December 13, 2011

Equine Rehab Offers New Path for PTs

A small but growing specialty for physical therapists is the world of equine rehabilitation. Jennifer Welter, PT, DPT, CERP, RVT, of Equine Therapeutic Solutions in Vacaville, Calif., said there aren't a large number of PTs practicing on horses in the U.S. — just three or four in California, where she practices — but the interest is growing.

Welter said past experience with horses is even more important than with smaller animals because most horses are between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. "You're not just working with an animal, you're working with an animal who is in pain," she said.

There are two certification options in the U.S., an equine rehab program overseen by the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Animal Rehab Institute based in Florida. The UT program's website lists 10 PTs in the U.S. who have gained the CERP. Beyond a certification, Welter said understanding body language and having very good handling skills are vital — she has been around horses her entire life, and started riding at age 4. "How far can you go, what can you do in terms of looking at things before they are going to tell you, with either their teeth or their hooves potentially, 'Ouch, that hurts,'" she said.

About 75% of her equine work is post-injury, especially soft tissue, and the rest is mostly nonspecific back pain, but she does do some work with angular limb deformities in foals.

Welter said she got into the field because of experiences she had with a PT after several riding injuries. She then went back to her work as a veterinary nurse. "I was coming back to work and seeing all of these orthopedic injuries, neurologic injuries, pediatric problems that we were really not addressing in terms of any sort of rehabilitation. It was a big hole." Welter started looking into how to apply what had worked so well for her to animals, which is what inspired her to go to school.

She said a big part of her work is to educate owners and veterinarians about what physical therapy is and how rehab can help horses. "This isn't a magic wand that's going to come and help your horse. This is an evidence-based way of systematically treating an orthopedic injury or a horse who has suffered a neurologic injury."

Welter said she loves her job because horses are rewarding patients. "They don't whine and complain, they don't want to have a day off ... they work their hardest for you. The most rewarding part is the challenge of becoming creative."


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