Equine rehabilitation: Back to work

Equine rehabilitation: Back to workIf your horse has been out of work for a period of time due to injury, foaling, illness or for any other reason, getting him back into work is a process. Our experts offer their advice on equine rehabilitation.

There are a number of reasons why your horse might be out of work, including but not limited to the following:

  • ligament/tendon injuries
  • back/neck injury/surgery
  • illness
  • a mare after foaling
  • resting period

Ligament and tendon injuries

With tendon injuries it is very difficult to decide on the future activity of a horse and what the recovery time will be due to the fact that tendons and ligaments heal at different rates, says Dr Charlene Raubenheimer, a veterinarian at Fourways Equine Clinic situated in Johannesburg. Other factors which will affect the length of the healing period and the future activity of the horse include:

  • which structure was involved (anatomical position and function).
  • how bad the damage was.
  • the horse’s age, breed and medical history.
  • how many of the tendon fibres were involved.
  • where in the tendon the injury lies.
  • what caused the tendon injury (an acute injury vs a chronic problem, or an external cut vs a ‘closed’ injury.
  • which discipline or type of work the horse is involved in.
  • whether the horse was in work before the injury or not.
  • previous injuries or problems, for example degenerative joint disease, arthritis or foot problems.
  • the recovery environment: big paddocks, grass vs sand, flat ground for walking.
  • the horse’s temperament.

Equine rehabilitation: Back to workAll these factors will have a direct influence on the recovery plan and rehabilitation plan for the horse.

Enough rest is essential for healing. Initially the tendon will heal by forming a scaffolding of weak fibrous tissue to bridge the area where the tendon or ligament fibres have been injured. No strain should be put on this weak link in this phase as it could break and excessive scar tissue will be formed. Once this ‘scaffolding’ gets stronger, light exercise is prescribed.

Your vet or veterinary physiotherapist will prescribe very specific exercises for your horse’s injury. Thereafter, exercise should be increased as the tendon or ligament becomes stronger. Recovery time will vary greatly for each individual case: anything from 8 weeks to 6 months could be prescribed.

The different aspects your vet or veterinary physiotherapist will focus on will include:

  • pain control.
  • increasing the healing rate.
  • making sure that the scar tissue forms in the right place to allow optimum function of the tendon or ligament.
  • addressing compensatory muscle and joint pain as well as function.

Neck and back injuries

Getting back into work after a back or neck injury again greatly depends on several factors:

  • The area and severity of the injury (cervical, thoracic, lumbar or sacro–iliac).
  • Which structures are involved (joint, muscle, ligament, nerve or a combination).
  • Is it an acute injury or chronic injury?
  • What was the cause (traumatic injury or saddle or tack related)?
  • The age, breed and medical history of the horse.

All of the above will have an influence on the treatment intervention and the prognosis to return to work and to what level. Your vet or veterinary physiotherapist will try to work out the origin of the problem and then address pain management. They will work towards restoring normal muscle function and joint ranges, all with the aim of getting your horse back to normal work.

Neck and back injuries that require surgery have a high rate of complications and a low percentage of horses who return to work afterwards, says Dr Raubenheimer. This is why your vet will often try to treat these issues as conservatively as possible.

The most common neck and back issues are:

  • Wobbler’s syndrome
  • Kissing spine
  • Fractured spine at the wither
  • Work after illness
  • Work after a foal

It is important that all work programmes and recovery are monitored by a vet.

What if you can’t ride your horse for a period?

If you cannot ride your horse (due to injury or illness of your own), it is important that you make an alternative plan for your horse’s exercise. Dr Raubenheimer recommends that the horse be kept fit by a combination of lunging and riding. “If possible he should be lunged 2 to 3 times per week for 20 to 30 minutes, with intervals of walking, trotting and cantering,” says Dr Raubenheimer. “Then an outside person, like a friend or teacher, should ride once a week to keep up the schooling and human interaction.”

Fitness programme
If this is not possible, a gradual work schedule to get both you and your horse fit after a period of rest should be used.

  1. 1 to 2 weeks of daily (or 5 times a week) under saddle walking for 30 to 40 minutes.
  2. Then 20 to 30 minutes walking with five minutes trotting for one to two weeks.
  3. Same as above but increase to 10 minutes trotting for 1 to 2 weeks.
  4. Same as above with 10 minutes trotting, and add 3 minutes canter for 1 to 2 weeks.
  5. Thereafter a gradual to normal riding programme is followed.

Text: Peta Daniel. Photography: YanLev and Kondrashov MIkhail Evgenevich

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