately for each horse at each stage of his development,” said Rachel Murray, MA, VetMB, MS, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, Assoc ECVDI, an orthopedic specialist at Rossdales Equine Hospital, in Newmarket, U.K. She spoke on the topic during the Centaur Biomechanics Virtual Equine Sports Science Summit on Oct. 3.

Stable (core) exercises, groundwork, ridden exercises, dry and water treadmill work, swimming, and even changes in management (turnout, feeding height, etc.) can lead to major improvements in a horse’s musculature, comfort, and performance—so long as you take individual aspects into consideration, Murray said.

Each exercise must be adjusted to each horse, she said. That means selecting the right muscles to activate by hand or electrical stimulation, as well as choosing the right placement of training aids such as elastic bands. It also means accurately determining ground pole height and spacing, treadmill water height, treadmill speed, and more for each horse at each stage of his development.

Different horses have different genetics and life histories that can lead them to use their bodies in different ways, said Murray. As a result, one horse won’t necessarily move the same way as another performing the same kinds of physiotherapy exercises. In some cases the exercises—if not adapted to the horse—could accentuate musculoskeletal or neurologic problems or create new ones. Specifically, they could create the wrong movement patterns, leading to weakness and/or pain in different areas of the body and poor performance.

“You really have to look at the individual patient,” Murray said.

Horses have different levels of stability and flexibility in different areas of their body, she said. For example, one might be very flexible in the lumbosacral (lower back) region but very unstable—meaning he might shift his weight during certain core exercises instead of developing the target muscle. Horses who are stiff in the lumbosacral region might overflex their hocks and stifles during groundwork over poles instead of flexing the back. And horses with instability in the hind limbs—which is surprisingly common, she said—might rotate their hocks too much during exercises involving turns instead of strengthening their hindquarters.

Even natural stance can make a difference, she explained. For instance, horses should ideally eat from the ground for good back and neck musculature. But a horse that always keeps one forelimb standing far beneath him while eating from the ground might develop an asymmetry under saddle. In that case, feeding him from a haynet at shoulder height could be a better solution if it keeps his front feet more even, said Murray.