Bridgefield Physiotherapy and Equine Aqua Training

Physiotherapy and the Hydrotherapy Treadmill


What does the research say?


The use of the hydrotherapy treadmill for equine training and rehabilitation remains an incredibly under researched area. However, when considering the biomechanical changes that take place when walking through water and how this may effect the musculoskeletal system, the Bridgefield Physiotherapists are certain this can be a useful adjunct to their treatments. More specifically, they feel it has a huge role to play in improving spinal strength and mobility, which is frequently an area of the horse that requires treatment for many conditions.


The water provides distal limb cooling and compression, something that may be useful for lower limb tendon and ligament rehabilitation. The water provides a resistance to movement which may increase muscle strength and tone in the shoulders and pelvis. Depending on the height of the water, it also has a buoyancy effect on limb flight assisting the limb in the vertical plane into flexion, a useful tool for a weak horse returning to work following a period of box rest. The water may further provide an anti-concussive effect to the limb which may also be useful for horses following a period of rest for a joint injury or chip fracture.


One recent study looking in to the effect of water height on stride frequency, stride length and heart rate found walking in water at knee or above knee height resulted in a lower stride frequency and higher stride length (Scott et al, 2012). Horses seemed to flex their lumbar spine and hindlimbs more as the water height increased thereby using their hip flexors more than they would do on dry land at the same speed. This increase in hindlimb flexion may ultimately result in an increase in strength of the iliopsoas muscle with regular walking exercise and may be useful as part of a rehabilitation programme for horses showing weakness in this area or after a period of box rest.

Other studies have also been carried out which show it is predominantly an aerobic exercise and is unlikely to improve a horse’s gallop fitness (Voss et al, 2002). However, that is not to say that if a horse has better spinal strength and mobility you won’t see an improvement in its gallop posture, technique and muscle fatigability. This has never been studied.


Another study by Tokuriki et al. (1999) showed an increase in EMG activity within the extensor digitorum communis during walking on a water treadmill than during walk over land or trot on the water treadmill. This provides useful evidence that walking on the treadmill may also provide more intensive training for some forelimb muscles than trotting.


Scott et al (2012) The effect of water height on stride frequency, stride length and heart rate during water treadmill exercise. Equine Vet. J., 42 (Suppl.38). 662-664


Tokuriki et al (1999) EMG activity pf the muscles of the neck and forelimbs during different forms of locomotion. Equine Vet. J., Suppl. 30, 231-234


Voss et al (2002) Effects of Aqua-treadmill exercise on selected blood parameters and on heart reat variability. J.Vet. med. Ass. 49, 137-143



The Hydrotherapy Treadmill and your horse’s Physiotherapy Assessment


The Bridgefield physiotherapists where indicated can assess horses moving on the treadmill as part of their physiotherapy assessment. This will be open to all out-patients and in-patients attending aqua-training with prior booking. The treadmill will highlight where your horse’s weakness lie and this will then help the physiotherapists to treat your horse more effectively. For example, if your horse finds spinal flexion difficult with increasing water height when mobilising on the treadmill, either due to pain or a soft tissue restriction, a physiotherapy treatment may be able to help this spinal flexibility so that when mobilising on the treadmill, your horse gains the most out of their session. Or, the treadmill may highlight some weakness through the pelvis of your horse when stepping through the resistance of the water. The physiotherapists can use this information to determine your horse’s degree of pelvic stability and strength and apply some specific techniques, such as kinesio taping® to help encourage the use of your horse’s gluteal muscles to further maximise their treadmill session.


Hydrotherapy Treadmill and Kinesio Taping®


Both Jenny and Maruska attended a course in Kinesio Taping® in January 2013. This was only the second equine kinesio taping course to ever be run in the world to date. This tape can have beneficial effects on movement and tissue healing. More specifically it can be used to facilitate or inhibit muscle activation. If after a physiotherapy assessment it is felt that your horse will benefit from having this treatment applied as part of their rehabilitation, the physiotherapists can teach application of this for each treadmill session.



Conditions for which the hydrotherapy treadmill can assist:


  • Rehabilitation for Kissing spines, including post-surgery.
  • Sacro-iliac dysfunction, including post corticosteroid medication.
  • Reduced distal limb range of movement, ie. knee or hock.
  • Horses requiring straight line work after box rest.
  • General loosening off work.