Rehab Right!

Fact or fiction? Learn the truth about safe and effective rehabilitation strategies.

Your horse is hurt, and before you know it every person you’ve ever met who’s touched a horse is offering advice. Your daughter’s kindergarten teacher remembers when her horse bowed a tendon 20 years ago. “Turn him out in the pasture for a year—he’ll be sound if he survives,” she suggests.

The Facebook friend has a different answer. “Lock him in his stall and don’t let him out. That’s the only way he’ll heal.” His team roping horse got hurt last year and now he’s doing fine.

Then there’s my personal favorite, typically from the neighbor who once trained a horse to trot. “Your horse will need rest, but it’s best to let him stretch his legs in the arena once in a while so he doesn’t get too bored.”

Confused? You’re not alone. With such a wide variety of opinions being offered from so many different directions, it’s hard to know what to do. I’m going to help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to rehabbing advice.

Fact or Fiction?
It’s better to turn your horse out in the pasture when he’s recovering from an injury. He’ll go crazy locked up in a stall, and he hardly ever runs around the pasture anyway.

Fiction! One of the most important features of a rehabilitation program is controlled exercise—which usually means confinement to a stall and small paddock, combined with careful hand walking or walking under saddle. You may think that your horse “never runs around the pasture,” but all it takes is one bad step to re-injure a healing structure. Re-injury not only means you’ll be right back where you started, but it also can jeopardize your horse’s long-term prognosis for a full recovery.

The best option for confinement is an oversized stall (if one’s available) in a barn where your horse has a buddy in the stall next door. In a perfect situation, he’d have several buddies that all share babysitting duties for a period of time each day—meaning your cooped-up horse will never be alone. Depending on the injury, a small attached paddock might also be allowed. Ideal dimensions would be a 12-x-18-foot or 12-x-24-foot stall, with a similar-sized paddock. When your horse is on lockdown, his stall should be deeply bedded and immaculate. If he has a paddock, footing must be carefully maintained. Lay-up stalls should be in a barn with plenty of natural light and good ventilation.

Fact or Fiction?
One of the best ways to keep your horse quiet in his stall is to sedate him when he starts acting crazy.

Fact! Controlled movement is critical to rehab success, which means we must maintain control. Your horse may get a little crazy when he’s first confined, especially if he’s a fit performance horse and was injured on the job. The good news is that it’s typically hardest in the first few weeks. Even the most energetic horse usually will become resigned to his new life of confinement over time. That said, if it’s needed, a dose or two of sedation can go a long way toward making life easier (and safer) for both you and your horse.

A number of different options for medications can help quiet your horse. In some cases, a single dose of a basic tranquilizer, such as acepromazine, is all it takes. The good news is that your horse is likely to stay calm even after the drug has worn off, so he may not need to be under the influence of sedation all the time. Be aware that long-acting tranquilizers also are available, but can be very dangerous and thus must be used with care. Talk to your veterinarian for advice about appropriate medications.

Suggestions for calming supplements are likely to be included in the advice you’ll hear from everyone you meet, and some products can be of help. When selecting a supplement, look for valerian, tryptophane, magnesium, and B-vitamins on the list of ingredients. These substances are most likely to be effective.

Of course, in addition to sedation, it’s always a good idea to come up with creative ways to keep your horse occupied. Play music; put him in a stall that’s in a busy area of the barn, where he’ll be entertained during the day; schedule regular grooming sessions; and consider a stall toy to give him something to do. Behaviorists agree that stall toys designed to deliver a food treat when they are rolled around the floor are best. This type of toy keeps your horse busy with an activity that mimics grazing behavior.

Fact or Fiction?
When your horse is on rehab, you should avoid rich feeds or concentrate rations. Feed only low-calorie hay to help keep him quiet and to prevent excessive weight gain.

Fiction! While you may need to cut back calories to account for your horse’s decreased work schedule, he still needs proper nutrition to help him heal. It may be tempting to feed only lower-quality “diet hay,” but be aware that nutrients may be lacking. It’s especially important to make sure your horse has adequate protein in his ration (10 to 12 percent) to provide the building blocks he needs for tissues to heal. Choose your hay carefully, and provide a vitamin/mineral supplement to make sure nothing’s missing.

While a low-starch high-protein concentrate ration might be beneficial, you should probably avoid feeding him large quantities of high-carbohydrate grains to help manage his energy. Finally, when all of his nutritional needs are met, an additional portion of “diet hay” might help to fill his days—as long as you make sure he doesn’t get too fat.

