Hydrotherapy is the practice of exercise by means of walking or swimming in water. It has gained popularity for its usefulness in both small animal and equine rehabilitation. In our equine athletes, we not only use hydrotherapy to help with rehabilitation after injury but also for fitness. 

Isn’t hydrotherapy just swimming?

Swimming exercise employs moderate cardiovascular activity under the buoyancy of water, which reduces the strain on musculoskeletal structures. For this reason, swimming is often used by trainers of sport horses to improve cardiovascular fitness and hindlimb muscle power. Removing the stress on other soft tissues that would be imposed by land-based exercise.

Here, the horse is swum in a dedicated horse swimming pool, whilst haltered and guided by a handler. It should be used with care in horses that have a history of musculoskeletal problems, in order to prevent further injury. Swimming is different from dedicated hydrotherapy. Where specific movements or water-treadmill based exercise are undertaken, with the goal of rehabilitating the horse’s musculoskeletal system. Helping to recovery from injury or disease. 

What are the benefits of hydrotherapy?

So, apart from the buoyancy of water which helps to reduce the impact on soft tissues like ligaments, tendons and muscles, the drag associated with movement in water can enhance muscle strength. This can help to strengthen the supportive tissues around damaged structures and avoid additional problems like muscle atrophy and weakness. Additionally, the water temperature can be adjusted to help with pain and inflammation, whilst the pressure imparted by the water helps to reduce fluid build-up (oedema) and improve blood supply. 

The additional benefit of exercise using a water treadmill, is being able to change the height of the water level. This alters the effect of gravity appropriate to the condition being managed, the location of the lesion and the horse’s progress. Often, horses start with higher water levels to minimise the effect of gravity, and it is gradually reduced over time, in line with the progression of the horse. 

When might a horse be referred for hydrotherapy?

If your veterinarian feels like hydrotherapy may help your horse, they will recommend an experienced and suitably qualified hydrotherapy provider. In conjunction with your vet, they can safely and knowledgeably devise and implement a programme suitable for your horse and its lesion. This is of great importance, as improperly performed hydrotherapy could be detrimental.

Conditions for which horses may be referred for hydrotherapy-based rehabilitation are varied. They may include:

  • Tendon and ligament injuries – including the superficial digital flexor tendon, suspensory ligament, the deep digital flexor tendon and the accessory ligament 
  • Back injuries – injuries to the muscles, supporting ligaments and even the thoracic vertebrae may benefit from hydrotherapy 
  • Joint injuries – chronic joint problems, such as osteoarthritis, can also benefit from hydrotherapy. It can help to improve joint stability, enhance supporting muscle strength, minimise the changes that occur in unaffected limbs that are compensating for altered weight bearing on the affected limb(s), and improve the implicated joint’s range of motion
  • Return to fitness after prolonged rest – a dedicated hydrotherapy programme can be used to improve muscle tone and strength, as well as cardiovascular fitness, prior to (or in combination with) land-based exercise programmes. This can help horses return to work after long periods of rest.

When isn’t hydrotherapy appropriate?

There are some situations in which hydrotherapy should be avoided. These include where the horse has an open wound, a wound infection or a recent surgical wound. Additionally, horses that should not undergo hydrotherapy include: those with heart or respiratory problems, those with a fever, horses prone to panicking, and horses with some back or upper hindlimb problems, among other conditions. You should always consult with your veterinarian before embarking on hydrotherapy with your horse. They will be able to advise whether it’s an appropriate form of rehabilitation for him. 

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