Study : The impact of physiotherapy on equine behaviour and welfare

 Does physiotherapy have an immediate impact on horses behaviour and welfare?

New Research from Whites Veterinary Physiotherapy and the University of Nottingham investigates

In recent decades, the use of veterinary physiotherapy in the equine world has increased considerably to help with injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, musculoskeletal maintenance and performance (McGowan, 2017). However, despite lots of anecdotal evidence that physiotherapy is effective and beneficial to animal welfare, much of a physiotherapists work relies on subjective tools of measurement and little solid evidence. Therefore it has been frequently suggested that more research on equine physiotherapy is required to demonstrate the long term impact on a horses fitness, behaviour and welfare (Tabor and Williams, 2018). John White BSc AdvCertVetPhys MIRVAP of Whites Veterinary Physiotherapy  decided to investigate this further and determine whether physio treatment has an immediate impact on the horse's behaviour and movement, with the help of data recorded by the Trackener system.

As we know from previous work, the horse’s voluntary movement and behaviour at rest is a good indicator of their overall health and well-being and can be useful to monitor changes to routine or the effect of training or treatment on the horse’s body (Lesimple, 2020; Verdegaal et al., 2017). The Trackener horse monitoring kit was designed with welfare in mind, to track and monitor changes 24/7 in a horse's behaviour and health over time and therefore served as an appropriate tool to help measure the impact of physiotherapy and provide data on the horse’s movement, rest and heart rate, before and after a physiotherapy session.


Between January and March 2020, 21 horses and 19 ponies across two different livery yards in Lancashire were monitored. The two yards consisted of a full livery yard and a DIY livery yard and the horses and ponies were of a variety of different ages, breeds, sex and fitness levels. All of the horses wore a Trackener kit for up to 5 days to allow 2 days of monitoring prior to physio and after physio. A single physiotherapy session lasting 30-60 minutes was conducted by Whites Veterinary Physiotherapy on each of the horses during the study and parameters such as heart rate, distance covered, sleep and general movement related to behaviour over an 18 hour period were monitored and analysed. Examples of data retrieved using the Trackener app can be seen below in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1 - An example of data collected during a basic lunging session for a horse including the rein which it spent the most time (%), the amount of time working (mins) and the distance covered (miles). It also demonstrates the heart rate (bpm) throughout the day which can be selected to specific times.

Figure 2 - An example of a horse’s activity during the day as recorded by the Trackener device. It shows the amount of time (min) spent in walk, trot and canter throughout the day and the distance covered (miles). It also shows the amount of time (mins) resting during the day via standing resting, sternal recumbency (laying head up) and sternal recumbency (laying with head down - REM). 


The results showed that there were no significant changes in any of the locomotion, rest, sleep and heart rate parameters analysed before and after the physiotherapy session (p>0.05). However, on average the horses moved less after physiotherapy and slept for 9.4 mins less after physiotherapy. In terms of sleep position, before physiotherapy, the horses were recumbent with their heads up (RHU) on average for 74 mins compared to 81 mins after physiotherapy. As for movement, the average time spent walking decreased by around 4.3 mins after physiotherapy. This may suggest horses had less deep sleep after physiotherapy but substituted this for moving less and resting more.

No behaviour such as movement in the field was different as a result of the physiotherapy. However, once again this is hard to comment on overall as changes in weather resulted in changes to the horse’s management such as rugging and time in the field. This could have been significant as during the period of data collection, the area was hit by storms Ciara and Dennis and increased rain and wind. Previous research by Jørgensen, Mejdell and Bøe, (2019) has shown environmental factors like these have resulted in reduced movement in the field and this could account for no difference shown after physio, although this was not investigated further.

The outcome found that one single physiotherapy session did not have any immediate positive or negative effects on the horse’s locomotion, resting or heart rate patterns. This may be as a result of only one session of physio, previously suggested in research as insufficient to elicit a significant response. A study with a minimum of 5 days of intensive physiotherapy has been proven previously by Stievani et al. (2018) to produce noticeable changes but unfortunately, due to time constraints, budget and COVID-19, this was not possible in the present study.

Differences between horse and ponies

Further analysis was performed to explore whether horses and ponies had different locomotion, rest, and heart rate patterns. These results showed that ponies moved for longer durations compared to horses in walk (p<0.001). Ponies travelled in walk for 102 min while horses walked for only 78 min.  They also lied down with their heads up (RHU) 26 min longer than horses and rested for longer during the day (18 min) and the night for (12 min). These differences between horse and ponies could be because ponies seem more sensitive to certain treatments from physiotherapists and were more impacted by the release of endorphins during massage, linked with feeling of happiness and warmth (Bligh, 1998) linked to greater periods of rest. As for increased movement compared to horses, this is unsurprising as ponies have a larger surface area to body mass ratio which disadvantages them during colder weather and often means they move around more to keep warm (Kaada and Torsteinb∅, 1989). This additional movement could also explain why they were more fatigued and rested more during the night than horses.

