Treating horses with injuries
has given one Glos farmer a
new add-on business that
shows considerable promise
for the future. And theres
no reason why other farmers
shouldnt head down the
same route, as
David Cousins found
BEING dipped in ice-cold, salty water and blasted with air jets may not sound much fun to you or me, but it has a marvellously healing effect on horses with leg injuries. So much so that tendon or skin conditions that would otherwise be considered incurable can be sorted in a matter of weeks.
That simple principle forms the basis of a new enterprise thats taking off for Ean and Sarah Branston at Bourton Hill farm, near Bourton on the Water, Glos.
Like many dairy farmers, Ean and his father Colin were faced with a simple dilemma in early 2000. They knew that to ensure the viability of the dairy enterprise into the future, the 150-head dairy herd would either have to be expanded to 300 involving £300,000 of new investment, or it would have to be scrapped.
They chose the latter, leaving 280ha (700 acres) of arable and a small beef herd to keep the farming flag flying. But with Colin wanting to retire, the family knew that some other form of income would have to be found.
Though neither Colin nor Ean had any direct experience of horses, several things came together that conspired to ensure their future would be very much bound up with matters equine. Sarah had trained as a kinesiologist (a form of acupuncture) and knew about the use of hydrotherapy to treat injuries. Ean had once owned an eventing horse that had cost £1500 to treat a tendon injury. So they wondered if they could build a hydrotherapy spa for horses on the farm.
A trawl of the internet revealed that a manufacturer in Australia had just started making such equipment. The concept was so new that there were only a dozen or so units being used in Australia, a couple in the US and none at all in Europe.
Moreover, a university in Australia had done three years research into cold water hydrotherapy that showed it could be remarkably effective. So striking was their success rate that Ean and Sarah got on a plane to Australia and came back with two units costing £45,000 each.
Years of development
The spa units look deceptively simple and belie the years of development that took place to get them working perfectly. The horse enters through a door at one end and the unit is filled up with chilled water (usually at 2C) until it reaches just below the animals belly.
This water contains both salt (at the same concentration as seawater) and Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate at 30 times the concentration of seawater). Moreover jets on the bottom of the unit blow highly oxygenated water around the animals legs.
All three things – the cold, the salt and the oxygen – work together to speed up the healing process remarkably, explains Ean. A typical treatment course lasts four weeks and involves one 20-minute session a day for the first week and then every other day for the remaining three. Cost is £250/week.
The treatment is suitable for a wide range of common equine injuries. Tendon and ligament injuries are the most common, but bone damage, shin soreness, joint problems, lacerations (often caused by wire), post-operative complications and healing of wounds all respond well to treatment.
The principle may have been sound, but there was a lot of work to do before it was a viable business. Eight stables were initially built inside the 20,000sq ft barn that used to house the dairy herd, as well as a circular horse walker.
The day of the official opening of the Bourton Hill Hydrotherapy Unit in October 2001 was an exciting one. A slightly nail-biting one, too, according to Ean and Sarah, since they could not be sure how much business they would get for what was a new – and at that stage relatively unknown – concept.
Bourton Hill farm does have a couple of marketing advantages that might not be available to every farmer. For a start, this is a horsey area with several large training establishments close by. And Ean was already selling fairly large quantities of haylage to local horse-owners, so the opening of the hydrotherapy centre hadnt gone unnoticed.
As it happened, he neednt have worried. Customers and their injured horses came thick and fast and have continued to do so ever since. Equine patients range from common-or-garden ponies to hunters, racehorses, eventers, endurance horses and showjumpers.
In total some 200 horses have stood in the ice-cold water of the hydrotherapy spa since October and at any one time about 20 animals will be in residence.
Encouraged by the response, the Branstons converted another redundant barn to stables, giving 48 in all. They also turned a further barn into an indoor riding school and have just put in a half-mile-long all-weather gallop where recuperating racehorses can be given their 35mph head before returning home.
Ean and Sarah cant quite believe how well the whole project has gone.
"This is something any farmer with good buildings and in a horsey area could do – especially if they have a horse-loving wife!" says Ean. "There are lots of horses out there that get tendon injuries and anyway, because cold-water hydrotherapy strengthens sound legs as well as injured ones, some people are now bringing their horses in for preventative treatment."
Such an undertaking is not without its hitches, of course. Getting planning took longer than expected and the £25,000 grant from the South West Development Agency involved a mountain of paperwork. The whole thing cost upwards of £300,000, every penny of which was borrowed. Local NatWest bank manager Mike Fox was amazingly helpful, comments Ean.
Though 95% of Eans time (and 100% of Sarahs) over the last winter has been spent on the hydrotherapy unit, he expects it to settle back to 25% in the coming years, with 75% spent on the farm side. But with the long-term future for farming looking as uncertain as it does, Ean and Sarah are very glad they have a profitable new string to their bow.
Ean and Sarah Branston can be contacted on 01451-822969 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Above: Horses stand in ice-cold, salty oxygenated water for
20 minutes at a time, over
a period of four weeks.
Main pic:A 1⁄2 mile all-weather gallop allows
recuperating horses to be given a high-speed run.
Top: Some of the stables at Bourton Hill Farm.
Above: A horse-walker exercises one of the patients.
The hydrotherapy team: Left-to-right Laurence Walthew, Kelly Trigg, Henry Taylor, Kirsten Gill plus Sarah and Ean Branston either side of horse. More than 200 horses have been treated since the centre opened.