Equine Rehabilitation and Conditioning Centres
A Burgeoning Business
By Tania Millen
In the past eight years, stand-alone equine rehabilitation and conditioning centres that help horses return to health or greater fitness have been opening their doors in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Depending on the business owners’ interests, skills, and client base each operation provides a unique suite of therapy modalities such as treadmills, pools, exercisers, saltwater baths, and solariums. Additional services and treatments such as bodywork, nebulizers, and product sales are also common.
Due to the cost and permanence of therapy infrastructure, developing an equine rehabilitation and conditioning centre is a big commitment that requires solid business planning and confidence in future market demand. That demand seems to be growing, with horse owners increasingly aware of the benefits of different therapies. Owners and riders also lack time for conditioning horses and are starting to appreciate how alternative exercise methods can increase fitness and heal injuries faster. They’re also enjoying the simplicity of dropping off an injured or less fit horse at a one-stop-shop and picking him up rehabilitated or conditioned at a later date. Some of the modalities that rehabilitation and conditioning centres offer are also only available at purpose-built facilities as they’re too expensive to purchase for private use and are not easily transportable. Riders and owners from all disciplines are taking advantage of these centres, choosing either drop-in treatments or sending their horses to centres for weeks or months at a time depending on their budget and the horse’s needs.
To find out more about these burgeoning businesses, I spoke with four equine rehabilitation and conditioning centres in Western Canada. There are currently no purpose-built centres located east of Saskatchewan.
Loralei Stokke and her family own and operate Hill Top Arena & Equine Spa, a rehabilitation and conditioning centre located south of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. Stokke says that she grew up with horses and always wanted to help as many of them as she could. After becoming a certified equine massage therapist, cranial/energy therapist, myofascial release therapist, and cold laser technician, Stokke and her family decided to open an equine rehabilitation and conditioning facility, investing in equipment they felt was most natural and beneficial for horses.
A horse in the solarium at Hill Top Arena & Equine Spa standing on EquiVibe® vibrating plates. Photo courtesy of Hill Top Arena & Equine Spa
Hill Top offers an equine exerciser, Equiband® System, cold saltwater spa, solarium, EquiVibe® vibration plate, and a Centurion® Therapulse blanket. Hill Top’s outdoor exerciser is a vastly upgraded version of the old-style hot-walkers at racetracks where horses are tied individually to one of four “arms” and walk in a small circle. The exerciser has a large-diameter circular fenced track with hanging metal gates to divide four horses, each of whom is loose in their own section. The gates hang from arms which move the gates along the track at different speeds in either direction. When appropriate, an Equiband® System is put on horses working in the exerciser. It has adjustable elastic bands which are placed around the horse’s belly and behind the hamstrings to encourage the horse to use its core muscles. The cold saltwater spa is a standing-stall-size enclosed unit partially filled with bubbling cold saltwater which treats the lower legs and hooves, while the solarium is a set of infrared lights which stimulates blood flow. The EquiVibe® is a vibrating plate that the horse stands on, which reportedly counters the effects of soft tissue inflammation. Finally, the Centurion® Therapulse blanket provides pulsed electro-magnetic field (PEMF) therapy. Hill Top also offers bodywork by Stokke and farrier services by Stokke’s father, plus sells products and supplements.
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The Equiciser at Hill Top Arena & Equine Spa has a large-diameter circular fence track, and the loose horses inside are separated by hanging metal gates. This horse is wearing Equiband® adjustable elastic bands to encourage the use of core muscles. Photo courtesy of Hill Top Arena & Equine Spa
Stokke believes that to correctly rehabilitate and condition horses it’s necessary to assess and fix body issues first, and her bodywork certifications allow her to do this for every horse that comes in. Stokke says, “With knowledge of muscles, body alignment, and feet we’re able to… assess each horse thoroughly and pinpoint issues. Plus, we always bring in or suggest a veterinarian when needed.”
