Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

Bringing Horses Back Into Work

After twelve long days (well it seemed long to me) Otis trotted up sound – Read about it here. Which allows me to begin the tortuous task of bringing him back into work.

Rehabilitation can be a stressful experience because there’s always the risk that the horse goes lame again. Or that the injury isn’t totally healed. Added to the fact it’s actually quite boring riding in walk!

I spoke to my vet friend and we’ve concocted Otis’s fittening regime. We are being overly cautious in case there was any damage to the tendon. I will begin by three days of riding him in walk for twenty minutes. Then three days of walking for thirty minutes. Then I can introduce some trot in a straight line on hard ground as well as increase the duration of walking to forty minutes. Luckily for me the tracks in the woods are dry now so I’m not restricted to just roadwork, which can get tedious after a few days.

After a couple of days of trotting in straight lines I can start to do a bit of schooling. 

Within a fortnight or so I hope we’ll be back up and running! 

When bringing a horse back into work after an injury it’s paramount not to rush. Take one short cut and you’re taking two steps back. Patience is a virtue and all that… 

The fact that Otis has only had a dozen days off means that he won’t need bringing back into work over a long period of time. Obviously the more severe an injury the longer you should spend rehabilitating them as there is more new tissue to strengthen and heal. Another factor you should take into consideration is if they have been on box rest and how long they have been off work, as this affects how “soft” the tendons are and the horse will have lost general muscle tone and fitness. Again, Otis was on field rest as the lameness was so minor, which means he will have retained some tone and fitness, so I can begin his rehab with twenty minutes of walking.

Other aspects to consider when bringing a horse into work is terrain. Usually for tendon and ligament injuries they say walk on a hard surface, not an arena, as there is less of a pull on the horse’s leg as they lift it up. Corners put pressure on the inside limbs so they’re avoidable too. Putting in some hill work allows you to increase the workload of the limbs without increasing the speed and concussion to the limbs. Probably at the similar time to introducing trot to Otis I will find a couple of hills to walk up during our hacks. Adding in the hills means I can increase his general fitness which will be important when we start schooling again.

If a horse has a real tendon or ligament injury then using exercise bandages instead of exercise boots will provide more support for the tendons, which eill be very beneficial in the early days.

Before and after each ride it’s important to check the injured limb. If there’s any heat or swelling it’s telling you you’ve gone too fast. So maybe cold hose it again, rest for a couple of days, and go back a phase in the rehabilitation plan to give the injury site time to strengthen and heal. 

I’m going to stick to my plan, keep a close eye on his leg and I hope it won’t be long until I’m back riding my favourite equine properly.

Patience is a Virtue

“Patience is a virtue, 

Virtue is a grace.

Grace is a little girl who doesn’t wash her face.”

This rhyme was said over and over to me as a child because, regardless of what anyone thinks, I’m not a very patient person. If I want to do anything I want to do it now. Which usually means I get less help or end up struggling on my own because I won’t wait two hours until another pair of strong arms gets home.

At the moment my patience is being tested with Otis.

Last weekend (as in nine days ago not three days ago) we went to a BE100 ODE. Only the second one of the season because of inconveniences like weddings and honeymoons. I didn’t feel hugely prepared as he’d lost a shoe the previous Wednesday and I’d missed our final fast work session having a “get your bum in gear” showjumping session the weekend before.

Anyway, I didn’t know the dressage test that well. Well, I didn’t read it properly and made a slight error on both canters which meant we ended up on 32 penalties. When really it should have been sub-30 and near the top of the board. Showjumping was fine, one down but neither of us ballsed it, which was an improvement from the weekend before. Then he flew round the cross country, obviously not inside the time as we aren’t fit enough, but only 1.2 time penalties. It was close, but enough for eighth place. Frustratingly I know that had I got that sub-thirty dressage score I would have been placed higher.

