VIBANK, Sask. — Zeus calmly enters the enclosure that will soon have him belly-deep in room temperature water.
The treadmill starts, water begins to flow in and he walks for 25 minutes. At one point, he dips his head for a drink.
As his hydrotherapy treatment ends, the water level drops and the tank empties, and he heads off to the dryer.
It’s all in the name of building muscles and improving stride for this Manitoba barrel racing horse, says Charmaine Grad, the owner of Coyotee Flats Equine Therapy.
Located on the farm nine kilometres north of Vibank where she and her parents, Kevin and Marla, also raise performance horses, Grad said her new venture is filling a need for horse owners in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The Hudson Aquatic AquaPacer allows both healthy and injured horses to exercise using low-impact workouts.
“It helps them recover quicker from injury,” Grad said. “It also helps to condition a horse to get it in the best shape.”
She controls the pace and water depth from a console near the horse’s head where she stands. Marla stands at the rear with a net, ready to scoop out feces.
The AquaPacer has windows along the side, which allow people to monitor the workouts.
Initially, a horse works out for 10 minutes in the water and gradually builds time and pace. Zeus walks at about five km-h, or just more than three m.p.h.
Grad family members said they have noticed a huge improvement in Zeus’s stride since he began treatments.
Charmaine said the horses adapt well and sometimes play in the water while walking.
The AquaPacer is filled from a water tank at the side of the machine. Used water is treated and recycled through a system similar to a swimming pool and changed every 10 days to two weeks.
These facilities are common in the United States, but only a few exist on the Prairies.
The demand is there, she said, evident in the company’s bookings, which already are full into August. They are also getting booking for next February and March.
“The majority (of the current horses) are here to prepare for spring competitions,” she said.
Some stay at the facility for a couple weeks, while other horses remain for longer, but all stay at the farm during their therapy.
Most are barrel-racing horses, but some are used for western dressage and reining and cutting.
The Grads know horses. Kevin is a team roper and Charmaine and Marla are both barrel racers. They’ve been part of the performance horse world for years and relied on word of mouth to bring in the customers.
They have also opened the facility to agility dogs that need to strengthen muscles.
Charmaine spent a lot of time in the U.S. learning to operate the AquaPacer and assess horses. She said she maintains contact with those facilities and seeks advice when necessary.
“I spent time talking with vets here and Manitoba before I got the machine,” she said.
Her business is located in a remodelled area of the barn where she also installed a solarium with overhead infrared lights to stimulate blood circulation while the horses are blown dry.
Coyotee Flats also uses a TheraPlate, a circular vibration plate the horses stand on that is said to help hoof development.
Charmaine said they take the portable TheraPlate with them to competitions because people like to stand or lie on it too. During a reporter’s recent visit to the farm, Kevin spent some time lying on it for a sore back.
“We spent a lot of time standing on pavement or cement and 10 minutes on the TheraPlate really helps,” Charmaine said.
It took a lot of planning and money to open the business, she said.
“The market and the demand is there, but it’s still really dependent on the economy,” she said. “It was a risk to take the plunge.”
Her parents and friends help out, but they all work off the farm so it can be challenging to put all the horses through daily therapy. The goal is for this to become a full-time job, Charmaine said.