Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Miracle" Of Hydrotherapy Heals, Strengthens Horses

(Left) David Voyles and his daughter, Lindsey, with retired champion Sahara at the start of a water-resistance exercise session. (Right) Sahara and Voyles, along with Miracle Farms owners Reg and Virginia Steele.

Nestled at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in eastern Shelby County, in an area abundant with equine-oriented estates and subdivisions, is a small building that houses one of the latest innovations in restoring the health of ill and injured horses.

About eight months ago, Miracle Farms owners Reg and Virginia Steele and the facility's manager, David Voyles, installed an AquaPacer Equine Underwater Treadmill and began helping horses recover from injury, regain mobility following surgery, and increase strength and endurance with an equine version of water aerobics.

When the Steeles purchased the property just a few years ago, the 16 acres of Miracle Farms was basically raw land with only the shell of a home under construction. Now, the house is finished, the surrounding acreage is beautifully landscaped, there is a first-class outdoor arena with all the accoutrement required for hunter-jumper riding, and a 7-stall barn sits just a few paces away from the hydrotherapy center. The unit is one of only four of its type in U.S., and the closest ones to Memphis are located at the University of Kentucky and the University of Mississippi.

The unit is designed to help animals recover more quickly from orthopedic surgeries, soft tissue injuries, provide relief from back and other muscular soreness, and for general conditioning and muscle development. The treadmill operates at speeds up to 7 miles an hour, and treatment or training is achieved through a specific combination of treadmill speed, water depth, and workout time.

Using hydrotherapy results in a 50% decrease in healing time and conditioning time, according to Voyles, and often more than that. "The main thing is the speed. All that healing time and conditioning time that you don't have to tie your horse up," he says. "Give me two weeks, and I'll give you a month's worth of impact...It doesn't matter which breed or which discipline they're in, it's effective for all of them." With regard to conditioning, he says that some "...want to leave their horse here for two weeks while they're gone on vacation. We can double the effect."

Miracle Farms existed in a previous incarnation as place where city kids could come to learn about nature and get some exposure to farm animals and biology, and when the Steeles relocated they asked themselves " do we fit into the equine community, what do we do? The name was already there, and we didn't want to 'compete.' And we said 'That (name) is perfect. We can create new opportunities and miracles for horses that have had bad experiences or just really need something that can take them to the next level. So the name kind of led the hydrotherapy...We call it 'an aquatic retreat for horses.'" An it is a very nice one, but it should be noted that nearly all of the 'clients' are referred by veterinarians or professional trainers.

That restorative mission seems perfectly suited to both the Steeles and Voyles. The Steeles are engaged in the medical industry, Voyles received extensive medical training in the military, and all three share a genuine love for horses. In fact, they met as a result of their daughters riding together at Spring Hill Stables, where he was the manager and the Steeles board some of their horses.

The stable is a real model facility, featuring a separate room where feed and medications are stored and charted, tack room, an office for David and a completely furnished apartment with full kitchen for use by vets, trainers or owners who have a horse being treated or trained at the farm. Two of the stalls double as a foaling unit, with a sliding door that separates them.

"If you're going to create an environment where you're going to recondition horses you've got to start with the basics," Reg Steele said. "It's got to be clean and well-vented, and well organized.," and Voyles keeps the building in a condition that can only be described as "pristine." In addition to the stalls, there are a half-dozen paddocks, some with run-ins, scattered around the property in close proximity to the barn. "We're set up to whatever we need to do to accomodate the horses," says David. "It's a clean, stress-free environment." The facility provides full board during treatment and training.

In a building about the size of a double garage sits the 1000-gallon tank, which is linked to an outside, sealed holding tank. The system has a non-chlorinated double filtration system and is temperature controlled "...just like a swimming pool," says Voyles. "It's in a continuous filtering cycle."

The animals are meticulously bathed and their hooves cleaned before they enter the unit, to prevent the introduction of dirt and other debris. It takes approximately 15 minutes to completely fill the tank but that's rarely done, unless treatment for a condition calls for the horse to be totally "floated." At very low water levels the unit provides mostly resistance, but as the depth increases the benefits begin to include reduced weight-bearing and impact, along with hydrostatic pressure to reduce swelling.

On this day, the lucky recipient of the poolplay is Sahara, a 16-year old retired National Champion from the hunter-jumper arena. He appeared to be completely at ease with being led into the chamber, and didn't display any nervousness during the roughly five-minute workout. The V-shaped tank has hinged doors at both ends, and the treadmill is only inches off the floor with gradual ramps leading in one end and out the other. It is situated so the animals can look out over one of the farm's paddocks through a set of wide double doors, which helps keep them calm as they get used to the swirling water and the hum of a powerful pump. The layout also permits trailers to back up right to the exit from the tank.

Virginia says the first couple of times a horse encounters the machinery, they can be a bit wary, as though they're wondering "..what in the heck are you asking me to do?" But they quickly become accustomed to the process and the real performance horses realize they have the opportunity to do what they were born to do, in spite of any injury or health condition. "The ones that really like to work, when they experience this and get into it, they love it," she says.

