Getting Your Horse Back into Work after a Tendon Injury
Part One of Four: The Walk
Thankfully horses are no longer automatically condemned to stand for months in their stalls immediately after pulling a tendon. If the severity of the tendon injury allows, many vets advocate walking a horse in hand or on the horse walker in addition to stall rest during the recovery process.
The First Two Months
Your vet will probably prescribe twenty minutes of walk a day, adding five minute increments each week until you are up to one hour at the end of eight weeks.
Standing in a stall all day is boring and stressful for horses. Whenever possible – and with your vet’s agreement – divide the permitted exercise period into two daily sessions. Your equine patient will benefit greatly from this.
Add soothing activities such as daily grooming, and ask about appropriate massage and stretching techniques. Your horse will quickly associate your visits not only with a chance to get out of his stall: he’ll also look forward to relaxing with you inside it. If you perform this ritual before taking him for his daily walk, he’ll stand still for you and not be inclined to rush out of his stall as soon as you arrive.
Using a Horse Walker
A european style horse walker is ideal for beginning your horse’s walking program, as it allows him to move naturally within a restricted area. Your vet will stipulate working in straight lines or very large circles, so the wider the circumference of the horse walker, the less stress placed on the tendon injury. A horse exerciser roof cover over the track is an added bonus when the weather is inclement.
Consider putting a calm horse buddy on the walker with him for companionship, and you may want to ask your vet about giving him a mild sedative. The most commonly used one is acepromazine, colloquially known as ‘Ace.’
Keep an eye on him the whole time during his exercise.
When a horse exerciser is not available or you prefer to walk your horse in hand, don’t be tempted to use the halter, no matter how quiet he normally is. He’s not getting any turnout and will probably be frustrated by his cramped lifestyle, so use the bridle for extra control. A mild sedative (as mentioned above) may also be appropriate.
Walk him on flat surfaces with level footing and consider putting on brushing boots for added protection.
Now is not the time to save money on farrier’s fees: be sure to keep your horse’s feet well-trimmed and/or shod, depending on his usual requirements.
Discontinue exercise and notify your vet immediately if you notice any swelling, heat or lameness.
The Next Two Months
After the initial weeks of mild exercise, your horse will have another ultrasound to ensure his tendons are on the mend. All being well, he is ready to progress to the next step.
Equine rehabilitation is a long process, so don’t be disappointed when your vet decrees yet another two months of walk. At least you can now start riding!
This is a useful time to improve your position in the saddle and get more in tune with your equine partner.
You can also put him back on the horse walker, but place a substantial weight on his back, such as a heavy Western saddle, until you move on to riding him.
Once again, you’ll probably start with twenty minutes, increasing by five minutes per week, to allow the tendons to strengthen under the extra weight. You’ll be back to sixty minutes of walk at the end of this phase.
Exercising Under Tack
You may feel safer beginning your under saddle work with a competent friend walking alongside, holding an attached lead rein for maximum control.
The best method of fastening the lead rein to the bridle is with a lead rein coupling, which attaches separately to each bit ring. This is available online at a reasonable price, and also known as a Newmarket coupling.
Or you can thread the lead rein through the bit ring on the left and clip it onto the right bit ring. Don’t clip it to only one bit ring, as this will cause your horse great discomfort.
In the event that you have no one to help during these first few rides after his injury, consider using a stronger bit, or a double bridle if your horse is used to wearing one. You’ll feel more relaxed in the saddle and help your mount chill out, too.
Just Walking – Really?!
The walking phases of equine rehabilitation quickly become boring: once you’re in the saddle you may be tempted to trot, ahead of your vet’s schedule.
But remember, in addition to the tendons your horse damaged, his muscles and other ligaments have also become weaker through lack of real work. They will remodel and strengthen during the course of his planned exercise regime, but you must give them sufficient time to adjust to their increasing workload. If you ask your horse to perform above his fitness level, you will do further injury.
I once watched a frustrated owner ask her horse to trot too soon, and he immediately became lame. Instead of competing again, he turned into a pasture ornament for the rest of his life. Her months of work up till then were wasted – not to mention her vet’s bills.
Patience is the keyword. It is vital to follow your vet’s advice to the letter. Keep the end goal in mind, work diligently through the program and give your horse the best chance of returning back to his former self.
Until your vet says otherwise, your horse needs to stay on stall rest except for when he is being exercised. Turnout is not a good idea: horses’ high spirits can lead to re-injury just as they are beginning to heal.
What If My Horse Does Something He Shouldn’t?
With all this talk about controlled exercise, no turn out and keeping your horse calm so his tendons can heal, it’s easy to become a nervous wreck if he does happen to get away from you or have a bucking fit.
Stay calm and call your vet before continuing with the exercise program. Don’t panic: most likely no real damage will have been done.J
At the end of this second walk phase your vet will perform another ultrasound on the injured tendons. If the healing process is continuing as expected, it is time to add the trot, which we’ll examine in our next post.