Differences between yards

The only deviation between DIY livery compared to full livery was time spent walking (p<0.001). Horses moved around at walk for longer on the full livery yard (98 min) in comparison to the DIY yard (92 min). However, the heart rate (HR) was also significantly higher on the full livery yard in comparison to the DIY yard (p<0.05).  One key explanation for both of these variances may simply be the routines of each yard and the size of their fields, distance walked to the field etc. It has also been frequently proven in both research and domestic practice the impact of routine on horses and the higher heart rates seen on the full livery yards could be the result of anticipation at feed times or even stereotypical behaviours caused by management practices, although these were not identified during the study.

Overall, there were some interesting outcomes of this study. No negative effects of physiotherapy were seen on the horse's behaviour, welfare or fitness. However, secondary findings showed that ponies are more likely to locomote after physiotherapy, possibly due to their size. The differences between horses and ponies would certainly be interesting to explore further, as would the differences between full and DIY livery yards as the effects of routine were highlighted here as they are in most research of domestic management practices. John of Whites Veterinary Physiotherapy hopes this will be one of many more research projects as physiotherapy continues to develop and become a regular part of equine care.

If you found this research interesting, leave us a comment with your thoughts and don't hesitate to share with your friends and colleagues. More researches done with the Trackener system are available here.

More about Trackener

Trackener is a horse monitoring system composed of a device worn by the horse on a bib at rest and on the girth during exercise. It records automatically the activity, sleep, location, speed and heart rate and transmits the data over 2G/3G so that the user can see the information in real time from anywhere in the world.
Our product has been designed to help everyone from leisure horse owners to vets and researchers and helps objectively assess the impact of an exercise and management routine on the horse’s wellbeing so that they can alter elements like time of exercise, type of exercise, turnout routine, feeding and stabling to achieve and maintain a happy and healthy horse. We will never replace each user’s sight or feel but with evidence behind observations and feeling, we can provide more understanding and analysis, particularly during instances when we can’t be with the horse. If you are interested in buying or renting a kit, visit our website for more information or get in touch to speak to one of the team. Similarly, if you are interested in doing some research with Trackener, please contact us.

John White conducting this piece of research said "After months of study into different kits I rented out 6 trackener kits for my study on how physiotherapy has an impact on equine welfare, fitness and overall wellbeing. With the trackers I was able to monitor there every move within a few metres and within 5mins. I was also able to monitor the sleep, movement and how each owner was riding. I carried this study out on nearly 50 horses/owners each stating how impressed they were and how they could keep a close eye on their horse although for some, it became a pleasant addiction. I feel this is an effective and efficient piece of kit that will only go from strength to strength in the future. I would highly recommend the trackener for anyone looking on studying equines in general as it the data was extremely accurate and is probably the best kit on the market for a GPS on horses. The battery life was fantastic and the whole kit was easy to set up and worked without any buffering at all. I would have no hesitation in recommending trackener to any students, researchers, universities, veterinary practices, the list is endless. It is a modern, highly fascinating piece of kit.”



Bligh, J. (1998). Mammalian homeothermy: an integrative thesis. Journal of Thermal Biology, 23(3-4), pp.143-258. 

Jørgensen, Mejdell and Bøe, (2019) Jørgensen, G., Mejdell, C. and Bøe, K., 2019. The effect of blankets on horse behaviour and preference for shelter in Nordic winter conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 218, p.104822.

Kaada, B. and Torsteinb∅, O. (1989). Increase of plasma β-endorphins inconnective tissue massage. General Pharmacology: The Vascular System, 20(4), pp.487-489.

Lesimple, C. (2020). Indicators of horse welfare: State-of-the-art. Animals, 10(2), 294.

McGowan, C. M., & Hyytiäinen, H. K. (2017). Muscular and neuromotor control and learning in the athletic horse. Comparative Exercise Physiology, 13(3), 185-194.

Stievani, F., Machado, T., Bezerra, K., Silva, M., Baccarin, R. and Silva, L. (2018) Physiotherapy protocol during initial postoperative period of arthroscopy in horses. Pesquisa Veterinária Brasileira, 38(12), pp.2201-2206

Tabor and Williams (2018) Tabor, G. and Williams, J., 2018. The use of outcome measures in equine rehabilitation. The Veterinary Nurse, 9(9), pp.497-500.

Verdegaal, E. L. J., Delesalle, C., Caraguel, C. G., Folwell, L. E., McWhorter, T. J., Howarth, G. S., & Franklin, S. H. (2017). Evaluation of a telemetric gastrointestinal pill for continuous monitoring of gastrointestinal temperature in horses at rest and during exercise. American journal of veterinary research, 78(7), 778-784.