Increased range of movement

The study found that walking in water encouraged the horses to extend their stride, resulting in an increased rotation and flexion-extension in all sensors and increased lateral flexion in the sensor near the wither.

This is something we have seen first hand in many of the horses that come to High Weald Horse Hydro. Walking in water encourages horses to drop their heads, engage their spine and really swing through their backs.

According to another study by Jose Mendez-Angulo at the University of Helsinki, this increased range of movement occurs as horses try to step over the water in order to minimise water resistance.This results in a change in limb motion as legs are pulled up higher, the joints are more flexed and larger strides are taken. To propel the limbs forward the abdominal muscles are contracted and the pelvis slightly tilts, causing the back to lift and encouraging a greater range of movement (see diagram below).

Research proves exercise on a water treadmill improves a horse’s performance

12th March 2018

It’s all well and good us harping on about the benefits of hydrotherapy – but sometimes you need some solid stats to back up your beliefs. So we were interested to read about a research project at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which found that exercising on a water treadmill can increase a horse’s range of motion.​

Monitoring motion

Nathalie Zielstra examined the kinematics of nine dressage horses on a treadmill, in a range of water heights.
​In case you’re wondering what kinematics is, it’s the study of motion (don’t worry, we also had to look it up).

The horses started on the treadmill with no water, and the levels were gradually increased from hoof to fetlock to carpus and finally shoulder. Sensors were placed at the base of the wither (thoracic 13), on the loins (lumbar four) and just above the tail (sacral five) in order to measure average stride length and the three movements of the equine spine. These are:

  • Flexion-extension (see picture A, below): this is an up-down movement (i.e. nodding of the head).

  • Lateral flexion (B): the movement of the spine from side to side.

  • Rotation (C): which occurs as the hocks lift over the water, causing axial rotation of the pelvis. When viewed from behind you would see the sacral area lift up on one side and go down on the other.
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Different horses for different courses

So which height of water is the most effective? As is often the way with horses, there is no simple answer to this.

We know from our own experience that each horse performs differently in different water heights, and this was backed up by Zielstra’s study. She found that the efficacy of the water height depended on the individual preference of the horse. While one horse may have its largest stride length when the water is at fetlock height, other horses don’t peak until shoulder.

This means each session on a treadmill has to be adjusted to suit each horse, in order to achieve the full benefits.

Zielstra explains: “Experience with use of the water treadmill and experience with water treadmill exercising a specific horse will be essential to find the proper height. This also includes judging the horses’ locomotion from an unusual position: above and aside.

Clinical experience suggests it may be necessary to adjust water height and velocity throughout the training session.”

Tailor-made training

At High Weald Horse Hydro we pride ourselves on the experience of our staff and the individual care and attention we give to every horse in our care.

Our centre manager Evonne is a qualified massage therapist and student of Anatomy and Physiology, with over 25 years’ experience of working with horses, while therapist Kat is a BHS Stage 3 coach and groom. Both are supported by Michelle Seymour, who has been working in the equine care industry for over 30 years. Their combined knowledge ensures every session is tailored to your horse, according to how they perform on that day.

Evonne also keeps written and video records of all sessions, so she can monitor your horse’s progress, whether he is coming to us for rehabilitation or to improve fitness.

While every horse responds differently to the treadmill and needs a personalised programme, they all benefit from this type of exercise. As Zielstra’s study concluded: “When used correctly, the water treadmill can be an effective tool in altering horses’ kinematics of the back in desirable ways”.

Get in touch with us now to book your free introductory session and find out how we can help your horse.