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Lasers, lights and luxury: Keeping a top horse happy

By Ollie Williams, for CNN
updated 3:26 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Leading riders keep their best horses in shape using all manner of contraptions. Among the most impressive is the equine water treadmill. Leading riders keep their best horses in shape using all manner of contraptions. Among the most impressive is the equine water treadmill.
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Keeping fit on the hoof
Royal approval
Ready to go
Scrubbing up
Look and learn
Red hot
Home and dry
Laser therapy
Light session
Magnetic attraction
Home from home
Olympic expectation
Swim fit
Session over
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lights, treadmill, action: Top riders employ all manner of gadgets to keep horses in shape
  • Horses can enjoy an overhead disco designed to soothe mentally and physically
  • Ultrasound, laser therapy and powerful magnets help to repair muscle tissue
  • Water treadmills are the ultimate equine home gym -- but don't overdo it

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(CNN) -- How do you keep a 500 kg sports star in shape?

Like any leading two-legged athlete, the world's finest on four legs demand the best treatment.

Hopping in an ice bath, however, is not quite so easy.

So how do you keep horses in top condition at big events? CNN speaks to a champion Olympic rider and the physiotherapist behind one of the world's best equestrian teams.

Hot, hot heat

The strangest-looking technology is above your head: the solarium.

These overhead heat lamps look like a horse enjoying a private disco, but they make a big difference.

"You stand your horse under the lights on a cold day and they get the warmth," explains British rider Laura Tomlinson, who won individual bronze and team gold in dressage at the London 2012 Olympics.

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"It gives them the equivalent of sunshine in the winter, when they don't get much outdoor time."

The lamps are the basic model. Some devices add hot air and even a light show to the solarium concept, morphing into huge, colorful computers above a horse's head.

Tomlinson's own ceiling-mounted device has a "hairdryer" function to give a horse a good, hot blow-dry after a wet day's training.

"It means that in the winter, when you've had to wash the horse down and they've been sweaty, they don't catch a chill," she says.

The manufacturer claims the light show, with four different color settings, will soothe your horse and alter its mindset -- while it enjoys the hairdryer and the heat lamps.

Green is "the color of nature and spring, relaxing and harmonious," reads the brochure. Blue is "the coolest, clearest and deepest color, (which) calms the body and has a balancing effect," while red is "the color of vitality, improves the formation of red blood cells (and) stimulates breathing." Yellow "has a stimulating effect on the glands and brain."

Tomlinson politely suggests she is unconvinced. (There is also the question of a horse's ability to see color, with some research suggesting the animals struggle to distinguish the color red. The manufacturer declined CNN's interview request.)

Sonic boost

Sticking with the theme of lights, lasers are now vital when treating and rehabilitating top horses.

Janus Marquis is at the top of her profession -- she has been the U.S. showjumping team physiotherapist at the past three Olympic Games.

"I do a lot with lasers, and laser therapy is changing so fast," she tells CNN.

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"Lasers work at reducing inflammation and increasing circulation. The light is absorbed by the tissue, it makes tissue healthier on a cellular level."

There are different categories of laser: some you can see with the naked eye, like a laser pointer, while other, stronger lasers are invisible.

A similar tool in the equine physio's armory is ultrasound. Unlike many treatments, where bigger is better, ultrasound kits are getting smaller each year.

"Ultrasound has a very deep heating effect," Marquis says. "It's a very powerful therapy and therefore it's very effective, but it can cause tissue damage if done incorrectly.

"The newer units are a fraction of the power, so they take a lot more time -- you can leave them on for six or seven hours at a time to reduce inflammation and bring circulation to an area -- but you don't have the same risk of injury, because they are so much less powerful.

"When I'm treating an area of a similar size with a professional ultrasound unit, it takes me about five minutes. But the more things we can give people that they can use themselves, safely, that are still effective, then the more we are doing for more horses."

Marquis even finds herself giving top American riders a taste of ultrasound treatment.

"All of the units that I use are also designed for humans, so I can use it on the riders a little bit, to let them get a feel for what it's like to experience that therapy," she says.

"I'm not licensed in humans, though. If they have something wrong themselves, I generally have to direct them to somebody more qualified on that species."

Wet, wet, wet

Racehorses have long used equine pools for fitness, swimming while being led around a small, but deep, circular pool.

Top horses in the Olympic equestrian sports -- showjumping, dressage and eventing -- often use an equine water treadmill instead. The demands a treadmill places on a horse better suit those sports.

The treadmill is almost exactly how you'd imagine it: a big box into which the horse steps, which is sealed shut and filled with cold water. This is your equine ice bath.

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"You always want it as cold as possible," says Tomlinson. "You start the horse walking normally on the treadmill, then press a button and gradually it fills up. The higher the water level, the harder the horse has to work against the water resistance."

The water treadmill is a tough workout.

"Horses that are used to it can build up to walking for 20 minutes, and a couple of minutes' trot. It's a bit of cross-training, something different for the muscles and a way to get fit without putting pressure on the legs," Tomlinson adds.

"But think of it like going to the gym and doing a heavy session. You can't make a horse that's never been on the treadmill go for 20 minutes and then trot. The next day ... well, it won't be able to walk. Not clever."

Marquis believes equine treadmills are working wonders for the health of horses across the world.

"Treadmills have become quite popular because they've come down in price," she says. "Since so many people have them now, I believe we're seeing fewer injuries."

Even horses' rugs use technology to help repair their bodies.

Various manufacturers produce rugs which wrap a series of magnets around the horse, designed to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

"These rugs bring a fair amount of circulation to the muscles at the surface and they have a very relaxing effect, but not so much that you sedate the horse," explains Marquis.

"There's some data that says they 'help the blood to balance ionically ' -- I'm not sure that I'm fully on-board with that, but I certainly see a lot of horses getting a lot of relief from it. You can't do it wrong, it's not dangerous and it's not terribly expensive."

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Horseball: \'Quidditch on a horse\' Horseball: 'Quidditch on a horse'
Joanne Eccles on her way to victory at the 2012 FEI World Vaulting Championship in France, competing on her family's horse W.H. Bentley.
Joanne Eccles on her way to victory at the 2012 FEI World Vaulting Championship in France, competing on her family's horse W.H. Bentley.
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Acrobatics on horses Acrobatics on horses

Tomlinson adds: "You can attach boots as well as just the rug, and the rug goes up the neck, too. There are lots of different settings like pre-work, post-work and injury, helping the body to regenerate and recover.

"How does it work? I have no idea. But top-level yards all use them in some shape or form."

Why do it?

Tomlinson, as a dressage rider, is associated with a sport which requires the utmost precision, patience and balance from horses.

Less emphasis is placed on raw speed, power and endurance, so why put horses through the car wash of a water treadmill, a ceiling-mounted blow-dry, lasers, ultrasound, magnets and more?

"If you think of a horse as an athlete, you're asking them to do a lot of weight-bearing exercises," says Tomlinson, making the point that every horse competes with a hefty human being on board.

"Anything you can do to help a horse's muscles recover after a hard session is good, and you're dealing with much bigger muscle groups than in a human."

Marquis says it's like trying to get the best out of any athlete.

"It's our responsibility that we make these horses feel as good as possible so they can do their jobs, and that we take care of them."

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