As soon as we were back at the trailer I noticed Otis wasn’t quite right. He was pointing his near fire slightly. He was walking fine as we cooled him off. Then we noticed that shoe was loose as I took out the studs. There wasn’t any heat, but it’s hard to tell on a hot,sweaty horse. I couldn’t decide if there was any swelling or not. On a turn I thought he was struggling slightly with that foot, so I bandaged both front legs before putting his travel boots on.

When we got home I couldn’t see any thing and Otis seemed comfortable on his foot. My suggestion was that galloping and jumping on a loose shoe, on fairly hard ground, with a stud, stressed the foot and leg because it wasn’t flush.

First thing Monday morning I rang the farrier (we’re making such a good impression on our new farrier; lost shoe and bringing his appointment forwards within five days) and Otis was reshod on Tuesday morning (how about that for service?!). But he had some puffiness on his mid cannon, about the size of my baby finger nail. It was very soft swelling, I half thought I was imagining it, and it went down with cold hosing.

By Thursday there was no swelling but still a lameness in trot, so I resigned myself to more cold hosing and field rest over the weekend. It’s a good job I had a DIY weekend planned in the garden.

But Otis still isn’t quite right. It’s annoying because there isn’t anything to see anymore. I spoke to a vet who’s a friend, who said that because it was such a soft swelling it was likely to be excess fluid from the joint caused by concussion, and some form of inflammation of the tendon sheath. Which is what I thought and studiously tried to ignore. If I had Otis’s leg ultrasound scanned it’s unlikely anything will show up, especially as the swelling has gone now. If he’s still unsound in the next ten to fourteen days then it may well be a vet visit, but for the time being I’m doing the right thing.

So, gutting as it was, I had to withdraw from Team Quest this weekend- it leaves me with one more venue at which to hopefully qualify for the native championships – and I’ve had to withdraw from my Riding Club showjumping team at Hickstead the following week. The last two months have been building up to Hickstead, so I’m disappointed, but actually now that I’ve confirmed my withdrawal I feel like there’s less pressure on Otis coming sound in the next forty eight hours and I can bring him back into work as slowly as he needs.

On a brighter note, I can use these two free weekends to get organised for the new bathroom, finish the patio, and maybe even dust the house, so I’ll be keeping busy which will hopefully make me more patient. And of course, playing with the kitten!

Locking Stifles

A client found a large, hard, golf-ball sized lump on her horse`s stifle a couple of weeks ago. He didn`t seem to be in any pain, wasn`t lame in anyway; the only symptom seemed to be a reluctance to pick up right canter and a few days after the lump appeared he seemed slightly weaker on the hind when being ridden.

Personally, I`d never seen a lump quite like it – it was similar to a the lumps on Sylvester`s head when Tweety fights back.


Doing some research, my client wondered if it was locking stifle, as the lump was right over the patella. However, the movement of the limb wasn`t actually inhibited, or particularly affected, so we wondered if it was where he was having a growth spurt his tendons and ligaments were a bit stretchy (like those beanpole kids who start dislocating limbs on a daily basis) and his patella was moving a bit. His owner backed off his work load and a week later it still hadn`t markedly improved so she got it checked and was told it was an injury – God knows how he did that! Anyway, he was given field rest for a week and it was cold hosed for a couple of days.

Today he was ridden again for the first time, and the lump is barely noticeable, albeit still there, and he seemed happier in himself and worked really, really well. We kept it to walk and trot though, and will bring him back into work slowly.

The suggestion of his having a locking stifle made me realise that, although I have heard of it and know the process of backing them up to release it, I know very little about the condition.

Locking stifle occurs when the medial patella ligament gets hung up over the end of the femur, as it is supposed to to stabilise the leg when the horse is standing and dozing, otherwise he`d fall over. When a normal horse walks forwards this ligament unhooks so that the hind leg can be flexed forwards. Usually pushing a horse backwards, or up a hill (should you be lucky enough that he has locked his stifle at the bottom of the hill) will release the ligament and allow him to walk freely.

