Almost every person I know who has rehabbed their horse following an injury has said the same thing to me. That is ‘My horse doesn’t feel like they did before!’ Here are some things to keep in mind before panic sets in.
At the time of injury, most sport horses are in peak condition. Naturally, that is how their riders remember them feeling and moving. As soon as the horse is diagnosed with an injury, they are typically put on stall rest, or, at best, very restricted turnout. They are experiencing some pain and discomfort which leads to compensatory issues from trying to unload the affected limb as much as possible. The stall rest leads to overall muscle atrophy, while the compensations lead to the remaining muscles becoming very imbalanced. The time off also leads to loss of cardiovascular fitness.
When the rehabilitiation program is started, not only is the horse completely out of shape, but they have now been compensating for an injury for months. Even if everything looks great on ultrasound, the horse still often feel slightly uneven. This is largely due to muscle memory. Just because their leg doesn’t cause pain anymore, it doesn’t mean they immediately stop compensating. Certain muscles are shortened and it is uncomfortable to use them in their full range of motion. Time off can also lead to arthritis issues becoming more noticeable, so that is definitely something to rule out.
A lot of people tell me that they are waiting until rehab is completed and they begin ‘real work’ to resume the horse’s massages (or acupuncture treatments, etc) when, this is actually the best time to start them (if they weren’t continued during the time off). Looseing up some of those contracted muscles and stimulating some of the atrophied ones can help the horse to use their body more correctly. If they continue to be crooked they continue to build muscle incorrectly and are also at increased risk for injury.
Rehabilitation generally begins with walking in hand, then progresses to walking under tack and finally introducing very gradual amounts of first trot and, later canter. When it’s time to get back on the horse, double check that the horse’s old saddle still fits. As they have lost muscle, it is possible that the saddle is now suddenly causing issues. It may not be necessary to reflock the saddle, but a different pad may be needed for the interim. There are some great new shim pads which can be easily adjusted as the horse regains muscle.
Something else to keep in mind during this process. The rehabilitation program is designed to reintroduce the horse to weight bearing work gradually so their muscles slowly build up and the tendons and ligaments also slowly become stronger. At the end of this program, the horse is in no way, shape or form back to its peak shape. To really get the horse using his body correctly will require some further work before you can return to jumping the big jumps or working on your canter pirouettes. The further conditioning has to be gradual. Once your vet has cleared your horse for the work hill work and poles are fantastic at rebuilding your horse’s core and as a result, topline muscle. Gradually increasing the number of transitions (within and between the gaits) will also help your horse carry more weight behind. Correctly performed lateral work will help your horse become more evenly developed again.
This is also a time many riders forego lesssons because they feel like they can manage this easy work on their own. It’s true that lessons are most likely required less frequently and may need to be shorter, but horses are masters at getting us to do what they want. If they are trying to unload a hind leg, they will carry it just slightly to the side. In some circumstances, they will actually shift the rider to the other side of their back. When they are weak and crooked, and we are out of riding shape it is really easy to get into a vicious cycle. Having some good eyes on the ground can help nip bad habits in the bud. It is imperative that as riders we help our horses as much as possible through this process.
The rehabilitation process is long and scary and often there are minor setbacks along the way. Good luck to everyone going through it. If at any time you are concerned that something is not right, do not hesitate to contact your vet. They should be able to tell you whether what you’re feeling is normal or if there is cause for concern.