story is an inspiring one, one that tugs on the heart strings by chronicling the
journey of a real life hero who defied all odds and overcame great adversity to
win the richest race in the world in record-breaking fashion. But had it not
been for his loving owner and his dedication to rehabilitating the horse
through hydrotherapy, Well Armed never would have had the chance to do so, as
the horse would no longer be alive.
Well Armed at Bill Casner's ranch - Photo by Terri Cage
Victor of the 2009 Dubai World Cup (gr.
I), a race Well Armed captured in record-breaking fashion when galloping to a
14-length triumph, Well Armed is one of the most beloved racehorses in recent
years. But before Well Armed ever achieved his greatest victory, his life was
on the line. Like his owner Bill Casner’s
ill-fated daughter Karri, with whom Well Armed shared his birthday, Well Armed
was born pigeon-toed. For this reason, Well Armed began his career in England for
trainer Clive Brittain, as the courses there would likely be easier on the
horse’s legs. Following eight starts in England, Well Armed contested in three
races in Dubai, but suffered a knee chip and was returned to the United States.
In Kentucky, the son of Tiznow had successful surgery to remove the chip. But
days later, while recovering from surgery, Well Armed broke his hip – an injury
that caused the horse so much pain that euthanizing the horse became a serious
But instead, Casner brought him home. Well Armed spent nine months at Casner’s
ranch in Flower Mound, Texas, located northwest of Dallas. These months were
spent rehabilitating the horse through hydrotherapy. Over his stay at the
ranch, Well Armed was swum on Casner’s property, increasing his exercise
gradually during his convalescence in Casner’s many swimming areas located on
his ranch. Had it not been for Casner’s love for his horse and determination to
rehabilitate him, Well Armed never would have gone on to expand his lifetime
earnings to $5,179,803. And the grand gelding certainly wouldn’t have been able
to do so without the help of hydrotherapy either.
By definition, hydrotherapy is a form of therapy that uses
water to alleviate pain, aid movement, and stimulate recovery of wounds or
injury. It can also be used as a form of low-impact exercise that promotes
beneficial conditioning or prevention of injury. This method of treatment has
been in use for centuries and has recently experienced a surge in the horse
Equine hydrotherapy is practiced in many forms other than just swimming,
including cold saltwater therapy and underwater treadmills. Hydrotherapy
provides a unique method of exercise and rehabilitation for horses, as it presents
a low-impact technique while relieving stress in a manner that offers great
resistance, thus improving the animal’s fitness. Exercising horses in water is
low-concussion and also builds a horse’s cardio, as hydrotherapy is very
effective in conditioning the animal’s heart and lungs. Furthermore, this
system allows a horse’s bones to become denser while exercising the horse in a
Hydrotherapy for horses can take many forms, even as simple as running water,
which can reduce pain and swelling in a horse. Hydrotherapy that is practiced
on a larger scale can take much more time, management, work, and money than the
simple use of running water, but can greatly improve a horse’s recovery and
Swimming was the form of hydrotherapy that assisted Well Armed in his
recovery after an injury that nearly led to euthanasia. Swimming allows injured
horses like Well Armed to exercise when they normally would be unable to, as
this activity provides a low-concussion way of fitting the animal without causing
harm to the horse’s injury or putting stress on the joints.
The major result swimming causes is stronger musculoskeletal and cardiovascular
systems, offering a horse strength and resistance training. Ligaments, tendons,
joints, and bones avoid strain while swimming, providing a gentler form of
exercise than over-ground training and exercise.
The time a horse spends swimming in the water is progressively increased and at
Casner’s ranch, horses – whether they are recovering from injury or are simply
being fitted – go through many stages in the water before they even get to
swimming laps. Since horses are not naturally inclined to swim, it requires
some coaxing to lead a horse into water for the first time. Casner’s horses
begin in a small strip of water, in which a person leads the horse on each
side, walking outside of the water strip while the animal walks down the ramp
that leads down to a deeper level, through which the horse travels before
reaching an upward ramp on the other end. A horse will move down this short
strip until it has become comfortable enough with this routine, after which it
will be promoted to a larger strip in which the animal is handled in the same
manner, becoming accustomed to swimming.
After the horse has been efficiently trained over this strip, Casner will
advance the animal to swimming laps in the lake on his ranch. Swimming in a
circular shape around a platform, the horse will gradually increase the laps it
swims around the dock. Casner uses this exercise on not only horses recovering
from injury, but on young horses needing conditioning as well.
Seal Six, a full brother to Colonel John, swimming at Casner's ranch
Photos by Terri Cage
Swimming does have its negatives, mostly due to it being a rather unnatural
motion for horses. It can place stress upon a horse’s back, but if regulated
correctly as it is at Casner’s ranch, swimming provides an efficient way to
increase a horse’s fitness level without placing its joints under stress or
concussing the body or any injuries.
Cold Saltwater Therapy
Using cold saltwater to aid an injured horse in recovery has been existent for
decades. Perhaps the horse most famous for using this therapy was Red Rum, the
great steeplechaser that won the Grand National Steeplechase three times.
Exercise in sea water helped treat the horse’s pedal osteitis, a debilitating
bone disease. The use of cold saltwater has greatly evolved due to innovative
technology and is now practiced in what is called a “spa.”
In 1998, an equine cold saltwater spa was established in Australia by
University of Sydney professor Evan Hunt. This served as a catalyst for
developers to improve the appliance, making it safer and more effective. Eight
years later, in 2006, the first equine spa in the United States was purchased
by a Texas man and since then, the machine’s use has expanded and many
specialists now use the spa to run a business.
