ISSN 2398-2977      

Musculoskeletal: physiotherapy




  • Physiotherapy or physical therapy can be broadly defined as the restoration of movement and function.
  • In the horse it is mainly used in the musculoskeletal system particularly in cases of poor performance, neck/back/pelvic pain, soft tissue injuries particularly involving tendons and ligaments, following trauma and wounds, and some muscular and neuromuscular disorders.
  • The sciences of functional biomechanics, neuromotor control, and the sensorimotor system in the spine, pelvis, and peripheral joints all help to explain and justify the use of physiotherapy in the horse and other species.
  • Specific to the equine physiotherapist is also the assessment of the rider and the horse-rider interaction, plus the tack and training aids that are used.
  • The interaction and co-operation of the equine veterinarian and physiotherapist is a central part of the investigation, management, and rehabilitation of the equine athlete. It is also important in helping to keep horses in competition healthy and performing to their maximum capacity.
  • Any treatment plan should be based on the careful assessment of the patient by veterinarian and physiotherapist, a reasoned process of selection of appropriate interventions or treatments, and the careful follow up and re-examination of the patient. The whole process should be based on the best available evidence at all times.
  • The physiotherapist’s aim in this process is slightly different to the veterinarian in that the former is looking to make a functional diagnosis (identification of existing or potential impairments, activity limitations, participation restrictions, or abilities/disabilities). The veterinarian is primarily focused on reaching a pathoanatomical diagnosis (what the pathology is and where it is located).
  • The main physical interventions used in equine physiotherapy are manual therapies, specific motor retraining, exercise prescription, and electrophysical agents, in association with education and advice to restore function and improve the quality of life of the horse.
Print off the Owner factsheet on Complementary therapies to give to your clients.

Role and responsibilities of the animal physiotherapist

  • After veterinary examination and diagnosis, physiotherapy is used to:
    • Relieve pain.
    • Restore movement.
    • Improve function and potential.
    • Improve the quality of healing, NOT the speed, ie physiotherapy does not accelerate healing.
  • Two modalities are used - therapeutic machines for 'passive' cellular stimulation, and apparatus for active rehabilitation which restores strength and 're-educates' muscle and nerve function.
  • The machine phase of therapy is a supportive treatment until controlled exercise and other rehabilitative techniques can be introduced.


  • In the UK, following four years of training with a recognized school of physiotherapy to become a 'chartered physiotherapist', animal physiotherapists must see practice with two veterinary practices and become a member of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy.
  • A code of professional conduct for animal physiotherapists has been agreed between the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists.
  • They are bound by the Veterinary Act.
  • Non-chartered physiotherapists, ie lacking formal training, can use the title 'physiotherapist'.

Veterinary examination

Physiotherapeutic modalities

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Further Reading


Refereed papers

  • Recent references from PubMed and VetMedResource.
  • Clayton H M (2016) Core training and rehabilitation in horses. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 32 (1), 49–71 PubMed.
  • Davidson E (2016) Controlled exercise in equine rehabilitation. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 32 (1), 159–165 PubMed.
  • M R King (2016) Principles and application of hydrotherapy for equine athletes. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 32 (1), 115–126 PubMed.
  • Schlachter C & Lewis C (2016) Electrophysical rherapies for the equine athlete. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 32 (1), 127–147 PubMed.
  • McGowan C M, Stubbs N C & Jull W D (2007) Equine physiotherapy: a comparative view of the science underlying the profession. Equine Vet J 39 (1), 90-94 PubMed.
  • Buchner H H F & Schildboeck U (2006) Physiotherapy applied to the horse: a review. Equine Vet J 38 (6), 574-580 PubMed.
  • Porter M (2005) Equine rehabilitation therapy for joint disease. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 21 (3), 599-607 PubMed.
  • Bromiley M (1994) Physiotherapy for equine injuries. Equine Vet Educ 6, 241-244.

Other sources of information

  • McGowan C M & Goff L (2016) Animal Physiotherapy. 2nd edn. Wiley-Blackwell, UK.
  • Bromiley M (1991) Physiotherapy in Veterinary Medicine. Blackwell Scientific Publications, UK.

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