Equine Physical Therapy Advances

In 1982, I was working as an athletic trainer when a veterinarian came in for help in rehabilitating a sprained ankle. As I applied electrical stimulation and range of motion exercise, I asked him what would be done for a horse with a similar injury. He told me of blistering and firing and of extended stall rest, followed by turnout. This concept of rehabilitation was counter to everything an athletic trainer does to control pain and promote functionality. An idea was born. From that moment on, I was determined to pursue and promote the concept of treating the rehabilitation of the equine athlete with the same level of care that is given to human athletes.

In the early 1980s, there was little published scientific literature about light-tissue interaction or about the mechanism of action of therapeutic ultrasound and electrical stimulation. No research in this area used horses as subjects, and veterinarians and horsemen were skeptical of the effects of physical agents. The value of electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, photon therapy, laser, stretching, and range of motion exercises was proven case by case. Trainers were soon able to recognize that the signs of acute injury--pain, swelling, and disuse--resolved more rapidly with the use of physical agents. By the mid '80s, research articles in human sports medicine showed that long periods of immobility predisposed the injured athlete to muscle atrophy, joint stiffness, ulceration of joint cartilage, and soft tissue adhesions. An approach that reduced the inflammatory period of injury, enabling the repair phase to begin rapidly, was welcomed, and equine therapies began to gain their place in sports medicine.

The 1990s brought research that showed the efficacy of physical agents in tissue repair and pain control. Later in the decade, researchers focused on the physical mechanisms of the effects found. It was no longer a question of "Do these therapies work?" The question was now "How do they work?" The responsiveness of the cellular components involved in wound healing has been extensively studied. The increase in cellular energy and tissue oxygenation, increased microcirculation, and the stimulation of specialized signaling proteins have been shown to be influenced by weak electro-magnetic signals emitted by the various physical agents used by equine therapists. Research has shown that when external energy, such as electric current, photons, or compression force, is absorbed, the energy is used to synthesize DNA, RNA, proteins, and enzymes, resulting in cell proliferation and tissue repair. Scientific support of the tools of the equine therapist continues to build, and now some studies even use horses as subjects.

The '90s brought increased interest in the profession of equine therapy. There was no educational route for this profession until Midway College in Midway, Ky., established the first bachelor's degree curriculum in equine therapy in the United States.

The bachelor's degree in equine therapy at Midway College is considered a professional degree program, meaning that prerequisite courses are completed before the student applies to the professional phase of the curriculum. First- and second-year students take classes on practical, hands-on horse handling; the economics of the equine industry; and general overviews of equine anatomy, physiology, nutrition, reproduction, lameness, and disease. Once accepted into the professional phase, students take courses from veterinarians, athletic trainers, and physical therapists in physical agents, procedures in equine therapy, and Eastern medicine. There are three semesters of clinical experience offering students the opportunity to perform treatments on the horses at Midway College, the Lexington Mounted Police horses, and horses at a Lexington rehabilitation facility. We enjoy a close relationship with the veterinarians in the area, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners is aware of the fine program we are establishing.

The popularity of the equine therapy program at Midway College continues to grow, as does the acceptance of the equine therapy profession. The Royal Veterinary College in England has appointed the first dedicated lecturer in veterinary physiotherapy in that country, putting England ahead of the U.S. in having equine therapy education available for veterinary students. The interest is there, and a consortium of representatives from leading veterinary schools, directed by Neal Hughes of the Ferno company (a supplier of therapeutic tools), is making plans for a education program in equine therapy for veterinarians and others interested in learning about equine therapy. The program is planned for 2004; further details will be available later. For information about the equine therapy bachelor's curriculum at Midway College, contact Admissions, Midway College, 512 East Stephens St., Midway, KY 40347-1120.

About the Author

Mimi Porter

Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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