What is red light therapy and how can it benefit your horse

Here is an essay I wrote as part of my studies. I find a lot of people are very interested in red light therapy. Hopefully this article can help clarify a lot of questions that horse owners have about red light therapy.

Can Red Light Therapy assist in the rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries in the equine athlete?

According to research by Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), there is little doubt that the Australian horse industry is growing; contributing an estimated $6.2 billion to the Australian economy annually. Some may even say that this country was ‘built on the back of a horse’.

The RIRDC also states in its report that while horse racing and associated activities comprise approximately half of the economic contribution, horse businesses which include breed, equestrian and the maintenance of horses, are large industries in themselves. Needless to say, horse owners and trainers are always looking for alternative therapies that can benefit the performance and also the general health of their equine athletes who compete in all the various disciplines offered in this country and around the world.

In recent years a number of new therapies have developed, catering to a wider scale of athletic requirements. Red Light therapy has been around for some time, but in recent years it has become increasingly better known to those within the horse industry, so much so that it is becoming one of the top requested therapies due to its ease of application, safety and benefits.

The history of Red Light therapy dates back to the 1990’s when NASA researched the affect that red LED light application would have on plant growth. Later it was introduced as a viable therapy for human use, aiding in a myriad of illnesses caused by extended time spent in space with zero gravity. More recently, during a two year trial NASA studied the possible healing benefits of Red Light therapy on cancer patients. Today Red Light therapy is widely used throughout the world by humans and further to that, becoming a recommended therapy for use on equines and canines.

Red Light therapy is usually used in the form of a hand held torch which beams small streams of red LED and/or infrared light. It is also used in the form of wraps that can be placed around limbs, shoulder, back etc. The light is measured in nanometers and travels in a wave formation, the most common type used is 660 nanometers (nm).

Only while it is travelling through the air does the light travel in waves, when it is travelling through a physical body the light will transform into energy. These little traces of energy are called ‘photons’. As explained by NASA scientists – “LEDs are light sources releasing energy in the form of photons. They release long wavelengths of light that stimulate cells to aid in healing”.

There have been countless studies and research done on the various benefits of Red Light therapy. Some of these amazing benefits include, but are not limited to:

  • The healing of soft tissue injuries
  • An increase in blood circulation
  • A reduction in swelling and inflammation
  • Healing of surface wounds

More specifically, Red Light therapy “reportedly stimulates the release of ATP – Adenosine triphosphate. ATP is the major carrier of energy to all cells. Any Increase in cellular ATP levels allow the cells to function more effectively and get rid of waste faster. LED Therapy increases the synthesis of RNA and DNA. This helps damaged cells to be replaced more quickly.” (Poole, Susan). With research showing that all of these cell functions are being enhanced in numerous ways, and the fact that Red Light therapy is a completely non-invasive form of therapy which does not require lengthy recovery times after a session, the popularity of this therapy with horse owners and trainers is sure to gain even more momentum in coming years.

The application and benefits of Red Light therapy can be loosely compared to that of acupuncture. Some may not realise that acupuncture has been used on animals for over 4000 years! Legend has it that veterinary acupuncture was discovered quite by accident, as is the case with many discoveries of note. Lame horses used in battle were found to become unexpectedly sound after being pierced by arrows in distinct points, so needless to say that as a result of this discovery, mastery of this technique was developed to aide injured horses and is still currently a widely accepted form of therapy.

A horse has 361 acupoints over its entire body, and one single acupoint is amazingly able to relieve multiple conditions. The therapy session is most often administered by a trained professional acupuncturist. Steel needles are pressed into the various and numerous equine acupoints to assist in relieving his or her condition. Some long term injuries which affect the tendon and chronic diseases like arthritis, need to be treated consistently over some weeks and most often months. One of the great advantages of Red Light therapy is that it is completely non-invasive and can be used on a horse without requiring any long term training, and can be used when ever required. Additionally, there are some important benefits to the bank account also, as horse owners and trainers do not require multiple appointments with an acupuncturist or are required to lay out large amounts of money to purchase a Red Light torch. Light diffuses, so it is much easier to ‘pin-point’ the acupoint area with a Red Light torch than it is to locate an acupoint correctly with a tiny needle, not to mention less distressing to the horse!

For the majority of horse owners, trainers, strappers, and jockeys in the horse racing industry, their horse’s ability to win and therefore generate profit to their stables to pay  various staff and to generally keep things ticking over is of the utmost importance. This is of course no different to the big showing stables, eventing stables, or endurance breeders. In these, and many other industries in the horse world, horses are treated like royalty so their welfare, health and nutrition directly affect how well the horse is going to perform in their career as an equine athlete. An injured horse in any discipline becomes a horse that is not out there generating an income for the business, and competing horses may not be performing at their best, so horse owners, trainers and carers look to not only heal an injured horse quickly and effectively, but also to help a horse that is competing to perform at their absolute best. This is when the various equine therapies are sought out to assist the equine athlete and gain an edge on their competitor.

Red Light therapy is a perfect fit for this. As well as being a well priced instrument for horse owners, trainers and carers to have in their kit, it is also an extremely effective little tool that can be transported anywhere, and with a majority of these tools being battery powered you don’t even need to have power near by.

We can look at case studies that have been done on animals to further support our argument that Red Light therapy can assist in the rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries in the equine athlete. In March 1984 a study was done on race times for a group of 35 standardbreds. These 35 horses were evaluated before and after being treated with infrared laser lights. ”Of 35 horses treated for check ligament injuries, 80% had similar or faster final race times, 68.6% had similar or faster last-quarter times, and 68.6% raced in similar or higher classes after treatment. Of 8 horses treated for plantar desmitis, 87.5% had similar or faster final and last-quarter times, and raced in similar or higher classes after treatment. Of 30 horses treated for pharyngeal lymphoid hyperplasia, 80% had similar or faster final race times, 90% had similar or faster last-quarter times, and 70% raced in similar or higher classes after treatment” (McKibbin LS, Paraschak D).

By looking at that particular study it shows us in actual numbers that Red Light therapy can not only enhance the performance of our valuable and much loved equine athletes, but also assist in the healing of some of the more serious injuries that competitive equine athletes can get due to performing constantly at such an elite level.

If we truly weigh up all of the various evidence which includes the exciting fact that the therapy is non-invasive and as an extension a less alarming experience for the horse, has proven effectiveness, boasts ease of transportation and low set up cost, ease of function backed up by various case studies and research, we can therefore confidently support the notion that Red Light therapy is scientifically proven to assist in the rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries and contribute to the overall wellbeing of the invaluable equine athlete.

By Shelley Dalton.



*RIRDC – The Horse Industry, Contributing to the Australian Economy

*Media Release – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

*Susan Poole – Red light therapy kits

*Diane Joswick, L.Ac., MSOM – History of acupuncture

* Use of Laser Light to Treat Certain Lesions in Standardbreds, L.S McKibbin DVM, & D Paraschak BSc., MA; Modern Veterinary Practice, March 1984, Sec. 3, p. 13

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