Anyone considering the filtration system might naturally wonder, what about those inconvenient "pool accidents" that happen from time to time, especially given the casual attitude of horse with regard to that sort of thing. Well, it takes at least two to guide a horse through the routine and one of them is the designated "pooper scooper," armed with fine mesh net mounted on a long handle.

The general conditioning regimen typically begins with 5-minute sessions the first week, and builds to 10 minutes the second, 15 the third, and by the fourth week the workouts are up to 20 minutes. Voyles says most conditioning programs last four to six weeks. Injury-related therapy can involve routines as short as couple of minutes the first few times.

As odd as it may seem, Voyles says the deeper the water gets, the more an animal tends extends its step. "You'd think, as it gets deeper, they would sort of start short-stepping, but the more drag there is, the faster they go and they tend to lengthen their stride."

Virginia says the conditioning regimen is not intended to replace trainers who would normally ride those horses, but does serve a very useful purpose in "complement(ing) the existing equine community...we don't want to compete with any existing organization...We're a small, private farm. We can give one-on-one attention to the animals, their owners and the vets, which is really our objective...We want to complement the existing equine community, which is why we went with the treadmill, because there's just not one here...There's a large horse community here that has a need for this, so we're excited about it."

She also noted that injured horses who would most benefit from water therapy would previously have been referred to out-of-state veterinarians during the treatment process. That puts them out from under the direct supervision of the "family doctor" who knows them best. Having hydrotherapy available locally lets both owners and vets keep a constant eye in the progress being made. "It really gives a contiuum of care here in Memphis that's been unavailable in the past," says Virginia. "It allows the horse's regular veterinarian to see what is being accomplished, rather than relying on the judgement of someone else, and adjusting the program as needed in the best interest of the animal."

That unbroken stream can mean a lot to an owner in terms of fewer medical fees and reduced transportation cost and effort.

Animals undergoing therapy or conditioning can actually be hooked up to certain monitoring eequipment while they are in the tank and Virginia noted that the arena, just a few feet away, provides a place for both vets and trainers to do some real-world testing of the results that have been achieved.

Since installing the unit, Miracle Farms has invited a number of regional vets to see a demonstration the system and discuss with them the possibilities for its use in the recuperative process.

And the system is not just for horses. While they haven't had occasion to use it with canines (and the company makes units designed for them), Virginia said the hydrotherapy unit would work just as well with dogs and other large animals and they would be happy to discuss the possibilities with owners or vets for treating illnesses like hip displasia. "We've got the biggest one, said Voyles, "so you can pretty much encompass anything."

Virginia jokes that she and some friends have talked about using the device for an exercise class, and David says that he has actually "tested the waters." "I've been in it, and it's work," he said. It's hard to imagine that anyone involved in sports or fitness wouldn't at least consider giving it a try.

Currently, Miracle Farms is only offering services centered around the hydrotherapy unit and some other rehabilitative equipment purchased from the same manufacturer. "We don't do any boarding, or training. At this point it's totally about being a therapeutic center for horses," says Virginia. "But we also have some other equipment...for icing injuries and compressing for fluid accumulation...The equipment is getting much more advanced, and we hope to build off the hydrotherapy and the other services that are therpeutic in nature." Voyles echoes those sentiments by noting that the focus helps keep things personal, which results in better care for the horses they do take in.

Virginia and David both stress that horses with injuries or surgery-related rehabilitative needs should be referred by a veterinarian, but that conditioning and strengthening cases are accepted as long as the animal's trainer is involved. "We're really not open to owners saying "I want to come out and have my horse swim," says Virginia. "We don't think that's in the best interest of the

owner or the trainer or the horse. It really needs to be directed by a professional. We know what we're doing, but we want them to say what their goal for the horse is, and each discipline and each trainer, and each rider has a different need."

She does note one case where they took on a horse without an official "referral," but the horse's regular veterinarian was heavily involved. The animal had a problem with overheating along with some serious gastric distress. "They just wanted to change his environment and get him in the water and cool him down every day. It wasn't really about an injury and it wasn't about conditioning." The owner found Miracle Farms through a friend, but the vet was soon part of the process and agreed the treatment might provide a needed alternative. "...and he improved," says Virginia. "He stayed here a month and we swam him and kept the fans on was during that heat wave and he couldn't sweat, so we just cooled him down with the water and controlled his exercise."

Toward the end of his session Sahara gets some encouragement to keep "working harder." As the treadmill slows to a halt and the last of the water drains away, he gratefully accepts a few horsey treats and head rubs as reward for his effort before being led back to the barn by David's daughter, Lindsey. He's sporting a bit of perspiration on his brow and there's that trace of muscle quiver that many athletes exhibit following a good workout, and he seems a lot more energized than when he first walked up the low ramp.

For more information on hydrotherapy for horses, you can contact Miracle Farms at 901-753-0747 or visit their web site at For more information on the Ferno AquaPacer, visit their site at

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