Underwater Treadmill Exercise's Effects on Horses' Backs

Underwater Treadmill Exercise's Effects on Horses' Backs

New research results suggest adding a water treadmill to a horse's fitness regimen might help relieve back pain and increase range of motion.

Photo: Courtesy University of Tennessee

Back pain is often implicated as a cause of poor performance, so how can veterinarians and owners help a horse's back return to health? New research results suggest adding an underwater treadmill to your horse's fitness regimen might help relieve back pain and increase range of motion.

Underwater treadmills are widely used in rehabilitation centers for horses with varied clinical presentations, including poor performance related to back pain, but the effects on the biomechanics of the horse's back remained largely unclear. A team of researchers from Utrecht University's Department of Equine Sciences led by Wim Back, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, Specialist KNMvD (Equine Surgery), Certified Practitioner KNMvD (Equine Practice), recently set out to evaluate the equine back's biomechanical responses to underwater treadmill exercise.

During the 10-day study, the team measured changes in back movement including axial rotation (how much the back bends along its length from head to tail), lateral bending (how much the back bends to the left or right), and pelvic flexion (how much the back rotates in an arc around the spine) during water treadmill exercise at different water depths (hoof, fetlock, knee, elbow, and shoulder joint levels). The team used 12 riding horses for the study and evaluated the horses' movement on Days 1 and 10 using two high-speed video cameras.

Key findings from Back's study included:

  • The horses' axial rotation movement increased significantly when the water level was at the carpus (knee) and higher;
  • Horses' lateral bending of the back decreased significantly at water levels that reached the elbow and shoulder joints; and
  • Pelvic flexion of the back increased significantly at all water level values that were above hoof level.

The researchers concluded that at increasing water depths there were significant increases in the back's flexion and rotation, while at the highest water level there was reduced bending of the back. This provides the horse owner and veterinarian valuable information in their quest to treat a horse with a stiff back and allows them to choose the appropriate water depth for the individual horse and problem.

A horse that is painful under saddle and might benefit from increased range of axial rotation could be exercised in a water level above its knee, while a horse recovering from back surgery, undergoing rehabilitation, or that requires strengthening and conditioning might be best exercised in a water level above its shoulder, the team concluded.

The study, "Biomechanical responses of the back of riding horses to water treadmill exercise," was published in The Veterinary Journal

About the Author

Thomas O'Keeffe, MVB, MRCVS

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