Before the sun rises at Churchill Downs, Palmer Pedigo is stationed on the backstretch prepping what, at first glance, looks sort of like a piece of space junk for a long day of work. Pedigo is the owner/operator of EquiZone Hydrotherapy, which sells an apparatus designed to be a leg up on traditional ice boots.
Horses walk into the Equine Spa, as it's called, and the tub fills up to their knees and hocks with 34-degree salt water pouring through jets in the front and back of the tub. Pedigo estimates the chill sinks into the horse's bones in six minutes.
“It slows down circulation and makes a lot of the bad enzymes in the blood leave, and then when they come out it induces a rush of fresh bloodflow,” said Pedigo. “Anything that increases circulation increases healing. This does it with cold water.”
The whole treatment lasts 20 minutes and legs remain cold for up to three hours. The principle behind the spa is the same as other ice or cold therapies—that the cold will reduce inflammation present either as the result of an injury or in the course of normal training, improving circulation and (in the case of recuperating horses) comfort. Pedigo said that use of the therapy in healthy horses is thought to improve bone density and helps soft tissues return to normal after intense work.
Pedigo is cautious about revealing the identity of the horses that take a trip through the spa but says trainers Todd Pletcher, Ron Moquett, and Mike De Kock all use the spa on their horses at different points throughout the year (Pletcher actually purchased his own machine, which he transports between Florida and New York). Some trainers use the treatment after a breeze, others as part of race recovery…as long as their horses agree to the chill.
“I don't know that the cold bothers them as much as being confined and the noise [of the machine],” said Pedigo. “Ninety-eight percent of the horses can handle this really well. If they have something bothering them, they realize this feels good. Some of them get in here and just sigh.”
She increases the water and jet level gradually over a horse's first few treatments and prefers horses be sedated for their first treatment so they have calm associations with the machines.
After horses leave the spa, Pedigo said blood rushes back into the legs and can sometimes cause some temporary puffiness in an area where there's already a problem, so she won't put a horse through the treatment before a soundness exam and is cautious about how close to race time trainers are permitted to send horses through to ensure it's being used appropriately.
“When I started, I had a little bit of business, but it really has taken off. I don't know if it's because drug rules have gotten tighter, or what. I'm not saying I have an opinion either way, but I think the more natural a therapy is, the better,” she said. “Some people see such a difference that they come daily.”
EquiZone has spas located at Oaklawn Park, Palm Beach Downs, Gulfstream, Belmont, Saratoga, and Churchill Training Center.
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