How Can I Become an Equine Physical Therapist?

Explore the career requirements for equine physical therapists. Get the facts about the education and licensing requirements to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Animal Care degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does an Equine Physical Therapist Do?

Equine physical therapists use physical therapy techniques to treat horses. They may work with horses that are recovering from injuries, as well as athletic horses and farm work horses in order to improve their strength and flexibility, with the goal of optimizing performance. The techniques that equine physical therapists employ vary widely based on the horse's condition and health goals, but they include rehabilitation exercises, underwater treadmill therapy, therapeutic ultrasound, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and neuromuscular electrical stimulation.

See the table below to review possible ways of entering this field.

Degree Required Associate's or higher, depending on career path
Education Field of Study Physical therapy, equine exercise physiology, equine health and rehabilitation, veterinary medicine
Key Skills Knowledge of equine anatomy; evaluation and selection of therapy; skill in therapeutic techniques such as cold and heat therapies, ultrasound, exercise, massage, acupuncture, etc.
Job Growth (2014-24) 34% (much faster than average) for physical therapists in general, 9% (faster than average) for veterinarians in general*
Median Salary (May 2015) $84,020 for physical therapists in general, $88,490 for veterinarians in general*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is an Equine Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists work with individuals who may have a variety of concerns. These may include injuries and terminal illnesses as well as athletes who want to avoid injuries, according to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (www.fsbpt.org).

In order to determine what type of treatment program is needed, the FSBPT indicates you would usually interview, examine, evaluate and then diagnose your client. Some of the treatments you might use include electric stimulation, joint mobilization, manual therapy, therapeutic exercise and functional training. You may also assist clients with creating wellness plans, reducing pain and preventing future injuries and disabilities.

If you were an equine physical therapist, you would provide horses with therapeutic treatment. The American Physical Therapy Association's (APTA) position statement claims they permit physical therapists to work with veterinarians as long as they abide by the laws and regulations of the state in which they practice (www.apta.org). Furthermore, the APTA considers this type of working relationship to be a way to expand the scope of the field and gain knowledge and experience. You would need to work under a veterinarian's supervision or by referral, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (www.aaep.org).

For example, AVMA states New Hampshire's Veterinary Practice Act indicates you would need to be licensed by the Boards of Veterinary Medical Examiners in order to work as a physical therapist. To qualify for certification, you would need to have graduated from an AVMA-accredited veterinary school in either animal physical therapy or animal rehabilitation. Other requirements include at least 120 hours of course work and documented validation that you have liability and malpractice insurance that covers working with animals.

Does Equine Veterinary Medicine Include Physical Therapy?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only a small percentage of veterinarians specialize in equine medicine (www.bls.gov). Some of these veterinarians may specialize even further by becoming complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) practitioners. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has instituted a Model Veterinary Practice Act that includes CAVM (www.avma.org). In addition to traditional treatment protocols, some equine veterinarians may practice, supervise or make referrals for acupuncture, chiropractic and physical therapy.

The Traditional Physical Therapist Educational Path

Before you look for a program, it's important to review the laws and regulations for the state where you'd like to work. If you're already licensed and want to expand your practice to include horses, you'll want to refer to the AVMA's state chart that provides information on accepted veterinary practices and their exemptions.

As of March 2016, the AVMA reports that approximately 20 states follow the CAVM model, but this number may be subject to change. Alabama, Colorado and Georgia, for example, require physical therapists to be licensed and work under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian or someone with veterinary medical clearance. Some of the accepted physical therapy practices used at equine rehabilitation centers in Tennessee include acupuncture, equine chiropractic therapy, electric stimulation, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, laser therapy, mesotherapy, underwater treadmill and therapeutic ultrasound.

A few diploma programs in massage therapy exist that might be of interest. These may be offered at schools with veterinary medicine programs and teaching hospitals. Coursework tends to include anatomy, clinical practice, pathology, physiology and practical and theoretical massage. Some of the skills and techniques you might learn include hydrotherapy, principles of therapeutic massage and the use of heat and cold.

Diploma programs usually include a practicum or internship, through which you will have opportunities to apply your skills. After completing this program, you'll need to take the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork exam.

The Equine Physical Therapist Educational Path

It's important to review the state regulations where you plan to work. You may also want to explore resources such as the Animal Physical Therapist Special Interest Group. They have liaisons to assist you with understanding the laws and regulations. You may also contact these licensing boards directly.

If you don't have prior experience as a traditional physical therapist, you may want to explore an Associate of Science degree program in equine exercise physiology. This 64-credit hour program is intended to prepare you to care for equine athletes as a rehabilitation technician.

In addition to general education requirements, your core classes might cover equine business, health care, nutrition, behavioral psychology and safety issues. Once you begin to specialize, you'll probably take courses in anatomy and muscle physiology, conditioning techniques, equine exercise, manual therapies and injury and rehabilitation. Other course topics might include sport and competition, farrier science and how to handle tack and equipment.

If you're interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree, you may want to explore programs in equine studies that emphasize health and rehabilitation. These programs are generally intended to prepare you for graduate school, and may consist of approximately 124 semester hours. Since these programs may also focus on performance management, you'll have the opportunity to further expand your knowledge and experience.

In addition to general education requirements, your required courses typically include applied equine studies, behavior, health care management and science lab. Other special topics include feeding, lameness and hoof care and internships. The concentrated study requirements usually include advanced coursework in comparative anatomy and physiology, exercise physiology, health and rehabilitation and integrative performance. You may also complete an internship as well as a senior project and seminar. Additional required coursework may include the economics of the horse industry, equine diseases, marketing and management, animal ethics and other business and legal issues, including taxation.

If you already have a degree, you may be interested in a post-graduate certificate program in equine rehabilitation. This program is designed for both veterinarians and physical therapists, and may include course work in equine rehabilitation, therapeutic modalities and treatment-based conditions. You may also be responsible for presenting a case study and taking a final examination.

If you're already a veterinarian, you'll need to provide proof of your degree or license to practice in order to qualify for this certificate program. If you're already a physical therapist, then you also need to provide proof of your degree or license.

If you're currently enrolled in your second year of college, you may also be able to enroll in this certificate program. You would need to complete your program prior to taking the exam, however. Other requirements include providing documented proof of enrollment as well as experience working with horses; these requirements might be waived if you've just completed your degree program.

The Equine Veterinary Education Path

If you're interested in becoming a veterinarian, it usually takes about four years to obtain a doctorate in veterinary medicine. After graduating, you could take additional coursework in complementary medicine and other human-animal bond practices. You may also be able to obtain an equine veterinary residency that focuses on CAVM.

You may not need a 4-year degree to apply to veterinary school, according to the BLS. These schools do tend to require their applicants to have a significant amount of prior experience, however. If you've already worked for a veterinarian's office, this may assist you with being accepted into a program. Other acceptable experiences may include working at an animal shelter or a farm.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

As a veterinarian, you could choose to focus in an area other than horse treatment. For example, as a food animal veterinarian, you would work on farms and ranches, treating animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep, which are being raised for food. Alternatively, if you would prefer to work with horses, you could become a horse trainer. They teach horses to respond to voice commands in order to train them for riding or athletic competition. Trainers usually need to have at least a high school diploma.

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