Getting back on your horse
Been out of action for a while? Rachel Williams finds out how to give yourself the best chance of a happy reunion when you or your horse have had some time off
How to make returning to the saddle after time off trouble-free
THERE ARE MANY reasons why you may need to have time off from riding. Maybe you’ve been unwell, had work commitments or a confidence knock. Or perhaps your horse has been injured. Regardless of your individual situation, every horse will benefit from being properly reintroduced to a rider and, if you’ve suffered an injury or fright yourself, jumping straight back on board isn’t always the answer.
Injury, surgery & early recovery
The most common veterinary scenarios requiring a break from ridden work are your horse suffering a wound, orthopaedic injury to the legs or back, colic or soft tissue surgery. Most vets will discourage complete box rest to ensure the horse stays as supple as possible. However, sometimes box rest can’t be avoided. “An initial period of box rest might be necessary to allow a wound or surgery site to heal,” explains Tom Witte, consultant surgeon and clinical director at Oaklands Equine Hospital. “This could be anywhere from two weeks for a simple laceration and up to three months for a more involved surgery, like colic. After this we try to get a horse moving to avoid secondary issues relating to other ongoing concerns, like navicular or arthritis, and to limit stress. “We prefer to begin walking horses in-hand, building up the duration each week,” continues Tom. “Walking is the basis of most controlled exercise programmes, since anything more can result in secondary damage. For example, where joint surgery [arthroscopy] has washed the cartilage of some of the key components that make it springy, it must be given time to normalise. “For all but the worst tendon or ligament injuries, early mobilisation under control encourages the right sort of healing, too, producing flexible tissue rather than stiff scar tissue. “Anything more intense is generally only suggested following an ultrasound exam to ascertain that healing is progressing well.”
If the early stages of exercise are not carried out in line with veterinary advice, you risk causing a problem. “Joint injury occurs in two main ways,” explains Tom. “Either abnormal loads — this is an overload, twist or dislocation — applied to normal cartilage, or normal loads applied to abnormal cartilage.
This means that cartilage must be allowed time to return to normal before full ridden exercise is resumed. “For tendon and ligament injuries, inflammation must have subsided and the injured site filled in with appropriate tissue,” adds Tom. “If too great a load is put on the healing structure too soon, it can reinjure, with subsequent injury becoming more problematic. Hence the need to monitor healing by carrying out an ultrasound.” The clinical approach to back injuries is changing, with an increased focus on the overall conditioning of the horse after he’s had surgery. “Successful management of this type of injury also involves dealing with the resulting muscle spasm and the horse’s overall way of moving to ensure the back is stabilised correctly before significant loads are applied,” explains Tom. “We may recommend specific exercises, such as stretches or use of a Pessoa. The surgery site is only one small part of the whole system, so subsequent clinical responses are poor if the issues of conditioning and stability have not been addressed and horses returned to ridden exercise too soon. “Often we’ll involve an ACPAT physio, but there are therapies available which are not based on sound scientific evidence. At best, some advice is useless — but costly — and at worst it can be harmful.”
Make groundwork count
Love it or loathe it, groundwork is imperative for your horse’s physical reconditioning. “Any horse needing groundwork — especially one who’s had time off after injury — requires walking, walking, walking,” stresses equine behaviour consultant and horse trainer Melanie S Watson. “I’m a huge advocate of long-reining. Get horses out walking and gradually introduce some hill work, plus poles on the ground in the school. This will get everything necessary working again and ensures the horse is working into a contact in a bilaterally equal manner.”
Any horse needing groundwork, but especially one who’s had time off after injury, requires walking, walking, walking
Melanie also encourages work on a Pessoa, providing you know how to use it effectively. A negative reaction could risk reinjury. “There are DVDs and tutorials on how to use one correctly, or seek help from a professional,” she says. “The beauty of a Pessoa is that you can get your horse going long and low, using transitions and building up bursts of forward trot to get him working from behind and strengthening his abdominal muscles. “No Pessoa? Then loop a tail bandage under his tail and tie the ends to a roller. It doesn’t have to be tight, it just reminds the horse that his back end is there and needs to be used,” she explains. “It may become slack as he lifts his back, which is fantastic conditioning for carrying a rider again.” Melanie also recommends clicker training to mentally stimulate your horse when his physical exercise is limited. “Spending time with him and making him use his brain can help avoid issues relating to boredom and stress,” she says.
Pushing yourself too far, too quickly, can cause more issues in the future
Do everything in little steps when you start to reintroduce ridden work
In-hand work will help to build up your horse’s strength before you ride him
Inflammation must have gone down before work is resumed
Long-reining will improve your horse’s stamina if he’s been off for a while
Kc slowly built up her horse King’s work after invasive surgery
Have a l esson o r s omeone more experienced on hand t o h elp g et y ou b ack in the swing of things