A horse is a strange animal. They would manage to break a leg if they were kept in a locked box with four padded walls and surrounded by bubble wrap.
Unfortunately, equine injuries happen to the best and worst of equestrians equally. Everything could be going along great until suddenly your horse comes up lame, derailing your entire show season. Keep in mind that this scenario happens to everyone. It’s what you do after you find your horse injured that matters the most.
They say you put ten equestrians in a room and you’ll get 11 opinions. After an injury, you’ll receive a lot of advice, both solicited and unsolicited. You’ve probably heard it all: box rest and no movement; turn them out in a big field full time, check back in a year; hand walking only; small turnout is fine; no hand walking whatsoever.
Without guidance from an equine physio that you trust, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by all of these opinions. This makes rehabbing stressful for horse owners and horses alike. Today, I’m going to debunk some common myths that I hear when it comes to rehabbing equine injuries.
Myth #1: Absolutely No Movement
This one is quite common. However, stall rest isn’t the answer for every injury every time. Your Doctor of Physical Therapy, with collaboration with your horse’s DVM, can tailor how much movement each horse gets based on the injury and your horse’s personality.
With some injuries, like soft tissue tears, movement may actually help the healing process. After the first twenty days, movement helps to realign fibers and build strong tissue. Without this movement, the fibers would grow back in a weak and disorganized fashion.
However, any movement needs to be carefully controlled. If you have a young horse who is easily excitable and rambunctious, you’ll need to be much more careful than with an older solid citizen. Hand-walking may be a good way to provide slow movement that doesn’t create a lot of concussive forces and gently strengthens soft tissue. Whereas, some acute injuries may only be able to tolerate gentle passive range of motion while the horse remains on strict stall rest.
Myth #2: The Same Solution for Every Horse
You may run into someone at your barn who swears their method of rehabilitating a horse is the only and best way to do it. This may include turnout, lots of drugs, compression boots with ice, or various other methods. Before you drink the kool-aid of one specific rehabilitation program, make sure you look to your horse for advice.
If 6 months to a year of stall rest is too stressful on your horse (as is true with most horses!), maybe a small turnout would be better. If you have a young horse who likes to move, light sedative drugs prescribed by the DVM may be necessary, but should be used sparingly.
Throughout the entire rehabilitation process, keep in mind that a stressed horse in both body and mind won’t heal as well or as fast as one that is calm and happy. When horses become stressed, they’re likely to exhibit self-destructive tendencies, such as weaving. When a horse weaves, they sway from side to side, sometimes even lifting the whole front half of the body up into the air. Naturally, this creates a lot of movement and concussive force on the legs and prevents the injury from healing.
Myth #3: Absolutely No Hills or Pole Work
If your horse has an acute injury, then a rehabilitation program that includes hills is not going to work. But that’s not always the case with every injury. For many soft tissue injuries once cleared by DVM to return to light activity, pole work and cavellettis have the horse use their full range of motion without increasing strain on the legs. Walking the horse over different types of ground surfaces may also help to encourage increases in joint range of motion. Regimented hill work with slight incline or decline that is introduced slowly is another great way to build strength without increasing concussive impact via trotting.
Again, it’s so important to tailor your rehabilitation program to your horse’s injury, mental state, and physical health. Always work closely with your DVM and Doctor of Physical Therapy. Ask their advice before changing any exercise-related routine, and recheck your horse’s injury often in order to ensure that it is still healing well.
Tip #1: Take it Slow
Let’s say you’ve chosen the strict stall rest rehabilitation program. Your horse has stayed in a ten by ten box for a month. But then Karen from two stalls down said that her horse healed beautifully when turned out full time. So, you turn your horse out onto a big field with no preparation. Off he goes, bucking, kicking, and thrilled to be able to move once again. By the end of the day, he’s dead lame. The injury has gotten worse not better.
Scenarios like this happen all too often. It’s so important to take your time with any changes in your rehabilitation program. Changes that happen too fast and without proper guidance have an extremely high chance of re-injury. Once you have a program that works for you and your horse, stay true to your gut instinct and stick with it. If you have to make changes, do so very slowly and with guidance from your DVM and Doctor of Physical Therapy.
Tip #2: Make Your Horse’s Mental Health a Priority
Evaluate your horse’s behavior to see how he’s coping with injury-related pain, limited movement, and his new schedule. Is he weaving? Cribbing? Screaming for other horses? Too much stall rest can lead to mental health problems down the road when your horse keeps weaving or cribbing even after he’s fully rehabilitated.
Use toys, horse-safe mirrors, and even posters of other horses to keep your horse entertained. If you use feed-based entertainment such as stall snacks, keep safety your first priority and watch for weight gain. Don’t hang hay nets too low or with holes that are too big. Avoid overfeeding and instead slow down the pace at which he can eat.
Tip #3: Choose a Great Team
Working with the right Doctor of Physical Therapy can make or break a recovery. Always check with your DPT if you have any questions or want to know if you can make changes. Your equine physio should be checking on your horse’s progress regularly, at least once a month. If they’re not, you may need a new team.
The best certified equine rehabilitation practitioner physical therapist will keep your horse’s physical and mental health a priority to avoid bad behaviors that can slow down healing. Look for an equine physical therapy practice that will create a customized rehab program for your horse’s needs.
I offer custom rehab boarding for your horse. At Shields’ Fields, I tailor a program including daily hand-walking, stretching, and equine physical therapy. Whether you need complete stall rest or small turnout, I can accomodate your needs and work closely with your veterinarian for the best chance at a full recovery.
Find out more about Shields’ Fields here.