Working In Water

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An Aquatred Can . . .

  • Shorten rehab time.
  • Improve muscling.
  • Increase endurance.
  • Result in a happier frame of mind.

Hand-walking is the traditional way to rehab a horse from an injury, and it costs nothing except time.? On the other hand, hand-walking or walk-riding an energetic horse otherwise confined to stall rest can be perilous.

Over the years, horse owners have turned to hot walkers, swimming and treadmills for this task, saving them time while putting some distance between themselves and the frisky patient, plus achieving other therapeutic and conditioning benefits. In the last couple decades, a marriage of treadmill and water has taken place, and we think it's here to stay.

WATERY WALK. The only negatives we see to a full-size aqua treadmill are that there are few of them around and they?re expensive to install.? HydroHorse of Merrill, Ore., www.horsetreadmills.com, 800-405-1099) a major player in this developing area, has been in business since 1986 and installs 10 to 12 a year, including some overseas.? They currently have 150 units at different sites in the U.S., but about half of those are at private facilities. Most of the ones available to the public are in the western USA.

Lynn Turner, manager of HydroHorse, said word-of-mouth and veterinary endorsement has built interest. ?People have to experience it for themselves to see what it can do for their horse,? he said.

If you can find an aqua treadmill near you, check it out. A Horse Journal test horse recently spent a month at Still Creek Farm in Columbus, N.C., which has a full-size below-ground HydroHorse aqua treadmill. The FEI dressage mare was starting back into light work after a stifle injury.? On off days from work under saddle, she went for a watery stroll, from one to five days a week. The mare?s regular rider felt the aqua treadmill kept her muscles loose and she retained condition even with a gap in riding of several days.? Clearly the mare seemed to enjoy the workout.???

Aqua treadmills that come up to the horse's chest provide low-impact exercise because the water?s buoyancy takes 40 to 50 percent of the horse's weight off his legs.? Swimming, which has long been used for rehabbing racehorses because it's a great aerobic workout, takes all the weight away from the legs. But horses really aren?t efficient swimmers, working in an inverted manner with the head up and back down. The aqua treadmill encourages the horse to lift his stomach muscles and swing through his entire top line.

The HydroHorse can go from below a 3 mph walking speed to a trotting speed of 15 mph,? including the resistance of the water.? When the spa jets are turned on, buoyancy improves and water resistance is reduced.? The horse can also get improved blood circulation since the water is heated. A normal workout for a rehab horse is a half hour of walking. A horse on a conditioning program, such as an endurance horse or eventer, can do 45-minute trot sets without the pounding it might encounter while cantering on hard ground.

Linda Ketcham, who owns Still Creek (www.stillcreekfarmnc.com,? 828-894-3435), believes horses on stall rest become detached mentally.? The work on the treadmill gives the horses, especially young horses, a sense of focus, so that they become engaged again both mentally and physically.

Lynn Turner of HydroHorse said the combined benefits of the workout in heated chest-deep water can cut layup time almost in half for some types of injures.? The company makes smaller units with a variable depth of water, even a closed-door stall-sized treadmill. Smaller units have a more limited use since the water may only go to ankle height and more time is needed to raise/lower the water.

The Still Creek treadmill has been in operation for three years and has become so popular in the area? that it often runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.? Ketcham said that just about every type of horse has been on the treadmill, including driving ponies and Arab endurance horses.

Hygiene is an important consideration. Three large filters work continuously, and the baskets are cleaned after every other horse.? In addition, each horse is thoroughly bathed when it leaves the water.? In the winter, a horse using the treadmill regularly needs to be clipped to reduce drying time.

Many of the horses using the treadmill there are on a farm-run rehab or conditioning program.? For Still Creek boarders, the cost is $32 per half-hour workout, while drive-ins pay $37.? An attendant is always present, next to the horse.? Newbies seem to take to the treadmill easily?the jets usually aren?t run the first time?and a horse that is likely to be hesitant will be one with starting gate experience since the treadmill is enclosed on both sides.

In-ground units from HydroHorse range from $66,000 to $85,000, but that's just the start, since there's transportation and installation, plus building space.

BOTTOM LINE. Spa-type treadmills are excellent for rehab and conditioning if you can find one nearby (do a web search).? You'll get more benefit from ones where the water comes up to chest level. While they can help cut rehab time, they?re also a valid possibility for cross-training and conditioning just about any type of horse.

Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman.