California Riding Magazine • June, 2011

Circle Oak Equine
Unique sports medicine and rehabilitation facility adds conditioning and protocol development to its remarkable range of services.

by Kim F. Miller

Caitano and Incandescent. Photo by Kari Farley, RVT

"If I can't have my horses with me, there's no place I'd rather have them than at Circle Oak Equine," says top hunter/jumper trainer and rider Hope Glynn. She considers the rehabilitation, conditioning and state-certified veterinary center essential to her horses' mental and physical well-being and she is not alone.

Grand Prix rider Macella O'Neill and trainers Mariano and Nina Alario are just a few of the top notch professionals who count on Circle Oak's cutting edge equipment and superb staff in a wide variety of circumstances. Hope, for example, has brought everything from a weanling and its mother to a permanent retiree to Circle Oak. Macella was blown away by the conditioning benefits for one of her veteran jumpers and Nina estimates a lower leg injury healed 20-30% faster than normal with the help of Circle Oak's ECB spa. Whatever their specific success stories, these professionals rave about the overall quality of care provided by Circle Oak and consider themselves fortunate to have it nearby.

Located in Petaluma, in the middle of Northern California horse and wine country, Circle Oak Equine Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation opened its doors to the public a little over a year ago. Owners Ron and Sara Malone initially conceived it as primarily a rehab facility. Early on, they were able to fold in the veterinary practice and supervision of Dr. Carrie Schlachter, VMD and certified veterinary chiropractor and acupuncturist. Next they went through the arduous process of earning state certification as a veterinary center, signifying the highest levels of care.

Along the way, the conditioning possibilities of COE's staff, knowledge and equipment led to providing another valuable service to the sporthorse community. Macella O'Neill, for example, has yet to bring an injured horse to Circle Oak. But she has sent several for conditioning, most recently her senior Grand Prix mount Caitano 7. Earlier this year she was headed to Europe for a few weeks and felt Caitano's needs would be best served with a pre-season fitness routine centered around COE's HydroHorse™. The underwater treadmill's main use is helping injured horses stay fit without pounding during the healing process, but its application for perfectly sound horses is also powerful. "My horses are always in beautiful condition," says a very pleased Macella. "But they got in even better condition at Circle Oak."

During roughly two weeks at Circle Oak, Caitano spent four days a week on the HydroHorse, starting with 15-minute sessions that were increased by one minute each time. The aquatreadmill sessions were surrounded by warm-ups and cool-downs on COE's 70-foot in diameter free-flow exerciser. On days between hydrotherapy, he did twice-daily, 45-minute work-outs on the free-flow exerciser to keep him loose and supple. The low impact cross-training routine, Macella says, contributed to several clean jumping rounds early in the season and an all-around happy horse.

That happy horse quality is a big draw for Hope Glynn. She sends horses to COE for the same reasons many people go to high-end spas: they return refreshed and invigorated in body and mind. "I've found that my horses just really enjoy going there," Hope says. "It's like a vacation." She'll send a veteran campaigner after a big show or a young horse that needs mental stimulation and exercise in between competitions. In addition to conditioning on the HydroHorse and free-flow exerciser, Hope's horses typically spend plenty of time in big turn-outs and have access to chiropractic and acupuncture work. No matter the reason they go to Circle Oak, Hope particularly loves the staff's detailed reports on each horse's treatments, activities, responses and progress. Circle Oak is only five minutes away from the Glynns' training barn, but Hope says she'd drive a long way to get the facility's services if she had to.

Led by staff veterinarian "Dr. Carrie" Schlachter, the Circle Oak team is meticulous in tracking each horse's routine and progress. This starts well before their clients arrive. "As soon as my horses got there, it felt like everybody knew who they were," notes Macella. The people make the place, she adds. Although Circle Oak gained instant renown for its state-of-the art facility and equipment, "That alone would not give you the superb experience," Macella comments. "What sets them apart is the quality of horsemanship and care provided."

"Circle Oak is the top of the line in every respect," sums up Nina Alario.
"The care, equipment, staff, attention to detail. Everything!"

Rehab Protocols

Extensive record keeping is part of another of Circle Oak's important missions: to develop protocol for treating various injuries and bringing horses back to competitive form as effectively and efficiently as possible. Treatment protocol for common sporthorse injuries has been nearly non-existent, Dr. Carrie notes. The frequently prescribed "stall rest" is rarely the way to go, she says. The best-case scenario with this treatment is a healed injury in a horse that is grossly out of condition and thus at a higher risk of re-injury. And that's not to mention the potential for a host of behavior problems stemming from pent-up energy and boredom.