An accurate diagnosis is essential for the horse owner to understand what is going on and choose the appropriate treatment. Equine rehabilitation and conditioning centres offer many services and treatments that horse owners cannot provide at home, and are able to deliver them with the consistency needed for maximum benefit. Photo: iStock/Mypurgatoryyears
Hill Top generally serves rodeo performance horses, ranch horses, and pleasure horses, and Stokke says her clients have noticed how much stronger and faster their horses are. “We get messages from ranchers about how great their horses feel and how they were able to get around a cow,” she says. “A lot of [horses] are athletes and they need to be treated as such. There are more and more [equine rehabilitation and conditioning] facilities popping up and… we need them.”
Klay and Chelsea Whyte agree. They’re the owner-operators of Endurance Equine in Ponoka, Alberta, a rehabilitation and conditioning centre that opened in 2018. Klay Whyte is a professional team roper and explains that in 2013 his heel horse spiral-fractured its pastern bone. After the horse had surgery and stall rest, it was rehabilitated for three weeks on a submerged treadmill in about one metre of water. “When we got him back we were blown away by the results,” he says. “It would have taken me three months to get that horse to where he was.” Seeing the value in aquatherapy, the Whytes decided to build their own facility and now offer Canada’s first and only equine aqua walker exerciser.
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“It was quite the undertaking,” says Whyte. “Picture a hot walker with a donut-shaped swimming pool below it. The hot walker is 45 metres in diameter and there are about 1.1 metres of water in the pool itself. [The pool lane] is 2.4 metres wide and four horses can use the pool at once. On most horses the water is just past their chest, so their bellies are submerged and they don’t have the strain and weight on their legs, which makes it an ultra-low impact workout. It’s great for rehabbing horses if you’re dealing with a suspensory or ligament injury.”
“Picture a hot walker with a donut-shaped swimming pool below it,” says Endurance Equine’s Klay White of their aqua walker exerciser, which can accommodate four horses at once. The hot walker is 45 metres in diameter, the water is about 1.1 metres in depth, and the pool lane is 2.4 metres wide. Photo: Fawcett Photography
Whyte also explains how the water can increase or decrease the workout: “The horses create a current in the pool. After they get the current going [by walking through the water], they’re going with the current and the work gets easier. Then we’ll turn them around and they have to work against that current they created and that’s when you see a really good workout.
“We use [the pool] for equine conditioning, rehabilitation, change of routine, and maintenance. We also offer an infrared solarium, BEMER® PEMF therapeutic blanket and cuffs, and stall rest and related care.” Package rates are offered depending on the services required, plus farrier, bodywork, and veterinary services all of which can be arranged.
Part of this horse’s post-show regimen is wearing the BEMER® therapeutic blanket and cuffs, which use pulsed electro-magnetic field (PEMF) technology. Photos: Sue Ferguson
As for clientele, Whyte says, “We get horses for a couple of days to a few months.” He explains how some horses come to the centre following an operation where they start on stall rest, then are hand-walked daily, and then conditioned in the pool before going home. “It’s about 50/50 rehabilitation to conditioning work. It depends on the time of year. In the springtime, everybody wants to get their horse in shape so we’re probably doing more conditioning. In summer… we see more rehabilitation cases. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when the people pick up their horses and they’re really happy with them.”
The solarium at Endurance Equine. Photo: Fawcett Photography
Klay and Chelsea Whyte and son of Endurance Equine. Photo: Fawcett Photography
Katie Marshall, the owner-operator of Coulee Equine near Olds, Alberta has similar sentiments, and after almost eight years on the job she’s still passionate about helping horses. Coulee Equine can handle up to 15 horses per day and offers a water treadmill, cold saltwater spa, infrared solarium, indoor exerciser, Electro-Equiscope® therapy, Equi-taping®, and product sales.
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The cold saltwater spa and water treadmill at Coulee Equine. Owner-operator Katie Marshall says the water treadmill is an essential component of their programs because they can do so many things with it depending on the water levels. Photos: Katie Marshall
Marshall thinks one of the biggest benefits of sending a horse to a facility is that they’re worked consistently. “The horses are worked on a schedule, which is something that a lot of people can’t provide every day,” she says.