I`ve only known a large 16.2hh Irish and a 13.2hh New Forest have locking stifle, so it isn`t linked closely to breeds, but rather to those horses with an upright hind leg, with an over straight hock and stifle.

If a horse is prone to locking stifles it can be overcome, or the incident rate reduced, by building up the muscle strength around the stifle slowly, so that the tendons and ligaments are stronger and less likely to malfunction. I also read that young horses who gain weight, and a subsequent fat pad behind the patella, have a reduced incidence rate, but weight gain should be monitored closely and done over a long period of time.

Corrective shoeing can encourage hoof rotation by trimming the inside wall or applying a lateral heel wedge. Together with improving the medial breakover point can also help eliminate locking stifles.

If nothing else works sufficiently I know vets can inject the area with a steroid, but I think this is more commonly used when there is trauma which causes the locking stifle. Vets can also mildly damage the ligament to decrease it`s elasticity and making it harder to become locked in place. I guess that mild anti-inflammatories are also useful in the maintenance of a horse with sticky stifles.

All in all, locking stifles is not always a serious problem, as long as the rider is aware that they shouldn`t leap off into canter, or any other athletic movement, from halt. Mildly affected horses often show signs of shortened hind leg strides, difficulty picking up the foot over poles, difficulty on one canter lead, and scrambling up or down hills. At the other end of the scale, riders should consider their safety when riding a horse who regularly locks his stifles and doesn`t regain his normal gait after a few strides.

Boots for Horses

I’m sure most people use leg boots or bandages for their horses, particularly if you do a lot of jumping, but a recent article made me think a little bit more about our choice of leg protection.

This article described how boots and bandages can interfere with the movement of the horse, and can cause more damage than protection because of the fit or materials used.

Boots have made tremendous progress over the last twenty years or so; I remember being shown these leather contraptions, which were stiff and had fiddly buckles. Now we have made progress from here, and boots now come in a variety of shapes and designs, materials, and sizes, so that they can best accommodate a variety of horse shapes or sizes, and disciplines. This can only be a good thing?

When we were kids we didn’t use boots of any description on the ponies and rarely had a problem; then when Otis was young I bought him a set of brushing boots upon the advice of my riding instructor. He was young, gangly, and unbalanced so it made sense to provide some protection to his developing legs. For this reason, I did the same with Apollo.

The brushing boots I bought six years ago were basic synthetic Velcro boots, with the only purpose of protecting his cannon bones. To this day, I use a similar style of boots when riding everyday. I tend to feel that whilst they won’t protect sufficiently if I was playing polo or hunting, they don’t interfere with the horses movement, and can be easily washed when they get dirty. I think that if they horses are known to have a problem, I.e plait or dish their legs, I would look towards more substantial protection.

A few years ago I was introduced to the idea of putting boots on horses in the field. It started because Otis kept pulling shoes, and it made sense to put over reach boots on. But some people used brushing boots too!
After a couple of years of getting fed up with hunting for mislaid brushing boots in the top corner of the field, and Otis growing up a bit and stopping playing, I discarded this idea. Simultaneously I read an article by Lucinda Fredericks, which said that she didn’t use turnout boots as boots can raise the temperature of the tendons and weaken them, which makes them more liable to strain.

This makes a bit of sense, but what I thought was that if you always support something, such as your ankle, you never develop the strength to self-support, which is why when you’re injured you obviously rest and bandage the joint, but you slowly start working it without the support to strengthen the tendons and ligaments.

Surely this is the same with horses? So long as they will be fairly quiet in the field (not going out after six months of box rest) then surely it’s better for their legs to look after themselves? And if they catch themselves the pain of a small cut might actually make them stop and think about what they were doing.

So anyway, I’m not against boots of any description, but the article last week just reminded me about why we use them, and if we do indeed wrap our horses up in cotton wool too much. Additionally, have you tried to purchase boots recently? It’s a mine field!!