What is equine physiotherapy?
Essentially the same as it is for humans! Equine physiotherapy can be defined as the use of physical techniques on horses to reduce pain, improve movement and restore normal motor patterns for improved athletic performance and function.
An equine physiotherapist must have first undertaken a bachelors or masters degree in human physiotherapy, before then undertaking post-graduate training to transfer these skills over to animals.
In Australia, equine physiotherapists work closely with the treating veterinarian who must first review the horse and provide a referral for physiotherapy treatment. This ensures that a full diagnosis has been obtained and the treatment provided to the horse is both safe and appropriate.
Conditions appropriate to physiotherapy may include (but are not limited to):
- tendon and ligament injury
- muscle strains and tears
- neck, back and pelvic pain
- neurological disorders
- post-surgical rehabilitation
- joint disease/degeneration
- performance-related issues
Aside from simply assessing a horse and examining its movement, a physiotherapist will also spend time looking into the horse’s background, feed, tack, its rider, job and its schooling.
It is important to consider what the horse is used for, as well as the owner’s expectations. A rider-observed small behavioural change (that can often be the sign of a physical problem) mightn’t be that important in a horse used for the occasional trail ride but could be disastrous for a competition horse.
Similarly, while the aim for one animal might be to get around a 4* eventing course, for another, such as an older horse, the goal could be improving its quality of life by ensuring it can stand up and lie down comfortably.
What happens during an equine physiotherapy assessment?
At the initial assessment the physiotherapist will first want to watch your horse move. This will likely include watching the horse walk and trot in hand. Depending on what the horse’s reported issue is, putting the horse on the lunge to see how it moves on a circle can be beneficial, particularly as lameness and/or movement dysfunctions may only become apparent when the horse is on a circle. If the issue is performance-related, watching the horse being ridden can be very beneficial.
They will then perform a thorough assessment of the horse, which may include assessing joint range of motion, palpation of soft tissue, their ability to round or bend through the spine and how well the horse can balance and accept transfer of weight between their limbs.
What does treatment involve?
If you’ve ever attended physiotherapy yourself, you may well be familiar with some of the techniques an equine physiotherapist utilises. Depending on what your physio finds during their assessment, treatment may consist of:
- joint mobilisation
- electrotherapy, such as TENS or laser
- thermotherapy (heat and cold)
- kinesio taping
- exercise therapy
An important part of any rehabilitation program for your horse is a home program. Your horse will progress that much faster if therapy can be performed on a regular basis. This may include stretches, core stability and balance exercises that the physiotherapist teaches you to perform with your horse on a daily basis. For the performance horse, specific training drills and exercises under saddle may be prescribed. The use of external training aids, such as ground poles, the equiband system or long lining can be very beneficial in the rehabilitation of certain conditions. Heat and ice can both be a very simple but effective treatment technique that can be easily applied by the owner.
The equiband system is a great tool to use either on the lunge or under saddle to help improve your horse's core stability. It consists of a saddle cloth and 2 specially designed bands that attach onto the saddle cloth. You can use one or two of the bands. The first band passes under the horse's abdomen, and its function is to stimulate the abdominal muscles, encouraging the horse to lift and round through the back. The second band passes around the hindquarters, underneath the tail. Its function is to make the horse aware of the position of his hind limbs in locomotion and to enhance proprioception. The position of this band is especially indicated for horses with asymmetrical hind limb movement, poor engagement and poor development of major muscle groups, such as hamstring muscle biceps femoris.