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Will this machine fix my horse?

The short answer: No.

The long answer: Yes. Curious read on.

There is no such thing as a miracle cure, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Many of these machines have only been around for a few years and there has not been thorough unbiased research to test if it is any good at what the manufacturers think it is. A lack of scientific research doesn’t mean it doesn’t work just that you are experimenting with your horse, your time and your money.

I’m not anti-machines, in my toolkit as a Physiotherapist I have Biomag PEMF, therapeutic ultrasound, TENS and E-Stim. I use these occasionally when I have assessed them as appropriate as a small part of the rehabilitation plan. Most human physiotherapy research does not support using a single modality to cure a problem. Multimodal therapy has more evidence to support it, this is because as we recover from an injury we go through different phases and require different types of input to optimise recovery (for further read my blog Why a Quick Fix Won’t Work).

If you want to use a machine on your horse this is my advice:

· If you have all your ducks in a row, then it may add an extra 1% gain. But if you haven’t done the basics well, you are wasting your time and need to address those first. Cover the basics well first. Basics include things like: is this horse suited to you and the discipline you want to do? Is your horse in good condition: are they underfed and too skinny or overweight and at risk of EMS, laminitis, joint pain… Is your saddle comfortable for your horse or are they starting to resent being ridden because of the pain? Is your bridle, noseband, bit etc comfortable for your horse? Are the hooves long, cracked, thin soled, shoes left on for 8weeks? Have you not picked his hooves out regularly and he has got mild thrush making him look a touch lame? Are you and your horse getting sufficient training to support improvement in style and skill? Make sure you are covering the basics well before you go looking for the little extra one percenters.

· If you want to get the latest machine, make sure you can afford it. If you have the money go for it. If money is tight please think what else you could spend that amount of money on? Is it going to be an effective use of your money? Would the money be better put towards a Vet bill to do nerve blocks and xrays of that leg you think he is not quite right on? How many lessons with your coach could you get for that price? For the same price you could have your horse seen regularly by a Physiotherapist as part of a wholistic rehabilitation and performance plan. Or you could see a saddle fitter and purchase a saddle your horse likes. (It frustrates me when people say they can’t afford to take the horse to the Vet or to buy a new saddle, yet have all these gadgets sitting in their tack shed gathering dust).

· If you don’t know what is wrong with your horse, you are taking a gamble, it is potluck if the gadget will make any positive difference. You could be wasting time and energy on a pathway away from what will get you a diagnosis and plan. Better to identify the true problem, look at possible solutions and plan rehabilitation.

· Many devices decrease pain and assist healing, this is appropriate for an acute injury and perhaps to aid recovery from a strenuous workout. However some gadgets are designed to breakdown scar tissue, triggering a fresh bout of inflammation for a chronic injury that has mal-healed. So you need to know what the device does, what it may or may not help with, when and how to use it. Using the wrong device at the wrong time could worsen an injury. If you look at the timeline of recovery (read my blog of Why a Quick Fix Won’t Work), most machines are appropriate in the first few stages. On their own they won’t create full recovery as they are at a very low level of stimulus or load. A bit like massage, it is a passive treatment so you might feel good for a bit, but that feeling doesn’t last as it has not exposed the body to enough load to make a lasting change. The load tolerance or load demands placed on your body in everyday life and sport are far greater than a passive treatment or device can replicate.

· If you are using the machine regularly for pain relief – why does your horse need pain relief? Would you feel the same about giving your horse bute as often as you use the machine? If you don’t know what is causing the discomfort anything that masks symptoms can delay diagnosis. Or to put it another way, if your horse goes better when using the machine regularly, does that mean it is in pain all the time, a bitter pill to swallow isn’t it. If you know your horse has a bit of arthritis (because the Vet diagnosed it) and you find using a particular machine makes him more comfortable then that is fine. But if you don’t know, you have a problem. Your horse may have a subclinical condition, and to protect the welfare of the horse this is why we have rules about medications and competing. Worst case scenario is a race horse being given cortisone and then suffering a catastrophic limb fracture during a race.

· Some machines are useful to aid recovery after strenuous training. Optimising recovery after training is an area that is currently being given more attention. The body needs recovery time between intense workouts for it to adapt. Essentially, we get stronger by inducing a slight amount of damage, the body clears away these damaged cells and repairs with more/larger/stronger cells. This is why we get DOMS after a good workout. If you have a mismatch between training load and recovery your horse is more likely to suffer poor performance and injury. Some of these machines may help slightly but they can’t do miracles; you still need to adhere to sound training principles and allow your horse rest days.

· Be aware the initial improvement may not last or be repeatable. The first few times you use a new machine it is a novel stimulus to the nervous system. After a few sessions, it is no longer novel, the body may become habituated to it. For example the first time you go on a ghost train ride your heart rate will go up, you’ll jump when something touches you and be scared and surprised, but if you repeat the same ride again, and again, and again, it becomes so predictable you no longer jump or react. Some devices allow you to change parameters or have different programs to help minimise this accommodation effect. Another reason you may no longer see improvement is that the body has progressed into the next stage of healing (see graph above) and requires a different type of treatment to progress further.

So in conclusion if you don’t know what is wrong with your horse and just buy the device because it is the latest fad, NO your horse will not get ‘fixed’. However judiciously using the right machine at the right time for the right condition at the right dosage used under the guidance of a team of professionals machines can aid your horse.

Further reading: Massage versus Rehabilitation

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