Ice, Ice, Baby: The science of hydrotherapy
Applying hot and/or cold treatments to our horses is an everyday occurrence, but do you know why it works? Amanda Moretz, a vet tech and equine massage therapist, explains.
The act of hosing off a horse takes place on a daily basis in barns throughout the world–most commonly for horses who have just finished a workout and need to be cooled down and have all the sweat cleaned from their coats. It is also common after multiple forms of injuries, using cold water on the area that was affected. Or maybe the horse just had a very intense workout or show and the owner is soaking its legs in cold water after the ride. All of these are everyday uses of water, and most of the time it is so second-nature that horse owners do not even have to think to apply water in these ways.
All those examples plus many other forms of water application actually have a very specific science behind them that has been used for thousands of years. The application of water in all three forms (solid, liquid and vapor) to the body is called hydrotherapy. In hydrotherapy, the environment of the body can be changed by applying water at different temperatures via different methods. The aim of this is to normalize the amount of blood moving in a given area by effecting the circulation.
The science behind why it works can be tedious and long-winded, but in a nutshell this is why hydrotherapy works so well: Heat is the amount of thermal energy in an object and is measured in the term calorie. Digging back to high school we can remember that heat transfers from the object of higher temperature to the lower one, and also that water is an excellent conductor of heat. But also remember that cold is the absence of heat.
The question becomes: How does this science lesson tie into using water treatments on horses? By using this knowledge of how heat works and applying water we can get the results we are looking for in the horse.
Hydrotherapy includes both cold and hot water application. Each causes its own unique reaction. But in either case, there are three ways in which the body reacts to hydrotherapy. The first involves local effects that occur at the area where the application of water occurs. The second is a systemic response, meaning its effects are throughout the body. And the third is a reflex effect that relates to the nervous system’s reaction to the treatment.
Looking back at our examples, let us see how this might play out for our horses.
Consider, for instance, the horse that has just run a tough cross country course, and the owners want to not only cool down the horse but also help keep inflammation down in the legs. The best way to achieve this, of course, is through the use of cold water–preferably with ice in it.
Once the horse is standing in the ice water, the legs become noticeably cold and it might even be a bit uncomfortable for them. As the temperature in their legs drop the blood circulation changes and moves into other parts of the body, leaving the legs due to the blood vessels getting smaller or constricting. The tendons and ligaments become denser, and the muscle tone increases. It also causes pain relief in that area. In the whole body the blood pressure will lower, as will the heart rate.
After the horse is out of the ice water, the blood will come rushing back into the legs. This helps raise the temperature back up to normal. But with this rush the blood brings in fresh new oxygen, along with fresh nutrients and supplies for the cells in that area. This also means that during the application of the ice, the toxins and old stagnant nutrients were flushed out of the cells. And hopefully any concerns of inflammation in the structures in the legs due to any micro trauma that occurred during the exercise are decreased.
The benefits from an ice water session are numerous and affect not only the area you are treating but also, to an extent, the whole horse. This can also be said for a heat application, which the body responds differently to than it does cold. But with either you have a tool you can use to help your horse in a daily setting. So the next time you rinse off your horse in this hot summer heat, remember you are using proven science to help them reach a normal body temperature through the use of hydrotherapy.
Amanda’s horse, Gracie, gets excited about hydrotherapy.
About Amanda: The obsession with horses started young for Amanda, and she has never looked back since starting to ride at age 6. Amanda attended St. Petersburg College in FL where she completed her AS in Veterinary Technology, and then got her license to practice as a Licenced Vet Tech. For over 12 years Amanda has worked in both small and large animal practices, and much of that time was spent in critical care/emergency, oncology, and equine internal medicine. It was in her tech work that Amanda saw the benefits of alternative therapies, and received her certification in Equine Muscle/Massage Therapy from Mike Scott in SC. Life now is filled with seeing her horse massage clients, attending human massage school, and riding her TB mare Gracie. For more information or to contact Amanda please visit her website. www.centerlineequine.com
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