Aquatic Therapy for Horses

Bob Judd, DVM, DABVP (Equine Medicine), DABVP (Canine and Feline Practice)
Courtesy of Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network

Date Published: 09/01/2015

Osteoarthritis is the most common musculoskeletal problem in horses and is a common cause of decreased performance. There are many treatments of arthritis for horses but physical rehabilitation is a fairly new therapy for them. One of the commonly used physical rehabilitation treatments in humans is aquatic therapy; it has been shown that it not only helps healing of the affected limb but also the entire body. Aquatic treadmills have been effective in people to treat injuries as well as aiding in cardiovascular health. Several aquatic therapy studies in dogs have shown significant improvements in range of motion in the painful leg as well as the opposite legs. Also, dogs that had surgery for a cruciate ligament rupture in the stifle recovered more quickly with aquatic therapy compared to dogs rehabilitated without water therapy.

As far as horses, there have been some studies that have shown the cardiovascular benefits of aquatic therapy in them with an increase in muscle intensity compared to rehab that doesn’t involve water. There are lots of rehab centers that are using water therapy for horses but the science involving the use is mostly coming from studies in humans and dogs. For this reason, although it is assumed aquatic therapy will be helpful in healing of equine injuries like it does in dogs and humans, there is little scientific data to support this. The problem is that without scientific studies, it is not known how deep the water should be, how long therapy should be continued for different conditions, and how frequently it should be used to maximize effectiveness. Hopefully in the next few years, scientific studies will be performed concerning aquatic therapy in horses because until then, there are a lot of unknowns about the various aquatic treatments being used in horses.