SARAH RIDD, based at Weymarsh Stud, near Guildford, has over her 20 years-plus career as a professional rider and trainer, studied how horses can not only be rehabilitated successfully after injury but also how that return to soundness can be maintained. She acts as a “project manager” in the rehabilitation of many top competition horses, consulting professionals from vets to physiotherapists — and from farriers to saddle fitters along the way.
Most horse owners and carers will have experienced the difficulties of box rest and the subsequent and the necessarily long and patient process of rehabilitation before a horse comes back into full work. Purpose-bred dressage horses are relatively fragile and accident-prone creatures. They have amazing paces, fast reactions and lots of energy — and we, their riders, are training them to be weight-lifters and gymnasts.
But whatever their discipline, most competition horses are likely to suffer trauma at some point so that minimising the risk of future injury is both cost-effective and humane. Sarah Ridd wrote the following article for Out and About Dressage, which she started by saying,
“I believe that rehabilitation after injury should not just be the process by which you return your horse to fitness but an opportunity to review both your routine interactions with your horse and your training practices so that it remains sound”
Your horse’s problem may have manifested itself, say, as a lower-limb lameness in the feet, tendons or hocks. After appropriate treatment, box rest will be prescribed to be followed by controlled work until full fitness is reached. A physiotherapist may be called in to carry out soft tissue work and possibly to provide ultra sound or laser therapy.
You, as a caring horse owner, follow this process to the letter and maybe also research and introduce other products and treatments to aid healing and to increase your horse’s chances of a successful recovery. After many weeks of patient care and the inevitable sizeable vet bills, recovery is achieved and the horse is pronounced sound and ready to be returned to full work and be prepared to compete in your chosen discipline.
“This is the tricky part. How many times have you heard of horses that returned to peak fitness only to re-injure themselves? An injury should not just focus your attention on the horse’s recovery but also turn you into a detective”
In my 20-plus years of working with horses I’ve found that returning a horse to soundness is rarely a straight forward process of fixing an injury and continuing as before. Think back, maybe as far a year, and take a hard look at all the problems your horse has had — whether it required physio treatment, or medication or supplements for stress — and look at its feet and how it is being shod, the saddle fitting and the dental work. Perhaps the horse had a slip in the field or hit a cross-country fence? Or perhaps, when you wanted to step up to a dressage level requiring a greater amount of collection, you hit a training block and have been working on exercises to get the horse to push from behind?
“Draw up a time line of everything that happened to your horse over the past year or so, even if it was a colic or an infected foot. Also look at your horse’s competition history and see if you can find a correlation with loss of performance at a certain level or failure to step up successfully to the next level”
Educate yourself so that you can analyse your horse’s conformation, posture, movement and muscle development. You could compare this analysis with images of horses of the same breed, breeding, size and age. Choose an image of a similar but better developed individual and use that as your blue print for how you would like your horse to develop through correct retraining. And keep this image in your mind’s eye in a new regime of daily interactions with your horse in the stable and in assessments of your horse when training on the lunge. You may find it helpful to compile a weekly or monthly photo record.
When I first assess a horse that has come to me for rehabilitation I look at all the empty spaces where muscle should be. Next I note its habitual posture and look closely at areas that show a lack of muscle. And I ask myself, is the horse correctly shod: is it too long in the toe or down on the heels? This can be very telling, because if a horse is lame behind it will often off-load onto the forelimbs and the extra weight will cause spreading in one or both of its front feet and you will even see a break in the ideal continuous 45 degree pastern/hoof wall angle. Then I look for other pointers, like over-developed under neck and chest muscles, and a sagging belly. To be able to carry itself and a rider, a horse should lift and engage from its core and push up into its back and hold that posture using its top line heavy lifting muscles. These are the glutes in its quarters, the long back muscles,and the trapezius over the withers — and over the top and at the sides of the neck just below the crest.
I also look at the height of the hindquarters in relation to the height of the wither. Ideally the wither should not present itself lower than the croup. I get the horse standing square, then climb on a box behind it and look down on it to study areas such as the widest point of the hip to check whether it is collapsed on one side compared with the other. I also look at the withers — over the scapular/shoulder blades — and at the condition and symmetry of the muscle in that area. Does the horse clamp its tail down or hold it to the side rather than in a neutral position in the middle? Standing on the floor I also look at the horse from the front: does it hold its head straight and level, or tilt its head so one eye looks lower then the other?
