When a person sustains a serious physical injury like a broken bone or damaged ligament or tendon, an integral part of their recovery program is going to include physical therapy. However, this crucial piece of the injury recovery process is often left out where horses (or animals in general) are concerned.
The physiology of the horse is not that different from humans. So why would we think the horse would not benefit from the same therapies that have been proven to help humans for the same type of injuries? Horses that receive equine bodywork as part of the injury recovery process have a greater chance of full recovery from their injuries and are less likely to develop complications from those injuries later in life.
The 3 Stages Of Healing
When the body sustains an injury, it undergoes three main stages on the road to healing – inflammation, repair and remodeling. By providing support during all three of these stages using equine bodywork, we can support and help speed up the body’s natural healing processes, reduce the build up of less flexible scar tissue, and maximize the chances for full recovery.
Inflammation – During the initial response to an injury, the body is trying to minimize the damage by limiting movement to the area. Pain and inflammation in the injured tissues cause the individual to limit movement. Heat and swelling occur as bloodflow increases and the circulatory system brings in healing nutrients to the area and removes waste material.
Immobility has its drawbacks, particularly for the horse. A major mover of fluids in the horse’s circulatory system is the lymphatic pump located in the foot. When the horse puts weight on one leg and then another, it pushes fluids upwards out of the leg and thus allows new fresh fluids back in when the weight is shifted to the other side. Without that movement everything backs up, causing the horse to “stock up” and fluid builds up in the lower leg. Using bodywork, we can aid circulation and support the lymphatic system.
Using techniques like lymphatic massage and gently manipulating how the horse weights itself can help manually flush the system and help clear out the waste material, allowing healing nutrients to move into the area.
Repair – Once the initial inflammation stage subsides (usually anywhere from 24-72 hours), the next phase of healing begins with the repairing of damaged tissue through either filling in with granulation tissue or the production of scar tissue.
Depending on the nature of the injury, this process can take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks. It is also the time when excessive scar tissue can build up, long-lasting muscle memory from compensatory movements develop and muscle atrophy may occur.
Initially lack of movement may be desirable in the healing process to avoid risk of further injury. But at some point during this process it is actually beneficial to start gradually mobilizing the area to help retrain and strengthen the new tissues and prevent loss of function later on.
Other benefits include pain relief, helping support the muscle groups used during compensation, improved circulation, prevention of excessive scar tissue development, and improved range of motion.
Remodeling – After the scar tissue (a mass of randomly laid down collagen fibers) develops during the repair phase, it must then be “remodeled” to fit its new function. This happens through use and movement. The collagen fibers tear in response to stress caused by movement, allowing for more flexibility, while others are strengthened and reinforced.
These collagen fibers literally realign as they adjust to regular use. When equine bodywork is used in conjunction with this process, the recovery time and success rate can be greatly improved upon. Retraining of the muscle groups that have been compensating for the injury during the healing process is also very important at this stage. If this is not addressed, the muscle memory can cause problems in the long term for the horse as the imbalance continues and becomes more pronounced and reinforced over time.
Methodical and targeted strengthening and stretching exercises are added to help support the new tissues so they can perform their new role without risk of re-injury.
It pains me when I see horses that have long-term (and sometimes permanent) problems stemming from old injuries that were never offered physical therapy as part of their recovery process. Many of them could have had a much higher standard of living and comfort level had bodywork been incorporated early on.
While introducing bodywork later can definitely still be helpful, it often takes longer to affect positive changes and often not at as high a level. Think of your horse as you would a star athlete on a sports team. Horses are athletes! They carry us around for miles upon miles, jump fences, romp and play like rough teenagers and as such are at risk for the same types of injuries as football players and track stars. You wouldn’t think twice about a football player getting physical therapy as part of their rehabilitation program.
I would love to hear about your own horse’s injury recovery stories. Please feel free to jump over to the Heavenly Gaits Equine Facebook page and share – https://www.facebook.com/HeavenlyGaitsEquineMassage.
It is very important that your veterinarian and equine bodyworker come together to develop an appropriate therapy plan for your horse so as not to risk further injury. This is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any illness or condition, nor is it meant to replace regular veterinary care. This article is for educational and information purposes only. Always consult with your veterinarian before starting your horse on any therapy plan.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork, using essential oils for animals and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the “whole horse”.
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