From supplements to laser therapy, barrel racers invest much of their time and money in making sure their horses are healthy and happy. In Part One of a three-part series, Barrel Horse News caught up with experts in the industry to find out the benefits of alternative therapies.
Alternative therapies offer a different way to treat a vast amount of conditions and injuries. They also provide pain relief and management for chronic problems and typical wear and tear of equine athletes. Both ceramic and magnetic therapies are commonly used throughout the industry and provide many benefits to the working athlete. The growing use of laser therapy has also been picked up in the performance horse industry and is showing positive results. All three modalities offer a form of healing and pain relief through the same basis of increased blood circulation. However, they each do so in different ways.
“Blood flow is the key to the healing process we all talk about,” Marty Tanner, DVM, of Tanner Equine said. “Most of the treatments and therapies we use are geared to increase blood flow to a tissue that doesn’t normally have a lot of blood flow.”
Cold-laser therapy offers many benefits with limited risks involved to keep an equine athlete performing its best. The basis of laser therapy is to stimulate blood flow, which jumpstarts the healing process. It does so by emitting light as photonic energy that is absorbed by the cellular mitochondria, generating ATP. That energy fuels the physiological responses resulting in the normal cell morphology and function.
“Light is the source of all energy— that’s basically what the laser is,” said Shilah Arnold, owner of Twisted Equine Therapy. “In every different type of condition, whether it be the tendons or general muscle pain, it’s the same concept. What it’s doing is helping generate new cells so the hurt cells can heal.”
In areas like tendons and ligaments where blood flow is typically lower, the healing process is naturally slower. Laser penetrates 10–13 centimeters deep allowing for an extensive treatment of the area. Laser therapy provides a faster and often times safer way to heal those areas than other means, such as surgery and drug use.
“The problem with ligaments and tendons, if you look at the size of the blood vesicles, they are miniscule,” Tanner said. “If the blood vesicles were bigger, it would be a weaker spot in that tendon, because it would occupy space the fibers need to occupy. It’s all in the design, but when you need healing you need more blood flow, so we’re looking for ways to cause more blood flow to that area. We’re trying to stimulate those vesicles, warm the tissue up, get the vesicles to dilate so we get more blood flow in and you’re also going to dilate the lymphatic vesicles so you get removal of any fluid that happens to be in the soft tissue.”
By removing fluid and increasing blood flow, the action increases the health of the area and speeds up the repair process. This is true of other areas and injuries outside of the tendons as well.
“It speeds up recovery by 30–50 percent on average. With tendons, it’s going to help them heal correctly and heal faster,” Arnold said. “With wounds, it’s going to heal from the inside out, so there’s not going to be any proud flesh.”
Outside of injuries and wounds, laser therapy can be used for maintenance and pain management purposes as well, which serves horses hauling up and down the road competing frequently especially well.
“We use lasers for maintenance too, because if you have an area with chronic [pain] you want to maintain the blood flow over a longer period of time,” Tanner said. “You want to keep that area stimulated so it stays in the repair process. Some of those injuries [or chronic pain issues] are to a low grade chronically reinjured each time that horse performs, so you want to get the resolution as quick as you can so the horse can return to performance.”
The use varies from horse to horse and depends on each horse’s situation. For wounds and injuries, Arnold says getting the horse treated with laser therapy as quickly as possible will increase the benefits of the treatment. After the initial session, she can analyze how the horse should be treated in the future.
Arnold says frequency of treatments may vary on a case-by-case basis, but in general larger areas like the back and stifles take longer—20–30 minutes each session—and smaller areas like knees, hocks and fetlocks average 10–15 minutes per treatment.
In maintenance scenarios, Arnold says laser therapy can prolong or even eliminate the need for hock and stifle injections in some cases.
“If you stay on top of [your horse’s hock treatments] as far as maintenance, it increases the circulation so it brings natural fluid back to the joint, instead of putting something foreign in it,” Arnold said. “Some cases do require [injections], but a lot of the time you can maintain in between the injections.”
