Equine rehabilitation: Review highlights a lack of research on outcomes

A horse undergoing rehabilitation on a treadmill.
A horse undergoing rehabilitation on a treadmill. Photo by Oregon State University

Competition horses are considered finely tuned athletes, but many are affected by musculoskeletal injuries. Owners will often spend a lot of cash and time rehabilitating their horses.

Despite this, there is a lack of clinically based reports on the practical applications of equine rehabilitation and physical therapy, researchers report.

Tiago Atalaia and his colleagues noted that interest in equine rehabilitation and physical therapy is growing rapidly.

In a scoping review in the journal Animals, they looked at the published scientific papers on equine rehabilitation in the last 20 years.

They found that exercise, electrotherapy, and hydrotherapy were the most frequently reported techniques used, but found relatively few publications detailing their use and outcomes in clinical cases.

“The results,” they said, “highlight the paucity of clinically based reports on the practical applications of equine rehabilitation and physical therapy.”

The review team said injuries to the locomotor system are a common problem in athletic horses. Veterinarians address these using appropriate medical, surgical, and drug treatments.

After recovery from the initial injury, horses may be treated for locomotion deficits using specific rehabilitation techniques aimed at restoring full athletic performance.

In all, they found 49 papers, about half of which were reviews in which the authors often cited the relatively small number of published evidence-based studies. These were sometimes supplemented by personal experience.

Observational and descriptive studies were also popular, comprising just over a third of the papers. However, randomized control trials accounted for only 10%, they found.

The review team found information on the use of manual therapy-based interventions, passive stretching, tissue mobilization, joint mobilization, kinesiological taping and bandages, electrotherapy, magnetic field therapy, radial pressure wave therapy, extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT), therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, whole body vibration, thermal therapy, hydrotherapy, and exercise therapy.

In doing so, they outlined some of their applications, as described in the studies.

For example, one study involved 62 horses that survived at least 12 months after colic surgery. Eleven received a four-week program of core abdominal rehabilitation exercises to hasten post-operative recovery. The horses that undertook the program returned to work under saddle faster (a median 60 days) compared with the 51 control horses (a median of 90 days).

Ten of the 11 horses that undertook the program were able to compete in some form of sport post-surgically, while a much lower ratio of the control horses did so (24 of 51 animals).

The 11 horses completed the program without complications. It was concluded that core abdominal rehabilitation exercises could be safely performed after colic surgery and appeared to facilitate a faster recovery and return to work.

However, overall, the review team said there was a lack of randomized clinical trials using large samples that provided evidence related to the different approaches cited.

“The large representation of narrative reviews and observational/descriptive studies, mostly based on the personal experience of the authors or citing the same results of the few studies conducted, needs to be supplemented by rigorously conducted, evidence-based research,” they wrote.

“Exercise, physical agents, and hydrotherapy appear to be the most commonly used options, but much of the information regarding their potential efficacy is based largely on the results of human studies.”

It is clear, they said, that more evidence is needed with regard to parameters for their use and the ability of the different therapies to produce the desired result.

“The findings highlight the need for further information regarding the types of intervention and the outcomes.”

The review team comprised Atalaia, José Prazeres and João Abrantes, all with Lusofona University in Lisbon; and Hilary Clayton, with Michigan State University.

Atalaia, T.; Prazeres, J.; Abrantes, J.; Clayton, H.M. Equine Rehabilitation: A Scoping Review of the Literature. Animals 2021, 11, 1508. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11061508

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here


Latest research and information from the horse world.

One thought on “Equine rehabilitation: Review highlights a lack of research on outcomes

  • May 23, 2021 at 3:08 pm

    What horse owners really need is a rehab manual that allows them to work with their vets to expedite their horses’ recovery from injury, surgery or other trauma. There are some out there, but they’re all outdated and very incomplete. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, it can be hard for a vet to give the detailed advice the person nursing the horse really needs, and a really thorough handbook, crammed with sound research data, would be an absolute godsend.
    Well, it would to me, anyway!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *