Horses don’t really like water. Sure, they’ll cross a river, but being submerged in water simply does not come naturally to an equine.
It might be surprising, then, to learn that one of the safest and most effective means of exercising a horse and reconditioning him involves surrounding him in good old H20, utilizing the principles of equine hydrotherapy, a.k.a. exercise in water. Some of the biggest stars of racing, eventing and other high-performance horse sports take to it like—well, like a fish to water.
The benefit of hydrotherapy is that it relieves stress on a horse’s joints, as it lessens impacts. At the same time it provides greater resistance, since water’s density is some 12 times greater than that of air. This combination makes hydrotherapy an excellent way to recondition a horse after an injury or surgery, or to improve fitness generally—just as it is for human athletes.
Herbert Warren, DVM in Anaheim, California, invented the original Aquatred hydrotherapy system because he saw a great need “to be able to prepare a horse to stand the extensive rigors of racing without hurting them and compromising legs…tendons and ligaments. Once compromised, a horse is cheapened.” Over the past 25 years, he has witnessed the benefits of hydrotherapy on countless horses running at California’s top racetracks.
The therapy “is a great way to keep horses tight and sound without concussion and pounding,” notes Warren. It’s especially useful, he says “for remodeling bone, post-surgery.” He’s used it after reconstructing joints and getting horses fit without putting too much weight on the limb.
“There are limits to it, though,” says Warren. “The horse can get too muscular, shorten up his back, tighten up the muscles, be sore. But, really the margin of safety is very wide.”
What the Experts Say
Several top trainers also sing the praises of hydrotherapy. “In the past ten years, hydrotherapy has become the biggest thing going,” says Doug Hannum, a 40-year rider, trainer, breeder and respected equine therapist to the United States Equestrian Team, among others. Hannum now runs Nottingham Equine Therapy in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. He’s used hydrotherapy successfully on many famous horses, including “some that people thought should have been put down. After 60 to 90 days, they were almost as good as new.”
Hannum uses an above-ground aquatic treadmill he invented called the Hydraciser: yes, think treadmill, just like those on which we humans walk or run. The horse walks in at floor level onto the treadmill belt; then the tank fills with water, surrounding the animal, usually to the shoulders, above the stifle.
“I’m eye level to the horse, who’s just a bit below me,” says Hannum. “I can see his top line, really look at him from behind, watch his movement.”
Further south, in Lexington, Kentucky, Kirstin and Hub Johnson run KESMARC (Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center). Kirstin Johnson uses the no-longer-manufactured Aquatred submerged treadmill “for post-surgical work, instead of handwalking; it’s a reconditioning device for horses coming off of lay-ups.” In her local Thoroughbred country, she also finds it helpful when preparing horses for sale, especially in the high-end yearling market.
“We also use it for reconditioning horses that are fit and in training, as a ‘freshen-up’ to keep them sound.”
She also employed the technique in her former Western performance horse life in Texas, where she worked with reiners, cutters and reined cow horses. “It’s about getting the look you need without compromising them as athletes down the road; they have to have that certain look to be marketable.”
She likes the Aquatred set-up: walk them down the ramp to the deepest part of the water, stop in the middle and affix the chest bar. “You control the speed, from slow, soft walk…and you can aerobically work them up to a big power walk or long trot.” The temperature can also be regulated, though very warm or hot water is usually not recommended.
Marie Burd, trainer at Flag Is Up Farm in Solvang, California, north of Los Angeles, is another Aquatred fan. There, the Aquatred, purchased in the 70s, keeps humming along. And Burd sees no reason to replace it.
“I like the Aquatred for doing the long walk, not really a jog, especially for Thoroughbreds, to stretch those legs out without concussion and weight. It does get a horse’s cardio level up, too, especially when coming off an injury,” says Burd.
Longtime trainer and hydrotherapy proponent Kevin Tisher spent more than 35 years on the backstretch driving and training top Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. He was also part of the Aquatred team as well as a distributor for AquaCiser (another former brand). He formed his own Hydro Horse Company, based in Paradise, California, in 1987 to make in-ground submerged treadmills.
“This form of exercise, in temperature-controlled water with the powerful therapeutic effects derived from the system’s Jacuzzi jets, ensures proper and controlled conditioning for virtually every facet of the animal’s body, while reducing concussion,” he says.
He recommends the system for treating bowed tendons, pulled suspensory ligaments, bucked shins and saucer fractures, quarter cracks or foot problems and “generally for the rehabilitation of the animal after any injury or surgery. The lungs and heart of the animal receive maximum conditioning, which increases their capacity and minimizes the possibility of bleeding while racing. Bones become denser and more compact, and the tendency of the cannon bones to become inflamed can be virtually eliminated.”
Tisher agrees that contact with the treadmill and thrust of working against the water still affords sufficient concussion to promote bone density and encourage muscle development while minimizing injury.
Overcoming Horse Sense
But, you may be thinking, this sounds great, but what does the horse think of all this at first sight? Like anything else, it requires patience and repetition. “With our high-end race horses, we will sedate them lightly to get them broke to it. We don’t knock them out. Then, the second day, we use less tranquilizer,” says Johnson.
The Price of Progress
Installing a hydrotherapy system isn’t cheap. Costs typically run $45,000 and $85,000 for a hydrotherapy set-up, installation and accessories. Prices vary according to the complexity of the project and your choice of materials and options. But by offering your services to other horse facilities, you can recoup at least some of your investment.
In addition, Tisher sells reconditioned Aquatred and AquaCiser units, with prices starting at $25,000.
What you will need: an area of approximately 900 square feet, building permits if required, fresh water supply to the equipment pad, waste water drain line, and 35 HP electrical three-phase power line to the pad. The whole installation process will take between one to two months.
Adding hydrotherapy to your training program is a big step, but it can pay off in major ways, and for a long time to come.
Is Swimming Good or Bad?
You might think that if hydrotherapy is so good, then swimming must be, too. Not necessarily. About the only thing these two activities have in common is water.
Equine therapist Kirstin Johnson is a proponent of swimming horses in a pool.“It is a very good cardiovascular workout: the horse swims really hard or he sinks, so he has to work,” she says. Sometimes Johnson will put a horse on the Aquatred submerged treadmill for two weeks, then into the pool: the two methods are two very different kinds of exercise, she says.
However, “Certain injuries don’t do well,” she says. “The hind end can be overstressed. And a pool isn’t good for a sore-backed horse.”
Other equine therapists cite other issues. “It takes a horse out of his natural plane, making him more or less horizontal instead of vertical, nose up, tail-end down, hyper-extending everything. It’s anti-aerobic,” says longtime trainer and United States Equestrian Team equine therapist Doug Hannum. “Hydrotherapy, conversely, is aerobic (energy created with oxygen). With swimming, you don’t get concussion that stimulates healing.” —SS
1) Hydro Horse Company: 1-800-405-1099
2) KESMARC: (859) 873-9955
3) Nottingham Equine Therapy: (610) 932-2406
4) Herbert Warren, DVM, consultant: (714) 283-5898