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What is it and how can it help my polo ponies?

What is sports physiotherapy and how does this relate to equine physiotherapy?

Sports physiotherapy is common practice for all professional and semi-professional human athletes and the benefits are widely known and appreciated. Sports physiotherapists are involved in the prevention and management of injury, restoring optimal function, and contributing to the enhancement comfort and performance.

The demands of polo are great on both player and ponies and injuries can be an unfortunate inevitable reality for most at some point.Physiotherapy can be beneficial for humans and equines as it can be used in the healing process as well as a preventive measure.

The range of injuries aided by physiotherapy (both human and equine) is vast.

Equine Physiotherapy involves the use of treatments aimed at either:

Preventing injuries

Reducing muscular pain

Facilitating tissue healing and recovery.

Restoring normal tissue length and joint range of motion.

Promoting muscle strength and function

Which in turn help in resolving performance issues

In what type of situations can equine Physiotherapy be useful?

Preventative Like with human athletes, any horse that is working to a level will feel the strain through their muscles, human athletes will have a team of physiotherapists for treatment through training and around events to ensure optimum muscle health, muscles that work hard can tighten.  Continued work on tightening muscles escalates the problem as the horse guards the area, this can lead to tearing of the muscle fibres which is painful for the horse. Regular physiotherapy will help prevent the escalation so maintain performance and reduce the chance on injury.

Treatment of Specific muscle, tendon or ligament injuries.

Back pain e.g. associated with an ill-fitting saddle, or secondary lameness issue.

Pelvic pain e.g associated with an injury or secondary to know pathology such as sacro-iliac disease for example.

It is well known that horses often compensate for pain by adopting a less painful way of moving. This will often mean conditions go unnoticed for extended periods of time which may lead to adaptations to the muscles and soft tissues. By treating the original issue along with the affected area, it prevents it from becoming a permanent problem.

In horses, pain issues may be communicated in many non-verbal ways such as:

Bucking, rearing, napping behaviour.

Stiffness on one rein.

Head tilting.

‘cold backed’ tendencies.

Disuniting in canter.

Working hollow.

Uneven shoe wear.

A lameness issue.

Muscle asymmetry or imbalance.

If a horse demonstrates any of these traits it may be advisable to ask the advice of the equine physiotherapist.

As you can see, equine physiotherapy has many applications and your equine physiotherapist will often work closely with your veterinarian to ensure the horse receives the best and most appropriate care.

What should I expect from an equine physiotherapist?

1. Assessment.

2. Treatment

3. Rehabilitation


What does the assessment involve?

1. The history will be taken from the owner and is vital to gain knowledge of where the problem may be, what structure may be at fault and whether the problem is worsening or improving. If a horse is affected by a specific injury the physiotherapist will work in conjunction with the vet and may require a referral, the physiotherapist will work together to create the best possible outcome. If the horse has been seen by a vet the assessment will involve discussions with the owner, trainer and vet and the assessment will be more tailored towards assessing the horse’s stage in recovery for that known problem.

2. Observation – Assessment of confirmation/posture/muscle development and symmetry will be made as the horse stands.

3. Gait – Whilst watching the horse move in a straight line, lunged and possibly ridden, circling and reversing, its movement and gait will be fully assessed.

4. Palpation – the physiotherapist will feel for muscle pain, spasm, tenderness and assessing joint ranges of motion.



 What forms of treatment may an equine physiotherapist recommend?

Following your assessment, a treatment plan is devised depending on your individual horse’s problems. Treatments will include some or all of the following:

Manual therapy techniques i.e. soft tissue stretching/massage/exercises, joint manipulation (usually under sedation),

Electrotherapy treatment i.e. H-wave, ultrasound, laser, muscle stimulation.

Basic treatment plans for common ailments:
Muscular Pain: usually aches and pains can be eased with intensive massage therapy which will reduce tension around the affected muscles, reduce stiffness and increase blood flow to warm the muscles. Regular massage sessions help to reduce tension as well as keeping the muscles in optimum condition; this will reduce the possibility of injury in the future.

Strains: strains can be painful but usually wear off in a short period of time. If the strain is more serious and limits or prohibits muscle movement, physiotherapy may be necessary but should be carried out after a period of 72 hours; this gives time for the injury to subside slightly. After this, the physiotherapist may massage the area gently and use specific exercises to encourage blood flow and muscle movement.

Muscle Tears: a muscle tear can put an horse out of action for a long period of time. During the healing process, physiotherapy can help to manage pain and increase strength and flexibility in the affected area by means of gradual exercise and stretching. Massage and electrotherapy will generally be effective in facilitating the healing process.

Fractures and Breaks: following a fracture or a break the area will need to heal. Once the healing process is underway, physiotherapy may be used to build up muscle strength and restore nerve activity. Exercises and stretches will gradually help to restore the affected area to normal but this process may take a long time particularly if the break was complex. Physiotherapists will gradually increase the amount of physical exercise the horse does.

Occasionally, treatments are required under sedation, usually where there are chronic and deep-seated issues and they would involve meeting up with your veterinary surgeon. This allows your horse to be completely relaxed which in turn allows for a better stretch during the treatment.



What form will the rehabilitation take?

Muscle strengthening exercises i.e. hydrotherapy treadmill, kinesio taping, abdominal strengthening exercise techniques. The exact exercises and duration of rehabilitation will be dependant on the original issue and the individual horse's progress. Your equine physiotherapist will happily explain the details of your rehabilitation plan.

So why use an equine physiotherapist for polo?

As already explained physiotherapy can be particularly helpful in preventing injury and maximising performance. This is extremely important for polo ponies and is achieved by reducing muscle tightening and increasing flexibility and strength.

We are all aware of the saying “Polo is 70%horses, 30% player” so surely we should be doing everything we can to keep the ponies fit and in top athletic condition? The end result will be fewer injuries, quicker recovery times, greater flexibility and the overall result will be taking each player closer to their own personal polo success.

Where do I find a reputable equine physiotherapist?

The National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP), Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (Ramp) and AcPAT all require members to have certain levels of qualifications, insurance and continued education (to ensure members keep up with current research). These associations have lists of members plus details of the areas they cover, that can be accessed online to help you find a Veterinary Physiotherapist.

Clare Hamilton
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 13-05-2019