Therapeutic Tools Top Riders Can’t Live Without
By Tania Millen
Therapeutic tools have been used to prevent and treat horse injuries for many years, but cutting edge therapies continue to be sought out by riders to improve their horse’s health and performance. Twenty years ago, the technology of the day for icing the legs of Olympic and World Championship level event horses was giant rubber boots filled with ice water attached to noisy pumps that burbled bubbles up through the boots. After enticing their horses to stand still in “whirlpool boots,” event grooms then slathered their horses’ legs with handfuls of messy clay and packed their feet with smelly black gunk – both of which inevitably managed to end up everywhere they shouldn’t. But in the last 20 years, science, technology, and product companies have moved on.
Therapeutic tools can be key to maintaining soundness and passing vet checks at endurance competitions. Photo: Wendy Webb
Now a huge variety of therapeutic tools are available to keep horses healthy and competitive, as well as rehabilitate them after injuries. Choices range from simple to complex and are available for every budget. Therapies include heat lamps, ice boots, vibrating plates, magnetic blankets, laser wands, ceramic bandages, massage machines, shockwave therapy, and many more.
With all this choice, it’s difficult to decide which of the myriad therapies available are worth investing in. But professional riders depend on their horses for their livelihoods, hence they’re highly motivated to use the best therapeutic tools. So I asked four top Canadian riders which therapeutic tools they use and why, in the hope that their experience might translate into advice for the rest of us. Here’s what they had to say.
Hawley Bennett-Awad, CCI**** international rider and coach, says she learned early in her career that preventing injury is paramount. “Pam Arthur (Hawley’s coach and mentor) insisted that injury prevention is key, and she’s right. Livingstone, my first top horse, competed at FEI level for 11 years and did nine CCI**** events. He was one of the soundest horses at that level. But I only had one horse, so if he didn’t stay sound, then I didn’t have anything to ride.”
One of Hawley Bennett-Awad’s horses enjoying a massage prior to work. Photo: Hawley Bennett-Awad
Bennett-Awad places strong emphasis on injury prevention by using tools that increase circulation and prevent swelling. “I only have a few top horses. Unlike some other top event riders, if I break one, I can’t just go back to the barn and grab another one.”
In keeping with Hawley’s beliefs, prior to each workout she uses a Professional’s Choice ceramic blanket and Professional’s Choice ceramic leg wraps. Ceramic blankets and wraps are popular therapeutic tools as they’re easy to use and relatively inexpensive. The science behind them is also quite simple. Ceramic therapeutic products contain ceramic fibres, which are inorganic and have poor conductivity. Most of the natural long wave infrared heat radiation produced by a living being (horse) does not pass through the material but is reflected back to the horse. This heat then stimulates cells in the body and increases blood circulation to the area, hence the products are often used to “warm up” muscles prior to work. Heat therapy is also good for muscle pain from overexertion, arthritis, and other non-inflammatory pain, while it’s not very helpful for acute injuries or obvious trauma.
Ceramic blankets are a popular and reasonably priced therapy. Photo: Hawley Bennett-Awad
Another tool that Bennett-Awad uses prior to her horse’s workouts is an Equilibrium therapy massage pad. The pad is strapped on the horse’s back where the saddle sits and Equilibrium Products states that the battery operated pad stimulates the horse’s back muscles through pulsing, vibration, and stroking actions, which increases blood flow, flexibility, and relaxation. This product essentially removes the human massage professional, and while it may not be as beneficial as having a professional massage, positive clinical studies are publicly available.
Bennett-Awad uses several therapeutic products after workouts, too. Following every jump school or gallop, she uses a full-body Respond magnetic blanket for post-workout recovery. Magnetic blankets work by creating battery-powered pulsing electromagnetic fields to accelerate normal biological cellular reactions. During exercise, the membrane that conducts ions (electrically charged particles) in and out of muscle cells becomes comprised and is unable to do its job efficiently. According to Respond Systems Inc., by creating a magnetic field, the Respond blanket stimulates the membrane and ions into action, thereby increasing circulation, decreasing inflammation, and accelerating healing. There are quite a few different magnetic field therapies available for horses, and successful veterinarian supervised case studies are publicly available for the Respond blanket.
Professional’s Choice magnetic blanket is one of the therapeutic tools that Hawley Bennett-Awad uses to keep her horses in top shape.
