Hydrotherapy: For the Good of the Horse

Well Armed’s 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 option.

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 world.

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 soothing fashion.

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 condition.


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.

Underwater Treadmills

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 bone density.

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 concussion.

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.

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About Mary Cage


Mary with champion Classic Empire

Mary Cage has been around horses all her life, having owned, shown, and judged them for as long as she can remember. She began writing her own horse racing blog, Past the Grandstand, in August 2011 and has since been published in America's Horse, American Racehorse and the Appaloosa Journal, as well as with the websites of The Blood-Horse and The Equine Chronicle. She has also had photos published with Paulick Report and Thoroughbred Daily News. In addition, she works as one of the social media coordinators for the Texas Thoroughbred Association and is an intern at WinStar Farm with a client relations and marketing focus, as well as some bloodstock duties.

In her personal horse experience, Mary has been around horses all her life and has won several Appaloosa National Champion and Reserve World Champion titles in the show ring. She has also worked as a hotwalker and groom.

Mary has always aspired to have a career with horses and since her love for horse racing began, she has dreamed of pursuing a career in the Thoroughbred racing industry, possibly as a racing manager or client relations specialist. She is currently attending the University of North Texas, where she is a journalism major with a concentration in advertising and a minor in marketing. With this blog, she hopes to show readers horse racing through the eyes of a young fan and transport you to some of racing's biggest events through her photos and words.

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