Cold saltwater spas are directed towards healing and recovering rather than
conditioning. The use of this machine alleviates a horse’s pain or inflammation
it may have due to an injury or other medical issues. It can assist in
remedying a wide variety of injuries and problems, including mild laminitis,
navicular, tendonitis, arthritis, contusions, open wounds, and injuries to
tendons, joints, and ligaments. The appliance not only treats injuries, but can
prevent them as well by firming up a horse’s bones and relieving inflammation
caused by intense exercise.
The cold provides tremendous relief to pain, swelling, and heat, offering
immediate alleviation that can become long lasting if the spa is used
effectively and recurrently. Operated on an average temperature of 35°
Fahrenheit (approximately 2° Celsius), the cold offers effectual lessening of
pain, as the heat that is caused by the increase of blood flow to the location
of an injury is eased by the cool temperature, causing the injured area to
become numb. In addition, the cold hinders the enzyme activity that leads to
the tissue damage and hormone excretion that play major roles in the horse’s
pain when it is injured. The issue of inadequate oxygenation of the blood is
also lessened, as is the porousness of the blood vessel walls that are expanded
when a horse is injured due to the secretion of enzymes, therefore decreasing
the quantity of fluids amassed in the location of the injury. Within the
chamber are jets that aerate the water, circulating it and thus allowing the
amount of dissolved oxygen in the solution to be tripled due to its 35°
temperature, therefore furthering the massaging qualities of the spa.
The saltwater solution, constantly flowing through a cooling unit to maintain
its 35° Fahrenheit temperature and kept pure through chlorine and a double
filtering system, serves as a hypertonic poultice, eliminating heat and
infection from tissues in an osmotic manner. The solution within an equine cold
saltwater spa utilizes higher level salts than regular seawater, increasing the
likeliness of healing.
Containing 530 gallons (just over 2000 liters) of saltwater, the ECB Equine Spa
– which is the only one approved by Evan Hunt – is 100 by 91 inches on the
outside and the chamber that the horse enters is 92 by 31 inches. The horse’s
legs are typically immersed in the water, which avoids reaching the animal’s
abdomen, and the water’s depth is relative to the pressure put forth on the
legs, thus assisting in the distribution of fluids. Since each individual issue
or injury possesses its own level of seriousness, the water’s depth can be
adjusted to fit the horse’s situation.
Usage of cold saltwater spas can replace the consumption of medication or drugs,
or at least reduce their use. Unlike drugs, such as phenylbutazone (bute) and
corticosteroids, which can mask pain and outweigh the progression of healing’s valuable
properties, cold hydrotherapy simply aids the healing process.
Whereas a an equine cold saltwater spa’s main objective is healing injuries of
horses, underwater treadmills for horses are directed more towards conditioning
than remedying. Underwater treadmills recently achieved national attention on
the horse racing scene for serving as a controlled exercise device for 2011 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner and 2013
Dubai World Cup contender Animal Kingdom.
Like swimming, underwater treadmills provide a form of low-impact exercise that
does not exert stress upon a horse’s joints, ligaments, or tendons while
conditioning the animal’s musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems.
The low-impact setting an underwater treadmill brings forth offers a
groundbreaking mixture of swimming mechanisms, treadmill exercise, and
massaging effects. Whereas swimming can force a horse to exercise in a rather
unnatural manner, using an underwater treadmill allows the horse to be worked
in a controlled environment, being conditioned while traveling in a natural
manner by remaining at an ordinary gait.
Like an equine cold saltwater spa, underwater treadmills contain jets that
aerate the water, providing anywhere from approximately 35% to 60% buoyancy,
partially displacing the horse’s body weight, thus offering an easier range of
motion for the animal. This supports the horse, creating enough reduced concussion
to form a massaging effect, strengthening tendons and ligaments while also increasing
Not only is the temperature of the water controlled, allowing the horse’s
internal body temperature to remain constant, but the horse’s pace is also regulated
when it is being exercised on an underwater treadmill, though the horse’s gait
is typically restricted to a walk. Often, as a horse’s rehabilitation advances,
the pace at which it is exercised on the underwater treadmill is increased to a
power walk or even a trot over a carefully managed period of time. While
swimming decreases the control a human has over a horse’s movement, the ability
to regulate the pace of an underwater treadmill offers the great advantage of
being able to control a horse’s travel.
Whereas walking on hard ground would cause too much stress, impact, and trauma
for an injured horse, exercise in an underwater treadmill allows a horse to use
the same muscles it would walking normally while also more greatly conditioning
the horse’s cardiovascular system. The natural resistance exercising in water
brings forth is easier on the horse’s bones and joints than traditional
over-ground exercise, such as hand-walking. Over-ground exercise increases the
risk for injury due to great impact and less controlled movement, while use of
the underwater treadmill promotes quicker recovery.
Not only does usage of an underwater treadmill assist in maintaining a horse’s
fitness while it is injured and conditioning after an injury is healed, but it
can also be used for increasing fitness and preventing injuries. Exercise in an
underwater treadmill increases a horse’s cardiovascular endurance, in large
part due to the water’s resistance. This form of exercise is incredibly safe
due to its ability to be regulated, as well as the low level of impact and
Hydrotherapy serves as an incomparable form of therapy for horses. An
innovative way of rehabilitating injured animals, preventing injury, or simply
fitting horses, using hydrotherapy offers a drug-free technique of treatment or
exercise that presents a soothing manner in which horses can be remedied or
fit, is low-impact, and functions in a safe manner. It cannot be denied that
this method of therapy acts as a highly beneficial, groundbreaking system
amidst an industry that is seeking improvement in the welfare of its animals.