Tuesdays with Tony

Functional Electrical Stimulation

Almost everyone experiences some back pain now and again. Unless you’re a cat who gets to rest 23 hours a day like I do, I bet your muscles get sore sometimes. Horses also frequently experience muscle pain, especially in their backs and necks. Today I’m going to introduce you to a cool treatment my docs use to help keep your horse’s back comfortable – Functional Electrical Stimulation. Since I’m a pretty lazy cat, we’ll just call it FES from now on.

Think about the work horses do – running, jumping, carrying the weight of a rider and saddle. Even a trail horse is an athlete. Do you ride perfectly balanced and never sit crooked on your horse’s back? Unless you’re an Olympic level rider, chances are you don’t, so your horse’s back sometimes has to carry an uneven load. Chronic joint pain commonly causes sore muscles due to compensation and ill-fitting saddles are another source of back pain. All of these things can cause the muscles along your horse’s spine to spasm. You may feel this as his back being tight or “locked up” and he may be tender when you run your hand down the muscles on either side of his spine.

What is FES?

FES is a treatment in which a mild electrical stimulus is applied to a muscle to help relax spasm, relieve pain, and build better quality muscle. The electrical impulse mimics the signal the brain sends to a muscle to cause a contraction, just as if the brain itself had asked the muscle to move.

FES has been used extensively in the human medical field for several decades to treat muscle wasting and restore normal function to injured tissue, most often during rehabilitation for spinal cord injury patients. We use FES in equine veterinary medicine to improve muscle function and rehabilitate injuries. FES can treat both muscle spasm and muscle wasting and research has shown that significant improvements in the size and symmetry of the muscles that support the horse’s spine.

Sound a little scary? Don’t worry, it’s nothing like getting an electrical shock! FES is really gentle and horses rarely even need sedation. It actually feels like a deep tissue massage.

What are the benefits?

When muscles are injured, they can spasm and get tight and they can also weaken and become smaller (atrophy). FES can work on both of these abnormalities. Healthy muscle function requires equal amounts of contraction and relaxation of the muscle fibers. Muscles that have been over-contracted for an extended time (spasm) often need help returning to normal function. Sometimes, nerve damage or a neurologic disease can cause muscle wasting or weakness. My docs will want to examine your horse to make sure the underlying cause that led to problem has been corrected. Then, FES can be used to build better quality muscle and prevent recurrence of injury. Here are the ways FES helps.

  • Relieves chronic muscle tension
  • Pain relief by reducing muscle spasticity
  • Reverses muscle wasting
  • Improves range of motion and joint mobility
  • Improves muscle function to help prevent re-injury
  • Maintains muscle mass and topline when the horse is out of work
  • Improves muscle strength and control
  • Decreases swelling related to muscle injuries
  • Improves muscle strength after nerve damage or neurologic disease
  • Allows stimulation of injured tissue without the risk of exercise-induced damage
  • Maintain good condition to optimize athletic performance and prevent injury
  • Effective on deep muscle groups

Horses that need prolonged rest (especially stall rest) usually lose muscle tone and topline during the rehab period. FES is a great way to maintain muscle mass and topline while the horse is out of work, so it’s not as much of an uphill climb to regain tone once he’s recovered. It’s also a useful tool to maintain good condition in an athlete to help decrease the chance of an injury occurring.

Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic

How is FES performed?

Here’s what you’ll see when your horse has an FES session. My docs will examine your horse’s back to determine what muscles are sore and will direct the treatment in that area. Treatments are most often performed on the back, neck, or pelvis. Next, my techs will wet down your horse’s back a little and apply a gel to the skin to conduct the electrical signal. They’ll place a pad with the electrodes inside it on your horse’s back. The signal is conducted from the electrodes through the skin into the muscles. No needles or anything scary involved. Once my techs turn the FES on, you’ll see muscle contractions and you may see the whole hindquarters flexing. Sometimes, if the horse is in severe spasm, it can take a few FES sessions before good movement is achieved, but the treatment is starting to work even on the first session. Most horses stand quietly during the treatment and very rarely require sedation. Since the voltage is low, the treatment isn’t painful and feels like a massage. Each FES treatment usually takes about 30 minutes. Horses can usually stay in their normal riding routine and can be ridden a few hours after FES is performed. FES is portable and can easily be performed at your farm.

How many sessions my docs will recommend will depend on what’s going on with your horse. After the initial treatment, my docs will recommend a schedule with a gradually increasing interval between treatments, according to the response to therapy.

FES is great as a stand-alone therapy but we especially like it combined with other treatments such as chiropractic and acupuncture. FES helps chiropractic adjustments last longer because the muscles are functioning more normally to keep the bones in place. In fact, we offer Springhill “Spa days” that include all three treatments at a discounted package price!

Give my clinic a call if you have questions about FES. My docs are always there to talk about what’s right for your horse!

Until next week,


P.S. I’m sure you’re subscribed to my blog, so I won’t waste your time by telling you about the big purple box below. But are you subscribed to my YouTube Channel? It’s got everything you could ask for: horse how-to’s, seminars, injury repairs, and (just to illustrate my humility) even a video of me falling into a tub of ice water. Every horse owner should be watching my videos! Alright, I’m going back to my nap.

Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!

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