"One of the goals of this facility from a medical standpoint is to develop some protocols, then test them in comparison to results achieved through normal rehab," Dr. Carrie explains. She expects these protocols will also result in being better able to help horses suffering from chronic injuries or conditions that haven't responded to normal rehab. The end result would be rehab instructions similar to those a human patient gets when they leave the hospital after surgery. If the horse was at Circle Oak for a lower leg injury, for example, the program would likely include a prescribed amount of time in its ECB spa, which uses 35-degree salt water to suck inflammation out of the problem area, thus speeding the healing process.

Many of Circle Oak's modalities and treatments emphasize maintaining and/or building the horse's overall body condition and mental state. The HydroHorse is ideal because it gives the horse a great workout, physically and mentally, without putting any weight on its joints. Determining how long to work a horse on the underwater treadmill is one example of the protocols Dr. Carrie seeks to produce. A newly injured horse fresh off the show circuit might start at 12 minutes, while a horse that's been on stall rest with a stubborn leg injury might need to start at six minutes. Monitoring the horse's heart rate is a key in determining the right work-out. Circle Oak Equine even has a waterproof heart rate monitor for use when there are special concerns about a work-out's appropriate length and intensity.

Gait analysis before and after treatments will go a long way toward establishing protocols. Borrowing technology designed for use in human athletes, gait analysis numerically tracks changes in stride length and joint angles to measure progress throughout treatment. Useful protocols should emerge after treating between 30 to 60 cases of a given injury, Dr. Carrie says. In the year it's been open, Circle Oak has collected what the veterinarian considers eight to 10 "good, solid, protocol developing" cases involving suspensory injuries in the hind leg. They have detailed measurements and observations on several cases in which stifle and/or back strengthening was essential to the horse's healing. Even before formal treatment routines can be determined, these results are already helpful as more veterinarians become familiar with the information Circle Oak can produce.

The process of developing protocols will go faster if and when similarly equipped and staffed rehab facilities join in the effort, which Dr. Carrie welcomes. "The more numbers we get, the more proof we can get, the more quickly we can move toward having health insurers pay for some of these treatments," she points out.

Happy Owners

For all of the data-based results and protocols that are emerging from Circle Oak's work, the most gratifying aspect of owning the business is seeing the smiles of appreciation on owners' faces, says Ron Malone. "The response from local veterinarians, including those at U.C. Davis, trainers and owners has been phenomenal," says Ron, an active owner and cutting horse competitor. "A lot of owners really thank us for making a place like this available."

Circle Oak's uniqueness is a double-edged sword from a marketing standpoint. It's a great selling point, but there are few places to compare it with to help convey the wide-ranging and comprehensive services it offers.

"There are a lot of people who do rehab, whether it's trainers or people who set themselves up as rehab centers," says Ron. "But there are only a handful that do it the way we do." Having Dr. Carrie as its on-site veterinarian and a core of full- and part-time employees headed by a registered veterinary technician are among Circle Oak's unique features. Several veterinarians have embraced this as an asset in their own practices. Equine surgeons often entrust all follow-up care to Circle Oak's staff, while other vets visit their patients frequently to monitor progress themselves. Circle Oak welcomes either approach and all those in between.

Circle Oak's range of services is hard to beat. These start with the simple, like hand walking, to the most technically advanced and complicated. Regenerative therapies including IRAP, PRP and stem cell therapies fall into this latter category.

The facility has room for 40 horses in rehab and/or conditioning regimens, and another 19 in a retirement program that combines a pasture lifestyle with daily exercise and handling for physical and mental health. Ron says rehab represents about 80 percent of Circle Oak's business, but notes that conditioning clients are on the rise. Most are from the competitive hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing worlds. Day visitors are also welcome. The HydroHorse and Equine Spa are focal points for approximately 10 haul-in customers that typically visit Circle Oak each week. Circle Oak hosted its first Equine Health Fair earlier this year. The event drew 300 visitors and further represented the facility's desire to improve the lives and performances of as many horses as possible.

For more information, visit www.circleoakequine.com or call 707-766-8760.

Seasoned Grand Prix competitor Caitano, owned by Jim and Kimberly Butts
and campaigned by Macella O'Neill, enjoying a fitness workout in
Circle Oak Equine's HydroHorse. Photo by Kari Farley RVT