hydrotherapy for horses

Understanding why and how this simple yet effective therapy works.

For many years, veterinarians, trainers and other equine enthusiasts have used water as a therapy for sore limbs and muscle injuries. Cold hosing is a simple form of hydrotherapy. It’s also something you can do in the comfort of your own barn, if an injury occurs. So how does cold hosing work? To explain that, we first have to understand the body’s physiological response to injury.

Understanding Trauma

When cells are injured by a cut, trauma or overexertion, it causes the blood vessel walls in that vicinity to dilate and become more porous. Enzymes and proteins are released. Infection/inflammationfighting cells and extra fluid move into the area, carrying oxygen and proteins for tissue repair. Tissue damage also triggers the secretion of hormones responsible for much of the pain the horse feels.

Pain, heat and swelling – the three main symptoms of inflammation – occur to varying degrees depending on the region, severity and type of injury. Pain helps prevent overuse of the affected area. Heat results from increased blood flow to the injury site, and swelling (or edema) helps immobilize the area. The safest way to begin the healing process is to use the horse’s circulatory system to remove excess fluids not needed for healing. Drugs such as phenylbutazone can reduce swelling and heat, but they might mask pain and delay or confuse the diagnostic picture.

Why Does Hydrotherapy/Cold Hosing Work?

The application of cold hydrotherapy triggers three basic reactions. It reduces cellular metabolic responses so that less oxygen is necessary, since this can trigger hypoxic injury. Cold therapy also decreases the permeability of blood vessel walls to reduce the amount of fluid accumulation. And by cooling the area, it acts as a topical analgesic.

The Equine Hydro-T combines the benefits of a human hydrotherapeutic spa along with the convenience of a backyard stream. It attaches to a hose at the barn and directs a pleasant, pulsating hydrotherapeutic massage to tendons, joints and muscles that have experienced a workout or injury.

Throughout the years in my veterinary practice, I recommended using a regular garden hose to help reduce swelling and provide a therapeutic treatment for medical problems associated with injury or strenuous workouts. When describing this therapy to clients, I often used a shower massage analogy to explain how this treatment could help their athletes. While driving away, I always contemplated the need for a massage unit like those found in most people’s showers or spas. I also was discouraged at the inconsistencies inherent in using a garden hose. The Equine Hydro-T meets this need by providing inexpensive, consistent, pulsating hydrotherapy using a convenient handheld instrument that’s also a good tool for routine bathing.

Robert Keene, DVM, is an equine veterinarian who provides advice as an unpaid consultant to the Equine Hydro-T team. Dr. Keene has been involved in endurance horse welfare, training and driving of equine teams, and of course providing exceptional veterinary medical services to his clients.