Horse Physical Therapy 101: What Every Equestrian Needs to Know About Equine Physiotherapy

Horse Physical Therapy 101: What Every Equestrian Needs to Know About Equine Physiotherapy

Physical therapy, or physiotherapy, is highly recommended for elite equestrians to increase flexibility, heal from injuries, and maintain their overall health.

But no equestrian rides alone, so, why shouldn’t your horses have the same opportunity?

Our four-legged partners are as elite as any athlete could get, doing just as much work and training regularly. Considering the work your equine puts in, physiotherapy will be beneficial for them in the long run, lessening their chances of injury, and perhaps making the aging process more comfortable for them, too.

What is horse physical therapy?

Equine physical therapy, or better known as horse physiotherapy, is assessing and treating any musculoskeletal conditions that your horse may have. To put it simply, a physiotherapist goes through a series of programs, helps your riding partner’s muscles and bones heal from injuries, increase flexibility, or bring them to their optimum strength and functionality. Trained physiotherapists can address numerous conditions, such as back pain, limited joint mobility, inflammation, bone and tissue healing, and many more.

Based primarily on physical therapy on humans, equine physiotherapy at its most basic looks much like giving your four-legged pal a massage and a series of stretches. However, in the hands of a professional, horse physiotherapy becomes about hitting the right pain points, depending on what your riding partner needs to be at optimum performance.

Some physiotherapists use electrotherapy like lasers and ultrasounds, but the use of these would depend on the needs of your riding partner. They also give strong recommendations regarding your equine’s exercise routines, to be done when they are under your care, in tandem with physical therapy sessions.

The obvious and subtle signs your equine needs to go to physical therapy

There are tell-tale signs such as your horse exhibiting signs of pain or injury. Due to the nature of their work, your riding pal might experience back pain or neck pain. Observe for any negative changes in their movement, imbalance in their muscle usage, or perhaps you see a swayback beginning to happen, or lameness in your equine. Those are obvious signs that you need to bring them to your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and ask for advice if your four-legged pal needs to go to a physiotherapist.

More subtle signs could be a sudden change in your equine’s gait, or a slight wincing, avoiding being touched, or a reluctance to jump or move. You know your riding partner best—could it be just their temperament for that day, or could it be something more? Is there something that can be done or improved so that your riding partner can have a better quality of life? For this, it’s best to go with your gut.

Avoid horse injuries through physiotherapy

The first step towards physiotherapy is a visit to your horse’s veterinarian, to get their recommendation on whether your riding partner needs to see a physiotherapist.

How your horse works, whether they are for leisure riding or in training for a competition, matters a lot. With all the work they do, it follows that your riding partner may experience back and neck pain, and other injuries related to their muscles, due to daily training.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, they say, and horse physiotherapy can be seen as a way of preventing equine injuries by increasing your riding partner’s flexibility and strength by lessening the tightening of their muscles. When your physiotherapist detects abnormalities with your horse’s movements or muscles, a physiotherapist can help you manage the pain and symptoms from getting worse and can keep your riding partner at its peak performance as well.

What to expect in a standard horse physiotherapy treatment plan

An equine physical therapy plan will depend on the specific concerns of your riding partner, but the standard procedure will likely begin with an assessment. Much like when you go to a doctor yourself, you will be asked by the physiotherapist about the concerns you have with your riding partner, and what brought you to seek help on their behalf. There will be a lot of questions, such as your horse’s background, their level, their work, their diet, and current exercise regimen if they are undergoing training, the quality of their tack, and, of course, there will be questions about you, and, if any, your horse’s other riders. After which, your equine will undergo a comprehensive assessment, checking the gait, movement, canter, and many more of your riding pal, check their current condition, and if there are other conditions that you didn’t get to observe.

If by any chance, during the assessment, the physiotherapist sees an injury or lameness in your riding partner, take note that they are not qualified to properly diagnose it. They should work with your veterinarian so that the physiotherapy plan of your horse will complement and greatly help your horse’s recovery from their injury. Physiotherapy should never replace the care of a veterinarian, rather, it is an added treatment to what your equine receives from their doctor.

For back pain, a physiotherapist would usually use spinal mobilization techniques to lessen the pain and restore motion. Muscle-strengthening exercises may also be used, such as Kinesio taping, hydrotherapy treadmill, or exercises to strengthen your riding partner’s abdominal muscles or lessen colic.

Aging horses will also benefit from physical therapy, relieving them from pain brought about by arthritis. Physiotherapy can also be done for post-surgery care and recovery if it is cleared with your horse’s veterinarian.

There are also what is called “maintenance sessions,” wherein the recommended number of sessions for your equine will just be before and after the competitive season. However, this is the bare minimum, and the final treatment plan will depend on the results of the assessment and will be subject to change as the treatment progresses.

Rider and physiotherapist, working hand in hand

Continuing their therapy at home, or with you, is important for the physiotherapy to fully work. The continuity will come in the form of a home exercise program to support the physiotherapy treatment plan done.

A home exercise program usually includes groundwork, stretching, and pole and ridden exercises. Some physiotherapists might also recommend giving your equine simple massages, or hot & cold therapy.

“Can I ride my horse after physiotherapy?” and other questions, answered

Can you ride your equine after a therapy session? It depends on the treatment plan received from the physiotherapist. If the session has left soreness in certain parts of your riding partner, then it might be better to give your horse some time to rest and recuperate before going back on the saddle.

How soon can your riding partner compete? Again, it would depend on what was done, but the minimum gap between the session and the competition should be a minimum of three days.

Do you go straight to your physiotherapist rather than your horse’s veterinarian? Please visit your four-legged pal’s veterinarian before seeking help from a physiotherapist. Your vet will be the best person to ask for advice if your equine partner will benefit from one and may be able to recommend someone who would best suit your horse’s needs.

Proper tack aids in recovery  

One of the questions usually asked during the assessment with the physiotherapist is your horse’s tack. This is because one of the possible causes of back pain or kissing spine in your equine could be the lack of proper support. Depending on the diagnosis and treatment plan of your riding partner, well-fitted tack is essential to a healthy horse, complemented with the correct saddle pads, such as non-slip pads or gel pads, depending on what issue to address, like muscle imbalance, back pain, or the symptoms of a kissing spine. Proper tack can alleviate pain, manage the symptoms of equine lordosis, and help with back pain.

The main purpose of horse physiotherapy is to keep your equine comfortable, healthy, and protected. Your riding partner works hard for you, and deserves to be taken care of—it shows your appreciation and love for them.

Take care of your four-legged pal by bringing them to their regular visits to the veterinarian, and cooperating with your physiotherapist’s recommendations.

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