Laser Therapy for Horses

In November 2012, I attended the Alberta Equestrian Federation Annual Conference. To raise money for a children’s program, they held a silent auction. I felt obligated to put my name down on a few items, and not entirely because the Executive Director, Sonia Dantu, was standing there egging me on!

I bid on many items, and I was actually hoping to win the muck boots. I have a pair of insulated rubber boots, but they are no longer water tight which makes them pretty much useless, unless you like your socks drenched with whatever liquids are lurking in a mucky pasture. As the conference drew to a close, the auction items were announced. I didn’t win the boots. But I came away with something much better: a gift certificate for LLLT (Low Level Laser Therapy) at Chill EquiRehab.

Personally, I am no stranger to physiotherapy. I have seen the laser machines in use and have been treated with them as well. There is however, a lot of skepticism in the medical community as to exactly how laser therapy works, and what injuries it is beneficial for. In essence, a laser is a device that emits amplified electromagnetic radiation in one or more discrete frequencies. With respect to medical treatment there are several variables involved: laser frequency, energy, and duration of exposure. Some laser devices offer a combination of these that can be selected as a various programs.

[singlepic id=9 w=300 h=200 float=left]Many people picture a laser as a high energy Star Wars beam of red light slicing through something. Although lasers are used for those applications in industry, medical lasers are much lower powered. You might also be thinking, well light doesn’t travel through solid objects, so how is a laser going to penetrate a horses hair, then a thick skin layer, to reach the tissues underneath ?  Without going into too much detail, think of a laser simply as a concentrated beam of energy. Whether you can see that energy depends on the frequency. This energy is comprised of photons, which can penetrate several inches of tissue.

If you have one of those powerful penlights handy, try this experiment. Cover the lens with your finger and turn it on. You will see the light through your finger: photons passing though your tissue. Your flashlight emits light across a very broad spectrum of frequencies, which is why it appears white. A laser emits light of a single frequency, which is why it can appear as a single color.
So you have got photons traveling through tissue. How does that help anything?  Laser energy stimulates cells, promotes cell growth, enzyme production and vascular activity. Thus they are used to treat a wide variety of issues including nerve damage, scar tissue reduction, inflammation, and even wounds and bone fractures.

I have an 18 year old horse, Ty, who broke his neck (C4) three years ago. That is a story in itself, but suffice it to say we have been down a long, but successful, rehabilitation road. I thought Ty would be the perfect subject for LLLT as he exhibits many of the conditions it is used for treating: arthritis, scar tissue, nerve damage…..the list goes on.

Keeping an open mind, I contacted Wynter Jones of Chill EquiRehab. I told her all about Ty, and she seemed excited to work with him. She sent me a form to fill out requesting all the details of his injury and what observations I had made on his movement limitations. As we live a few hours apart, she suggested taking Ty for a week and treating him twice per day.

So on a chilly December day Ty and I made our way west of Didsbury, AB.  We were greeted by Wynter and I introduced her to Ty.
Wynter Jones is an Equine Therapist and operates Chill EquiRehab. After earning her Veterinary Assistant Diploma, she enrolled in the Equine Massage Course at the Olds College. Since then she has become certified in related disciplines, including Equine Massage and Vertebral Realignment and Low Level Laser Therapy. Wynter also uses magnets for therapy and is an independent consultant for Nikken Products. Wynter says she became an Equine Therapist because she wanted to heal in a non-invasive way instead of covering up the problem.
Wynter began with a head-to-tail evaluation of Ty. She spent some time examining his trouble regions: neck, shoulders and back. She marked him in areas that required adjustment. As I walked, backed and turned Ty, Wynter made observations and remarked that she was surprised Ty was in such good shape considering his injury. She noted, however, that he seemed to be less sure of his footing when he turned. This is something I was well aware of too.

[singlepic id=6 w=300 h=200 float=right]Over the next five days, Wynter used a combination of massage, realignment and LLLT. I spent the first night there so I could observe several treatments, ask questions, take some pictures and make some notes. And make sure Ty was happy!

And Ty was happy.  I have spent countless hours with this horse over the last three years. So I know what to expect when he likes something, and what to expect when he doesn’t.   When Wynter first applied the laser to Ty, he perked up a little bit, as if to say, What the heck is that?

