Equine Aqua Therapy – Water Works for Horses!

Swimming and aquatreadmill work take center stage at educational event for owners who prioritize their horses’ peak performance, health and well-being.

June 23, 2022, Franklin, Tenn: Haygain’s interest in equine respiratory health prompted staffers to dive into the topic of aquatic exercise for horses recently. The company was honored to participate in an educational day at Equatic Spa in sunny Southern California. Equatic Spa is gaining increasing recognition as a first-rate rehab and conditioning facility. It’s owned by Haygain SteamTeamer and Swedish show jumper Hanna Mauritzson.

Swimming and aquatreadmill work were the focus of the event. Veterinarian Philippe Benoit explained the benefits of both forms of exercise for horses coming back from injuries and for perfectly healthy horses whose owners want to improve their fitness and/or give them variety in their exercise routine.

Dr. Benoit noted that swimming and aquatreadmill can play important roles in enabling the horse to maintain fitness and mobility while healing from many injuries. The days of extended box rest and limited movement in recovery are long gone in most cases, he said. Like injured humans, injured horses start their recovery with motion as soon as possible. That motion triggers healing processes in the body.

Into The Swim!

A handsome children’s hunter named Diagon happily demonstrated how horses swim. As two attendants guided him from either side of the pool, Equatic Spa’s Shay Stenchever discussed ideal equine swimming form: limbs extending symmetrically and the horse traveling with a straight and level spine.

All start with an “in and out” — entering the pool from one ramp and exiting from another after half a lap. Once they are at ease, horses go through work outs that range from two laps for a hunter like Diagon that doesn’t need extreme fitness to up to six laps for Hanna’s Grand Prix jumping partner, Parkmore Lux.

Lux served as the demo horse for the aquatreadmill. Dr. Benoit said this equipment is great when a gradual increase of weight-bearing, concussion-inducing exercise is prescribed. A bone bruise is one of several such injuries.

“The best way to rehab this is to keep movement and promote blood flow to the bone,” he said. Blood flow is achieved by concussion, but only a little at first, then with gradual increases as healing occurs. A horse working on an aquatreadmill in 3’ of water – reaching an average adult horse’s stifle and shoulder – has 2.5 to 3 times less concussion than when working on a regular treadmill.

As the injury heals – as evidenced by bone scan – the load can be increased by decreasing the water height and, hence, the degree of buoyancy. Working in two feet of water reduces the concussion by 1.5 to 1.8 times, the veterinarian explained.

Water Works Respiratory Wonders

Along with the healing benefits of water work for muscles, joints and tendons, this form of exercise helps build and maintain respiratory fitness while putting little or no concussive impact on joints and bone.

Heart rate is a measure of exercise intensity. In five minutes of swimming, the horse’s heart rate can go to between 160 and 180 beats per minute, the same as achieved by five minutes of cantering at full speed, Dr. Benoit said. Part of that can be attributed to excitement of being in the water and rates vary based on the horse’s level of condition, he cautioned. But even with those modifiers, swimming is an excellent way to build or retain respiratory fitness.

Aquatreadmill work also elevates heart rate, to 120 to 140 bpm, in deeper water. Swimming and aquatreadmill are great for preparing a horse’s lungs and heart for returning to under saddle work and the path back to peak performance.  

Interval Training

For top respiratory condition in sound horses, Dr. Benoit recommended water work combined with interval training: galloping at set speeds for set times interspersed with periods of lesser exertion.

The requirements of the horse’s job — like speed or stamina — dictate the interval intensity and duration. He likened this fitness training to that of a person who regularly runs 10 miles to stay fit.  “Maybe you don’t need to do the 10 miles: maybe you can do four sets of two miles or one mile and be as conditioned as you need to be.” Less mileage equals less concussion on the joints.

The importance of respiratory fitness is what led Equatic Spa owner Hanna Mauritzson to Haygain a few years ago. The patented hay steaming process reduces up to 99% of the respirable particles commonly found even in hay of good nutritional quality. These invisible particles are a main trigger of respiratory inflammation and disease.

Steamed Hay is now integral to Hanna’s program – for client horses on the rehab and training side and for her own international show jumpers. She’s a big fan of Haygain’s Forager Slow Feeder, too.

Overlapping Circles of Interest

Dr. Benoit spoke on behalf of the Equine High Performance Sports Group, presenter of the Sport Horse Podcast. This fast-growing series kicked off with a great discussion of swimming for horses. Haygain recently sponsored an episode on cardiorespiratory challenges in sport horses, featuring Dr. Emmanuelle van Erck Westergren. Dr. Benoit shared his expertise on everyday evaluations for sport horses in a late May session.

Haygain is grateful to be in the middle of increasing interest in scientific analysis and multi-disciplinary discussion of sport horse health, performance and well-being. Attendees at the Equatic Spa event asked great questions reflecting their interest in doing all possible for their horses. This overlapping section of the Venn diagram that is modern sport horse management attracts people, perspectives and research-oriented companies all coming together for the good of the horse.

One of those research-oriented companies is Purina Animal Nutrition. Its Southern California superstar Rebecca Nunes said she’s thrilled to be back organizing these Equine Educational Events.

RELATED: Back to Work After Injury

Memorial Day Twist

Given that the event took place on Memorial Day, Haygain, Purina, Equatic Spa and Hawthorne Country Feed decided to donate proceeds of raffle ticket sales to Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center in nearby Encinitas.

Cornerstone works exclusively with active-duty military and veterans to “save and restore” the lives of those who serve America. Through the proceeding week, Haygain donated a portion of all US sales to Cornerstone and Monday’s added contributions resulted in a substantial sum going to the program.

Attendees went home with goodies and gift bags from Purina Animal Nutrition, #SteamTeam t-shirts and bellies full of delicious BBQ. One San Diego horse owner happily drew the winning ticket for the Forager Slow Feeder from Haygain.

Haygain is grateful to Equatic Spa, Hanna Mauritzson and Purina Animal Nutrition for the invite to partner on this event. “It’s always the educated, proactive horse owner who becomes a Haygain Way devotee and we loved learning alongside them on Monday,” says s Kim F Miller, who attended the event on Haygain’s behalf.

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