Water: Nature’s Own Healer, The Power Of Hydrotherapy For Horses

by Lisa Carter on July 26, 2012

Niagra Falls - The contradictory nature of water - from hydrotherapy to tsunami

One of nature's most powerful forces is water.  It's destructive capabilities are truly awe inspiring as can be attested to by those that witnessed the devastating tsunami that leveled the east coast of Japan in 2011.  "Hydrotherapy" seems such a contradiction when you take into account that water has the power to carve mountains, but yet is also our most versatile healing resource.  Life as we know it could not survive without its life-giving properties.  Our own bodies are approximately 60% water.  Hydrotherapy has been used in healing for thousands of years and by almost every civilization known.  Ancient peoples realized the recuperative and healing benefits of hot springs the same way we do today.  Hippocrates would prescribe bathing in spring water as a treatment for illness.  We are even in the present day still discovering new and unique uses for water such as treadmills used in hydrotherapy for horses and other dogs. 

What Is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy is the use of water for pain relief, wound treatment and lameness rehabilitation.  Hydrotherapy comes in many forms.  Water has the rare ability to be used for healing in all three of its physical states – solid, vapor and liquid.  Hydrotherapy is one of the recommended first aide treatments for many common wounds and soft tissue injuries in the horse, the most common of which are icing for inflammation immediately after a traumatic injury and both hot and cold water therapy for wound irrigation, reduction of inflammation and to stimulate circulation. 

Using Hydrotherapy For Wound Irrigation

When dealing with an open and/or seeping wound, your veterinarian will most likely have you clean and irrigate the wound and surrounding tissues using hydrotherapy.  In some cases, antiseptics such as betadine solution will be added to your hydrotherapy treatment to ward off infection.  Usually warm water works better at breaking up debris and dead tissue, but either warm or cold is fine for this purpose.  Most animals find it irritating when you apply cold water to an open wound and the warmer water temperature just seems to make them more comfortable and more relaxed through the irrigation process.  If you don't have access to warm water outside, a clean 5 gallon bucket and soft washcloth will do the trick.  

When Should You Use Cold Hydrotherapy?

The use of cold water therapy, or cryotherapy, is most often used during the acute phase of an injury and involves the use of either ice and/or cold water. Cryotherapy is beneficial for pain relief due to its numbing effect and its ability to reduce inflammation.  Application of cryotherapy at the onset of injury helps to minimize further damage to the injured tissues by supporting the bodies lymphatic system in removing the waste byproducts produced at the injury site.  

Depending on the injury location, cryotherapy can be applied through direct immersion, such as soaking a lower limb, or direct application of an ice or cold pack.  Another method that is extremely beneficial is using a spray nozzle to direct the cold water at various levels of intensity which in effect provides similar benefits to a vigorous massage, increasing circulation to the area and promoting healing.  I use this technique quite often when any of my horses come up with "mystery" swellings in their lower legs and when their is heat present.  It is the preferred method to reduce inflammation.  

When Should You Use Warm Hydrotherapy?

In cases of chronic injury, heat is the preferred method.  The warm water provides pain relief to the injury as it deeply penetrates the tissues and allows the muscle fibers to relax and release tension.  Warm water also increases circulation by causing the surface blood vessels to dilate while at the same time constricting deeper vessels.  This forces bloodflow outward, facilitating waste removal via the horse's lymphatic system and increasing flexibility of the surrounding tissues.  A horse with arthritic hocks would be a good candidate for this hydrotherapy method.  You could also alternate hot and cold water to get the benefit of penetrating pain relief followed by the anti-inflammatory effects of cold water in the sub-acute or chronic stages of an injury.  

Treadmill And Swimming Hydrotherapy

The use of swimming pools and water treadmills in horse injury rehabilitation has been steadily gaining popularity over the years.  The most common long-term injuries in the horse occur in the lower limbs and are the hardest to rehabilitate due to the difficulty in resting the injured limb.  Horses spend most of their time on their feet, even in sleep, and getting them to be still when they are confined to a small stall for several weeks or months is nearly impossible!  Incorporating the use of a pool provides the added benefit of supporting nearly 60% of the horse's body weight while at the same time allowing greater range of motion than hand walking would allow.  The horse is allowed to burn off some steam and slowly begin to utilize the injured limb without causing undo strain and re-injury.  The greater range of motion allowed by the support of the water minimizes the development of scar tissue and increases circulation to the damaged tissue, promoting the healing process.  

The many varied forms of hydrotherapy, from old world steam baths to new found technological gadgets, attest to the awesome positive healing power of water.  Whether you use it to give your horse a simple bath or to ice down an acute injury, it is our most readily available and versatile natural health care tool.  You can't get any more natural than water!

Always consult your veterinarian before you begin any treatment plan for your horse.  

Tell me your unique healing use for water in the comment section below this article.  


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 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".  

Are you ready to get better results with your horse?  Put your equine health care team to work so you and your horse can be doing what you were meant to.  Click here to get started!

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Anastasiya Day July 27, 2012 at 10:12 am

Lisa, brilliant article with a lot of useful information! As always, this article will help people a lot. Thank you for sharing this article " Water: Nature’s Own Healer, The Power Of Hydrotherapy For Horses".

Sharon O'Day July 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Seeing your mention of Betadine, Lisa, brought back so many good memories.  My aunt and uncle bred and boarded horses outside Lexington, KY, and Betadine made it into my first aid kit over 30 years ago.  For a girl raised in Rio and hanging out in Paris, my times on the horse farm were truly magical!

Lisa Carter Lisa Carter July 30, 2012 at 6:14 am

Thanks for sharing Sharon! Betadine is a great item to keep handy in the barn and in the home. I’ve had to use it many times over the years as horses are just notorious for getting themselves into trouble (especially mine!). I didn’t know you had history with horses Sharon:) What a exciting way to spend your time. Horses are wonderful creatures to be around. I love to just go hang with them in the barn. It’s very comforting.

Pat Moon July 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Lisa, very interesting information on water therapy for horses. Nature is always best and most compatible with healing when possible. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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