Wynter commented that horses seem to be more physically sensitive to the laser than people are. Ty responded in the typical way a horse would when relaxing: low headset, eyes half open, licking/chewing. You get the picture. But what got my attention is that Ty stood like this, for over an hour, during the laser treatment. After the first 10 minutes I just dropped the lead rope. Ty had no intention of going anywhere. If the laser wasn’t making him feel better, he would just leave. But he didn’t take a step.

Leaving Ty well provided for in a large covered paddock, I headed for home alone. I returned at the end of the week, anxious to see me equine buddy and what, if any, progress Wynter had made.

I’d like to share her findings as she wrote them:
Ty’s Therapy:
When bringing a horse in for therapy it is extremely beneficial for the therapist to have a thorough history of your horse including any past accidents & vet diagnosis.  I had Scott fill out a questionnaire on Ty before arriving, which I have all my clients do as part of my assessment. By doing this I already had a picture of things to look for upon Ty’s arrival and we were able to move along to treatment in a timely manner. Each therapist has their own series of tests on a horse to determine where issues are.
Issues Found:
Due to the break of the C4, Ty has some nerve damage which was affecting his right leg movement
Some atrophy to the right shoulder requiring adjustment
As horses compensate on the diagonal, the left hip needed adjusting as well
Adjustment to the poll & a few thoracic vertebrae
Treatment After Adjustment:
Laser therapy for nerve damage, working all 4 sides of the break to achieve maximum coverage on both left and ride side of the neck
Both massage and laser were used to stimulate shoulder muscles
Laser therapy used to stimulate nerve repair and to increase circulation from the right side of the neck all the way down to the hoof
Also did a lot of stretching of neck and limbs to increase blood flow
After doing two therapy treatments per day, I took Ty into the arena to do a reassessment but first thought I would let him have a good roll. Well after a couple good rolls Ty jumped up bucking and snorting and took off at a lope around the arena, and proceeded to jump over some rails I had set up. WOW! He looked great and was feeling good too!!! He looked like a different horse playing around in the arena. I am extremely happy with the results I had with Ty. Ty will need some follow-up treatments with the laser to keep him on the healing trail, but all in all his therapy was very successful and he was a great horse to work with. Love your story big guy!
Wynter Jones

Chill EquiRehab & Boyd Equestrian Center


[singlepic id=8 w=300 h=200 float=left]Wynter left me with a comprehensive summary of Ty’s treatment, including my homework: massage, stretching and exercises (for Ty, not me!). So what do I think about the whole thing? They say that seeing is believing. I mentioned Ty’s demeanor during treatment. That in itself was encouraging, but do I notice any changes in Ty now that I have him home? Before I comment on that, keep the following in mind:

Ty suffered a broken neck causing spinal cord compression resulting in nerve damage, most apparent in his right front quarter. He was initially unable to step over any object, unable to walk up or down an incline, and unable to back. After a roll, he had great difficulty in getting up. He has compensated by using his body differently which has led to uneven muscle development, stiffness and soreness. After the injury he was very protective of his right side.
I started riding Ty again 2 years ago. He has made a lot of progress since. We???ve ridden in the mountains and rounded up cattle. But he still has a lot of issues. Even now, he finds it very difficult to maintain a canter on the right lead for more than a few strides. His injury was most apparent when asking him to back. He was very reluctant to lift his front feet off the ground and backing in a straight line required a great deal of concentration on his behalf.
That said, I will quote from an email that I sent to Wynter the day after I turned Ty loose in the pasture:
Today I was outside waiting for a hay delivery. Ty was standing there so I thought, why not? I grabbed a halter and hopped up on Ty, bareback. Ty likes to trot and away we went. He felt good. As a test, I stopped him and asked him to back up, with my seat only, since I only had a halter with the lead on one side. And he backed up almost flawlessly, and quick and straight. I didn’t sense him dragging his front feet. I was pretty impressed with him and he knew it. Yee haw!
After the treatments, I watched Ty. There is a spring in his step that wasn’t there a month earlier. He looked more fluid in his movements rather than choppy. He looked a lot less like Eeyore and a lot more like a horse! And Ty jumped over rails? I haven’t seen him do that in years.
If seeing is believing, then I am a believer.

Scott Phillips
December 2012

P.S. Ty has made more progress!

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About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

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