Another therapy Bennett-Awad uses post-workout is Professional’s Choice ice boots on all four legs. Icing, or cryotherapy, is well-researched and commonly used in medical and sports communities to inexpensively reduce pain and swelling associated with minor strains, sprains, bruising, or chronic repetitive strain injuries. Every top rider I spoke with for this article embraces icing and there are many different brands and styles of ice boots available.
But therapies aren’t just for prevention. When tackling injuries - sore backs, feet, and legs - Bennett-Awad uses RevitaVet light therapy products, which she strongly believes in as she used them on herself after breaking her back. According to RevitaVet, their light therapy products use visible red and infrared light to induce positive biological change at the cellular level. Essentially, the light stimulates the horse’s body to form new capillaries, which then allows greater blood flow, subsequently speeding up healing by bringing more oxygen to the area and removing waste products more efficiently. Positive medical results from using light therapy are provided on RevitaVet’s website.
Revitavet’s light therapy helps alleviate sore back muscles. Photo: Hawley Bennett-Awad
But many riders don’t have the funds or need for a multitude of therapeutic products, so I asked Hawley which products she’d recommend for an amateur event rider who has $500 to spend. She recommended a pair of ice boots that fit both front and hind legs, plus a ceramic sheet. She also suggested choosing a brand that has great customer service, so you can get support if you need it.
After chatting with Hawley, I contacted Ontario-based international three-day event rider Jessica Phoenix. She has a range of horses in her barn and feels that therapeutic tools help prevent injuries and improve the longevity of her horses, so she uses a variety of products. Phoenix says, “We use a lot of ice, a regenerative laser, Respond magnetic blanket, plus Ice-Vibe boots. They all provide faster recovery after work.”
A full body Respond magnetic blanket combined with ceramic boots provides almost complete therapeutic coverage. Photo: Hawley Bennett-Awad
Laser therapy, which is a form of light therapy, is gaining widespread recognition for its beneficial effects on horses. Well-documented evidence indicates that lasers can speed up healing time, increase circulation, and reduce pain. Depending on the laser machine and desired treatment, light may pulse at different energy outputs using red and infrared light, or emit a single beam. Although lasers are simple to use, identifying the specific location of the injured area and determining ideal laser treatment may require veterinary advice.
When asked which tools she felt amateur or lower level riders could use to their advantage, Phoenix stated, “I feel that icing is the best tool and I ice after each jump, gallop, and hard flat school. The Ice-Vibe boots make this extremely easy.” One of the many therapeutic boots on the market, Ice-Vibe boots are battery operated vibrating boots which can be used with hot or cold packs, depending on the horse’s needs.
But it’s not just three-day event riders who use therapeutic tools on their horses. Dressage and endurance riding are very different sports, but they also place heavy demands on equine athletes.
BC-based international dressage rider and coach Karen Pavicic relies on therapeutic tools to keep her horses in top shape. Pavicic feels that dressage riders competing at moderate to high levels of the sport, plus those treating horses with lower leg injuries, can really use therapeutic tools to their advantage. Pavicic primarily uses three products: Schneider’s SStack ice boots to cool and tighten her horse’s legs for regular post-ride maintenance, Stayons poultice leg wraps, and the Game Ready Equine System® for chronic or acute injuries.
Therapeutic tools are just one part of an endurance rider’s arsenal. Photo: Wendy Webb
Stayons poultice leg wraps are pre-filled clay and Epsom salt wraps that are used beneath stable bandages to help draw heat from the leg. Their significant advantage over traditional clay poultice is that they wrap around the leg similar to a cotton bandage and don’t leave clay residue on horse’s legs.
Meanwhile, the Game Ready Equine System® is a set of high tech leg wraps that simultaneously deliver active compression and cold therapy. Publicly available case studies indicate that the system is effective at reducing tissue damage, swelling, and pain, allowing the horse’s leg injuries to heal faster and preventing injuries in the first place.
Pavicic selects products based on their effectiveness at cooling legs, reducing swelling, healing injuries, convenience, and price point. However, as Hawley and Jessica also advised, Karen says the one product she wouldn’t want to live without is ice boots.
Wendy MacCoubrey is one of Canada’s top international endurance riders. She spends her summers in Quebec and winters in Florida where she lives across the street from renowned international endurance rider Valerie Kanavy. MacCoubrey has been fortunate to have Kanavy as her mentor, sharing Valerie’s vast knowledge and the many therapeutic tools in her barn.
