equine rehab, underwater treadmill for horses

There has been a huge increase and growing momentum behind water treadmill therapy here in the UK over the past few years. Multiple disciplines including private yards, racehorse trainers, professional competition yards along with therapy and rehabilitation centres like ours are now using a water treadmill as part of their fitness and training plans.

The horse enters the treadmill while the tank is empty and the chamber fills quickly with water to a pre-set level, depending on the individual horse’s level of fitness or injury. The horse is not 'swimming' but moving in a natural outline in a low to non-concussive environment. The different depths allow for varying degrees of support/resistance and movement. The treadmill is set to the desired speed, which may be at walk or trot.

The water treadmill is a full body workout which is highly effective and naturally improve respiration levels which is highly noticeable in the horse’s day to day work. Along with improved joint flexion, increasing the horses stride length, increased stride length and suppleness through the back and improving the topline. Muscle tone, stamina and strength and improved dramatically and the horses enjoy their treadmill sessions.

The buoyancy of the water reduces weight bearing stress on the joints and soft tissue structures which allows an increased range of motion. At the same time the high resistance (12 times more than air) leads to increased muscle activity which enhances neuromuscular control. Hydrostatic pressure helps to reduce oedema (swelling), decrease pain and promote circulation. Using cold water in the treadmill adds further benefits in which is reduces swelling and decreases inflammations.

"I have found the water treadmill a huge asset to my horses training programs and would highly recommend it. It is a great way of increasing and maintaining fitness whilst building essential core strength, and I have found that both my young and older horses have developed strength over their backs through its use. This is particularly helpful when they struggle with daily ridden work, and I am a great believer in using variation within our training." Charlotte Agnew-Eventing

Using the water treadmill is a low intensity workout suitable for both fit horses or those returning to work after time off or injury. The treadmill encourages the horses to engage its hind legs taking the weight off the front legs and take bigger, longer steps.

When the water levels in the treadmill are high, horses demonstrate an increased stride length and decreased stride frequency which leads to increased back extension and flexion and therefore helping build up back muscles.

Lower water levels would be used in the treadmill for a horse that is returning to work from injury to gradually strengthen the injured area or that has a lower fitness level.

The water treadmill programme can be tailored to each individual horse needs and their fitness levels. Regular videos can be taken to monitor the horses progress.

Water treadmill therapy is ideal for:

  • Core muscles, strengthening and suppleness
  • Re-educate muscles
  • Fitness without concussion
  • Tendon and suspensory ligaments
  • Degenerative joint disease – increasing joint flexion
  • Sore back, weak hind quarters or shoulders
  • Stifle weakness or soreness
  • Kissing spine – increases the gap between dorsal spine processes
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Back and foot problems
  • Healing of flesh cuts and bruises
  • Pain reduction, inflammation and discomfort

In depth studies into the effect on a water treadmill training programme over the years have a variety of positive findings, some are as follows:

  • regular training in a water treadmill can develop a horse’s stride length in walk
  • after just 4 to 5 training sessions a younger horse will noticeably improve its body balance and stability
  • when a horse is worked in walk, it shows more muscle activity than in trot in the water
  • muscle volume and strength can be developed 3 to 4 times faster with water treadmill training compared to hand walking
  • the development of back muscle is greatly improved, especially the M. longissimus dorsi and Mm. multifidi, showing significant strength increase with a daily 20-minute water treadmill training plan
  • adding aqua training sessions after canter work seemed to decrease the lactic acid in the horse’s muscles.
  • Specifically, with older horses there were improvements in overall body condition and muscle tone. The reduced impact from the water treadmill allowed them to stay in competition for longer.

Each horse is treated as an individual, one of the most important things is the horse enjoys the experience which most horses do accept working on the treadmill with minimum problems. Over time the treadmill gives the horse a lot of confidence in their own ability to carry themselves, engage their core and work independently, reducing the need for constant reminding by the rider.

"The water treadmill is an important part of our work programmes both in maintaining fitness in our event horses. As part of their programmes we believe in variety and cross training, and in helping to rehabilitate horses that are returning from injury and managing niggles on an on-going basis." Bill Levett - Evening


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