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by Dr. Michael Guerini
After a long day of work or a vigorous exercise routine, many people use a water-jet massage in their home spas or showers. These spas help with relaxation and easing muscle soreness by providing water therapy (hydrotherapy) in the home. Hydrotherapy spas are wonderful for people but not all that practical for the average horse keeper or trainer when we consider cost limitations, design problems, and water requirements. Ideally, a stream in our backyard or near the training facility would provide an excellent means for relaxing not only the rider, but also the equine athlete after a ride.
Using water from the end of a hose is a simple form of hydrotherapy for the horse. A new injury or sore muscles can benefit from being hosed with water for about 20 minutes. For an injury, it is important to follow veterinary treatment guidelines when using water therapy. The standard procedures most veterinarians recommend include using water straight from a garden hose (temperature of 50oF to 65oF) and the addition of a gentle pulsating stream is beneficial so long as the pressure does not exceed 40 psi. The benefit of cold water hosing comes from both the pressure and temperature of the water. The temperature helps cool the affected area and the pressure (or fluctuating change of pressure with pulsating water), helps stimulate movement of fluids in the tissues. One caution is that overheated muscles can stress from exposure to cold water so cold water therapy is not indicated for rapid cooling of a hot horse.
Why does water therapy work for an injury?
First, water therapy can help clean away dirt and debris from a cut or injury, allowing the caregiver to examine the injury and assess it for treatment. For example, some cuts may require stitches while others might only need to be kept clean and bandaged. Care and treatment of cuts and wounds needs to be performed by either a professional equine health care provider or someone with a good working knowledge of how to treat injuries.
More specifically with injury, enzymes and proteins are released when cells are cut, traumatized, or stressed and this causes the blood vessel walls in that vicinity to dilate and become more porous. Infection-fighting and inflammation-reducing cells move to the area and extra fluid is produced to carry oxygen and proteins for tissue repair. Tissue damage also triggers the secretion of substances 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. As we all know, pain helps prevent overuse of the affected area. Heat results from the increased blood flow to the injury site, and swelling (or edema) helps immobilize the area. The safest way to assist this natural healing process is to encourage the horse's circulatory system to continue to remove (at a normal rate) excess fluids no longer needed for healing. Drugs such as phenylbutazone can reduce swelling and heat by blocking the body’s production of substances that trigger inflammation, but this drug does not do anything to promote healing. Phenylbutazone might mask pain and delay or confuse the diagnostic picture. Consequently, many people turn to water therapy to promote removal of the excess fluids at the site of injury.
The application of cold hydrotherapy triggers three basic reactions. First, it reduces cellular metabolic responses so that cells need less oxygen to function and this in turn reduces the level of oxidative damage. Oxidative damage can extend the healing and recovery time. Cold therapy also decreases the permeability of the blood vessel walls to reduce fluid accumulation. Lastly, by cooling the area it acts as a topical analgesic (painkiller). By reducing cellular metabolic response and decreasing hypoxic injury risk, reducing blood vessel permeability, and acting as a topical analgesic, cold water therapy allows the body to begin healing without the need for pharmaceuticals, and as we all realize, zero or minimal pharmaceuticals is better for a natural and holistic approach to healing.
How does water therapy benefit the equine athlete after a normal riding session?
Beyond the benefits described for healing, water therapy applied after a normal riding session has many advantages. Hosing your horse after a ride removes sweat from his coat, thereby reducing the occurrence of skin lesions and wetting the hair increases visibility when looking for scrapes or cuts.
Additionally, if you ride with polo wraps or any other leg protection, sand and dirt can get under the wrap and bind to the skin and sweat on the legs. When you remove the leg protection, you can brush away the sand, sweat or dirt when dry but depending on the thickness of the hair coat, some particles may be left behind. Dirt and sweat left in contact with the skin can cause skin irritations. Water therapy, however, can more effectively remove sweat and dirt from the skin, minimizing irritation and allowing you to check for any minor abrasions or swelling, while providing the benefits of hydrotherapy, after your ride.
About the author:
Dr. Michael Guerini is a horsemanship clinician and author from California. From an early age, he started riding, training colts, and learning about the horse. Michael works with Western/ Cowboy Dressage™, performance horses, and teaches routinely on the merits of good horsemanship and improving the relationship between horse and rider (www.dunmovinranch.com). Michael is co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T™ (www.hydrot.com).
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