While Arnold says there are some conditions lasers can’t heal—founder or navicular disease—it still can provide pain management for those conditions. The biggest benefit for Arnold is the non-invasive option laser therapy offers, reducing the risks for horses.
“It’s a drug-free, alternative way you can rehab any type of injury or wound, and it’s easier on the checkbook,” Arnold said.
Ceramic and Magnet Therapy
Both magnet and ceramic therapy are low-maintenance options for the everyday person to keep horses healthy and comfortable. Both increase blood circulation just like a laser, but they do so in slightly different ways.
Magnetic therapy is a widespread alternative therapy used for everyday maintenance and pain relief. It works through the electromagnetic field to stimulate blood particles, which increase blood circulation, therefore warming muscles, relaxing the horse and providing pain relief.
Ceramics raise the temperature of the soft tissue, which increases blood circulation. Ceramics, such as Back On Track products, are generally made from a specialized fabric with ceramic particles fused into the textile fibers. Ceramic particles utilize the body’s own energy and reflect it back into the tissues as far-infrared wavelengths that penetrate deep into the tissues and blood vessels.
“The electromagnetic field is what [magnet therapy] is geared toward, and again, just to increase the blood flow,” Tanner said. “Ceramics are geared to heat the tissue up, and by heating it up, the effect increases blood flow just by raising the temperature of the tissue.”
Our experts agree that while these products are beneficial, it’s important to understand the way each product works and how it correlates to your horse. When inflammation is involved it is possible to overheat an area, which results in more inflammation. Both Tanner and three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Sydni Blanchard stress the importance of remembering these key basics: heat to warm up and ice to cool down, meaning if there is already edema present, then by cooling that area down first fluid will be reduced. Once the fluid is reduced and inflammation is down, ceramics or magnetics can be applied to warm the area for pain relief and increase blood circulation to heal any damaged cells.
Each horse and rider team has a product that works best for them, and Blanchard says that’s the key to using all alternative therapies.
Blanchard prefers to use ceramic-based products in cooler weather and magnetic therapy in other instances.
“Everything is increasing blood circulation one way or another,” Blanchard said. “I think Back On Track is great in the winter or with older horses that are a little stiff, or horses that have calcification. It’s a great product to use when it’s cold out.”
When choosing magnetic therapy, she uses both pulsed electromagnetic field therapy—with Centurion products— and unipolar magnets as with the PHT Magnetics products.
“I use Centurion magnetic blankets and PHT Magnetics blankets,” Blanchard said. “I think the PHT blankets generally help with inflammation and relaxing the muscles. The Centurion blankets have three levels [of electromagnetic therapy to reach all levels of the body].”
Tanner agrees that both ceramic and magnet therapy are great modalities to utilize for your performance horse.
“A lot of people use them for daily leg maintenance,” Tanner said. “It helps legs feel better, it helps get the inflammation out and keeps swelling down.”
Lasers are generally used for more in-depth treatment, while magnetic and ceramic therapy can be used for daily maintenance. However, all three experts stress that balance is the key to all of these modalities. Research and education about when and how to use these products is essential, as well as knowing when to back away from use.
“Excess. That’s where you run into problems,” Tanner said. “Those things all have their place. You can isolate too much, you can heat a leg up too much, so again I think excess and going too far the other direction can actually create the problem you were trying to resolve. That would be the detrimental part of it—it’s not the machine itself, it’s the problems we create with overuse.”
When used correctly, lasers, ceramics and magnets provide vast healing and pain-relieving properties to keep your equine athlete performing its best.
“They help horses feel good to go compete at the top of their game, they help horses recover from the competition they just went through, and I think that’s where all the stuff we talked about helps the horse out on the road running,” Tanner said, adding that another benefit of these products is their accessibility. “Some of these things are treatments people can carry with them, put in their trailer, or can buy. Then on the veterinary side, we use them to treat injuries once they happen to get that horse healed and back into competition and allow the client to use these types of treatments to keep them in competition.”
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.