“A lot of people keep their horses at home and have to haul to ride and condition their horses,” she explains. “But if you get home from work and it’s dark and cold and the roads are crappy, then you might only end up riding one day per week. That’s really detrimental to your conditioning program, so we get a lot of conditioning clients through the spring.
“With conditioning and strength training, we never hit an endpoint. We’re always trying to make [horses] better and stronger. If you have a horse that you’re trying to compete to the best of that horse’s potential, making sure that they’re fit is really important.”
The water treadmill is an integral part of Coulee’s programs and Marshall says, “We’re able to do so many things with it depending on the water levels. For every discipline, topline and core strength are the most important things to focus on, and with the water treadmill we can really work on that. In Canada, horses do a lot of circles riding inside, which allows them to compensate and potentially not use weaker parts [of their body]. The treadmill helps them get strong on all four limbs. We can put more motion in a joint or strengthen certain parts of the horse depending on what the issues are. Plus, we can back the horses up on the treadmill, which strengthens the gluteal muscles, supports the stifles and hocks, and keeps the back strong.”
Summer is also busy, as riders go on vacation and send their horses to Coulee for fitness or maintenance. “We also get lots of chuckwagon horses for rehabilitation in the summer… plus we get chuckwagon horses laying over here,” says Marshall.
“We always work with veterinarians on rehabilitation cases. The most important thing about a rehabilitation program is the diagnostics, so you know what’s going on. But if you’re going to spend money on diagnostics and get the protocol from your veterinarian then you need to do the rehabilitation. If you don’t do the rehabilitation the potential of re-injury is exponentially higher.”
Marshall finds that many riders and owners aren’t set up to do rehabilitation, don’t have the time, or — in winter when it’s cold and icy and the horse is not behaving — just can’t get it done. She says, “Rehabilitation is not necessarily hard. It’s just the time and effort that goes into it.” That’s where rehabilitation centres come in.
Fortunately for horse owners and riders in British Columbia, there’s a new facility in the Lower Mainland. Jessi Jensen is an equine massage therapist and has spent the last five years planning Undeniable Equine Services, which opened in Aldergrove in October 2020. The facility takes five horses at a time and offers a water treadmill with adjustable water height, speed, and incline; EquiVibe® vibration plate; infrared solarium; nebulizer; and Sure Foot stability pads.
The water treadmill (above, left) and equine nebulizer at Undeniable Equine Services. Owner Jessi Jensen (above, right) says that horse owners are starting to realize that keeping horses fit to prevent injuries just makes sense. Photos: Kara Hanson
Jensen says, “Lots of people are focusing on maintaining their horses now. [They] are starting to realize that when they maintain their animals and get regular chiropractic and massage work and proper fitness, they'll see fewer injuries. When [horses have] an ailment they compensate for it somewhere else and then there are just layers and layers of compensation. Our horses are athletes so keeping them fit to prevent injuries just makes sense.”
Jensen says her clientele includes, “A ton of barrel racers and ropers, a few dressage and eventing horses, and a couple of jumpers.” She’s seen particularly positive results during two-week spring conditioning sessions and is looking forward to helping more horses in the future.
Massage therapist Jessi Jensen has recently opened Undeniable Equine Services and like other rehabilitation facilities, offers a range of services to clients seeking rehabilitation or maintenance for their horses. Photo: Copper Wire Images
After chatting with facility owners, it’s apparent that ensuring horses are fit for their jobs and that they heal quickly after injuries are the primary drivers in the expansion of rehabilitation and conditioning centres across Western Canada. Marshall says, “The equine industry as a whole is seeing the benefits of sending horses to rehabilitation and conditioning facilities. It’s becoming more common.”
As such, all four facility owners agreed that the outlook for equine rehabilitation and conditioning centres is strong and more facilities would likely open across Canada in the future. For the sake of the horses, let’s hope so.
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To read more articles by Tania Millen on this site, click here.