Equine Water Works
Hydrotherapy is a low-impact way to recondition a horse after
injury or surgery—or to condition a horse generally.
By Stephanie Stephens
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, and 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, and 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
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
"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 HydroCiser (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
He recommends the system for treating bowed tendons, pulled sus¬pensory
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,"
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 HydroCiser
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
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
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.”
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