Wendy MacCoubrey competing on Golden Miles, who had received laser therapy following an injury less than three weeks before the competition. Photo: Becky Siler Pearman
MacCoubrey states, “There are a lot of good therapeutic tools, and every tool has a use. It really depends on the scenario and issues we’ve got, which tool we use. For example, I’ve used lasers for my horse’s shoulders after a hard competition with a lot of hills, to help heal cuts and to treat tight hamstrings. I’ve used shockwave therapy on horses’ feet to increase growth, on withers if the chiropractor isn’t available, and to harden splints. Shockwave therapy seems to be more intense than laser therapy, so we use it less frequently and sometimes follow up treatment with the laser.”
Shockwave therapy transmits a high-energy pressure wave to a precise location in the horse where the wave’s energy is released into the surrounding tissue. Therapy has successfully treated acute and chronic soft tissue and bone injuries by stimulating healing, plus growth of new blood vessels and new bone. However, shockwaves readily transmit through skin, fat, and muscle, so it’s important to have an accurate veterinary diagnosis and the injury area clearly defined so that the shockwave can be directed to the appropriate place.
MacCoubrey also uses a vibrating TheraPlate two to three times per week plus a Centurion Therapulse blanket to loosen muscles and increase circulation. She says, “Both products make the horses feel good and they often drop their head and go to sleep during treatment.”
Wendy MacCoubrey keeps her horses in top shape by using a variety of therapeutic products. Photo: Becky Siler Pearman
TheraPlate’s equine therapy product is a vibrating aluminum plate that horses stand on to stimulate circulation, reduce swelling, and build muscle, and it reduces the risk of future injuries. Both transportable and full stall-size plates are available.
Centurion Systems have a variety of equine therapy products, but the Therapulse blanket uses pulsed electromagnetic therapy to improve circulation and cellular metabolism, promote healing and reduce pain.
MacCoubrey says she has learned about different therapies through her mentor Kanavy, who kindly shares her knowledge and more expensive therapeutic tools with other endurance riders. She also learned about laser therapy by attending an information session organized by a company that sells lasers, and was impressed with what she saw. She subsequently used laser therapy to reduce a splint, and confirmed the effectiveness of the treatment through x-rays taken before and after the laser therapy.
“We spend money on therapies that produce results,” MacCoubrey says. “My horse, Golden Miles, hit a tree playing in the field less than three weeks before the 80 km Biltmore Challenge. We lasered him in the affected area, which was his rib cage, and went on to finish sixth in a very tough, wet, and slippery 80 km mountain ride. I don't think we would have been able to do that without him being lasered. It took away the swelling around the ribs, allowing us to put a saddle on him sooner than later and continue his training.”
When asked about how riders might learn about therapeutic tools, MacCoubrey suggested working with a veterinarian who promotes therapeutic products, attending product information sessions, finding a coach or mentor who is familiar with different therapies and has them available in their barn, chatting with upper level riders about the products they use, and just trying them out.
Every rider wants what’s best for their horse. But with the huge variety of therapeutic technologies and tools now available, selecting the best therapeutic tool can be challenging. However, there really is something for every budget and a beneficial therapy for every injury. As Hawley Bennett-Awad wisely stated, “I’d much rather prevent injury than try to fix a horse that’s broken.” Perhaps the best uses of therapeutic tools are for improving health and preventing injuries before they occur.
7 Steps for Choosing Therapeutic Tools
1 - Decide what your horse needs. Depending on your discipline, competition schedule and physical demands of your sport, some tools may be more useful than others.
2 - Talk to your vet and farrier. Professionals have access to up-to-date science, and know your horse. Use their experience and knowledge by asking for advice.
3 - Determine your budget. Many tools are reasonably priced so don’t be discouraged if your budget is limited. More expensive items may be available for rent or from a coach/stable.
4 - Research available products. Try to find scientific evidence that the tool does what the brand advertises, and look for testimonials from recognized riders.
5 - Speak with upper level riders. Although top riders may be sponsored by therapeutic product companies, they’ll only be using tools that actually work.
6 - Chat with company representatives. Find out about customer service and warranties. Ask for a product demonstration at your barn.
7 - Make your decision. Enjoy your new therapeutic tool knowing you’re doing the best for your horse, and share your knowledge with others.
Main article image: Wendy MacCoubrey has found that therapeutic tools help maintain her horse’s health and increase their endurance riding competitiveness. Photo: Wendy Webb
This article was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.