Consider using a slow feeder that will keep your horse busy with his hay ration while preventing him from consuming too much. Studies have shown that slow feeders can significantly prolong the amount of time it takes your horse to comsume a hay ration, and many different types are available. Your horse might even benefit from slow-feed haynets hung in several different locations in his stall. His movement from net to net throughout the day will mimic grazing behavior, which can help keep both his brain happy and his intestines healthy.

Fact or Fiction?

If your horse is out of control when you hand-walk him, you can just rehab him on the longe line instead.

Fiction! Once again, controlling your horse’s movement is critical for rehab success. If you’ve ever tried to keep a horse quiet on the longe line when he’s been cooped up in a stall, you know it’s nearly impossible to keep four feet on the ground. And just like with turnout, it only takes one step to cause re-injury and put you right back where you started.

Most rehabilitation programs start with a period of stall rest that might include two 5- to 10-minute daily hand-walking sessions. Time spent walking will be gradually increased, followed by progressive time spent trotting and eventually loping. As the rehabilitation progresses, your horse is likely to be more easily controlled under saddle, and that’s where you’ll spend much of your time. However, learning to control him while you hand-walk is still essential.

Begin by selecting a quiet location, with minimal distractions. For one horse, this might mean walking around an indoor arena. For another, it might take trips up and down the barn aisle to keep him quiet. It’s the rare horse that can safely go on long walks down the road when he’s living locked up in a stall. Consider the time of day as well. If you don’t keep your horse at home, you may find early mornings or later evenings to be best, when the trainer’s not working horses or the barn’s not full of boarders.

The equipment you choose can also make a difference. If your horse has been trained to be super-responsive to a rope halter, that might be all it takes. If that’s not the case, consider outfitting him with a stud-chain for extra “just in case” control. For some horses, a bridle will help maintain control, or even full tack with side-reins or a bitting rig.

Once again, if you don’t feel comfortable controlling your horse during hand-walking sessions, ask your veterinarian about sedation. Even a small dose of sedation before a walk can help to keep your horse’s feet safely on the ground.

Fact or Fiction?
You should pay close attention to how your horse is doing as you rehab. Even if your vet has outlined a very specific program, it may need to be adjusted according to your horse’s progress.

Fact! After making a diagnosis, your vet is likely to outline a specific rehabilitation schedule that spans many months of recovery. But be aware that things can change, and the initial schedule may require adjustment. Successful rehabilitation requires that you pay attention to your horse’s progress and adjust your plan as needed. Don’t make the mistake of simply setting the timer and following the schedule you outlined on your calendar months before.

It’s best if your original plan includes regular rechecks with your veterinarian. He or she will want to palpate the injured area; watch your horse move (including stress tests where appropriate); and if a soft-tissue structure has been injured, is likely to perform an ultrasound exam at specific intervals to determine how your horse is healing. If healing isn’t progressing as planned, your vet may recommend additional treatments or make adjustments to your horse’s exercise schedule.

You should also monitor your horse carefully for any signs that might indicate a problem, such as additional heat, swelling, or any sign of increased lameness. If something seems amiss, consult with your veterinarian right away.

Rehab 911!
Your horse is hurt, and your vet has outlined a six-month rehabilitation schedule to help him heal. Panic sets in. You don’t have an appropriate stall, and your horse is a maniac—you can’t even walk him down the barn aisle after he’s been confined. Not only that, but you also have a job, a family…and there’s just no way you can devote hours each day to your injured horse. What can you do?

Consider turning to an equine rehabilitation center for help. Expensive? Yes. A high-end rehabilitation facility can cost $2,000 a month or even more, depending on your horse’s needs. But these centers offer all kinds of amenities, including swimming pools, underwater treadmills, and Eurocisor walkers, as well as additional supportive treatment options, such as salt-water therapy or acupuncture, that may help your horse heal.

Perhaps most important, these centers are staffed with personnel who’re accustomed to working with cooped-up, injured horses, and know what to watch for as your horse moves through the rehabilitation progress. They’re also up to date with the most advanced information available about rehabilitation strategies that could benefit your horse. Most will work closely with your own veterinarian to formulate your horse’s rehabilitation plan, and if you need a veterinarian to oversee your horse’s progress, they’ll have one available to help.

Check out the following links for more information about what some of the countries top equine rehabilitation centers have to offer.

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