Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Hydrotherapy: Why and how it works.

Sea water has been recognized as an aid to the treatment and prevention of leg problems in horses for centuries.   Red Rum, the infamous Grand National winner, would not have been racing at all for not the benefits of training on the beach!

A common modality, cold water hosing, cools the skin surface but the uncontrolled water temperature  may not be cold enough to affect the structures most often involved in injury.  Cod sea water, in particular, has an anti-inflammatory effect which facilities healing and helps guard against injury.  Consequently, inventors over the past number of years have been patenting numerous devices replicating the benefits of cold sea water into a controlled environment.

To understand how cold water hydrotherapy works, we first need to understand how the horse’s body reacts to trauma.  Enzymes and proteins are released when cells are injured causing the blood vessel walls in that area to dilate and become more porous.  The lymphocytes are directed to the site of the trauma passing through the porous membranes, entering the injured tissues to being fighting the infection.  Extra fluids, carrying oxygen and proteins for tissue repair, also gather around the injured area as tissue damage triggers the secretion of hormones which are responsible for pain the horse feels.  Pain, heat and swelling are the three main symptoms of inflammation.  Pain helps prevent the overuse of the affected area.  Heat results from the increased blood flow and swelling helps immobilize the area.  All necessary in the healing process of the injured area.

When inflammation rages out of control hindering the healing process, hypoxic injury may occur.  The flow of blood and lymph tends to stall when additional pressure by the fluid build up increases.  The safest way to break this destructive cycle of secondary cell injury, hypoxic injury, is to use the horse’s circulatory system to remove excess fluids that have collected in the tissues.  There are two natural ways of removing excess fluids – applying heat and applying cold.  However, heat should never be applied to an acute injury!

Cold water therapy triggers three basic reactions.  At the cellular level, the metabolic response of the cells is reduced so less oxygen is needed to function and therefore less hypoxic injury occurs.  Cold therapy also decreases the permeability of the blood vessel walls reducing the amount of fluid that accumulates in the injured area while the cold numbs the area to a certain degree acting as a topical analgesic.

Cold hosing is one of the simplest forms of hydrotherapy and a new injury can benefit from being cold hosed for about 20 minutes at a time as often as possible.  Shorter periods of time are not beneficial as the blood vessels are not given enough time to react.

Ice can provide concentrated cold response which can stimulate faster results.  The only disadvantage is that the horse’s body heat them up rendering them ineffective after a short period of time.  However, applying ice for 15 – 20 minutes every 2 hours seems to have the best effect.  Longer applications may lead to tissue damage.

Over the past 20 years there have been major advances in the design of Equine Spas.  During the 1990s there was considerable amount of anecdotal evidence that was reports to the excellent results achieved in horse leg injuries.  Trials were conducted at the University of Sydney to establish an independent verdict on the benefits of cold water hydrotherapy.   Positive results were found across a whole range of leg injuries.  As well, horses with open wounds responded very rapidly to treatment, hoof growth was stimulated, laminitis responded well and even navicular syndrome responded in 2 out of 3 cases.  Today, equine therapeutic spas have spread across Europe and North America with similar results being experienced!


1 Comment»

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