“All these observations help to reveal how the horse habitually carries itself and how it may be compensating for a weakness or for an underlying problem. The analysis provides me with a road map of where I need to change the animal’s posture by filling in the areas of undeveloped muscle”
At this point, at home, you too should become your horse’s project manager, consulting and co-ordinating a team of professionals who can help you understand and interpret your time line and with whom you can discuss your various observations. Your veterinary practitioners can conduct investigations to identify the reasons for the loss of performance that possibly predisposed your horse to the injury for which it has been treated. You should also seek advice on relevant corrective muscle-building work from your trainer and, before going ahead, ask your physio to check again and treat any muscle knots or adhesions so that the training exercises and methods you are considering will be appropriate, therapeutic and effective.”
Correct posture for a horse carrying a rider
“In my career in training and rehabilitation, I have accumulated a range of exercises that I know will build specific muscle groups. For movement the horse activates what are known as the pelvic and the thoracic slings. The pelvic sling enables the horse to tuck in its hindquarters and bring its hind limbs forward underneath it. This forward motion enables the stomach muscles to contract, lifting the horse’s core into its back, which in turn lifts its thoracic sling and forehand. To educate the horse to do this correctly I start with groundwork. With horses who are recovering from a tendon injury, however, this would be preceded by straight-line hacking on supportive and level hard-surfaced roads to prepare and strengthen the tendon before the stress of groundwork on an arena surface. Hacking up and down hills will also develop the pelvic and thoracic sling muscles.
There are a growing number of rehabilitation facilities in the South of England and elsewhere making sessions on high-ticket mechanical training equipment such as equine water treadmills, cold water spas and power plates accessible to the local equestrian community.
“However appealing and valuable these big machine methods can be when used under the guidance and supervision of a qualified physio, there are, frankly, simpler, less costly and more easily regulated and individualised training methods you can employ at home”
I use kinesiology tape while hacking, in the arena during groundwork on the lunge, and when schooling. Kinesiology tape performs two functions: 1, it increases blood supply where it is applied which aids healing; and 2, when applied to wasted areas of muscles in line with the muscle fibres it stimulates the nerves in the skin by pulling when the horse is in motion. If placed in line with the superficial glute muscle on the weak side of the horse this gradually stimulates that muscle to fire off when required just like its stronger counterpart. With regular use this builds muscle mass.
On most weak horses I use kenesio tape over the top of the pelvis at its widest point and over to the sacroiliac joint on one side to the corresponding sacroiliac joint and pelvis on the other side. In this way the horse becomes aware of when it drops one side of the hip too much. When the horse collapses its hip it pulls the tape along the skin and subconsciously makes the horse equalise itself through its pelvis. This tape can stay on until it needs to be renewed and can work even when the horse is standing in its stable. When the horse displays a tight and sore back another way that tape can be used is applied along the length of its long back muscle. This will again increase healing blood supply and encourage the muscle to relax and stretch.
When I dress the horse for groundwork I use a lunge cavesson, a lunge roller and another very valuable piece of kit that was developed by a company called Equicore Concepts. Two Equiband resistance bands are attached at the back of a well-padded saddlecloth. One goes beneath the horse’s belly and encourages the horse to lift its core; and the other forms a sling that goes round the back of the horse and at rest lies around its quarters at the height of its second thigh/gaskin. This encourages the horse to step forward and under.
When I start groundwork on the lunge my first priority is to teach the horse “to have a leg in each corner”. I use a single lunge line rather than the two lines used for long-reining.
“Unless long-reining is done skilfully it can be counter-productive and my whole purpose is to introduce the horse to a system of working that I can easily hand on to its owner. Then when the horse goes home it can become part of its maintenance training programme”
I start my sessions with a number of “warming up” and suppling exercises. The first is turn on the forehand which is also a useful way to develop the horse’s co-ordination and awareness of each individual limb. Next reinback, to encourage the horse to take its weight back and the hindquarters to sit; then leg yield to teach the horse to open its shoulders — followed by shoulder-in to teach it to step under and forward with its inside hind leg. All the equipment I need then is simply four trotting poles!
“If the horse has not learned basic obedience and ground rules for its behaviour on the lunge and the correct responses to the handler’s body language to move forward or slow down, this training has to come first. You need to be able to send the horse away from you on to a circle or to move it forward on a straight line”
Being able to get your horse to trot on a semi-box floor plan will stop the horse running towards you and running onto its forehand and placing too much weight down its inside fore. As I introduce trot work I carefully monitor how the horse is moving and stabilising itself. If the horse is extremely weak I introduced small circles in each corner of the square for a circuit or two so it slows down and can rebalance itself before continuing on the square — and, for the same reason, I slow the pace just before the trotting poles.
With horses who have suffered trauma and pain, the resumption of ridden work can sometimes prompt violent reactions. In such situations I go through the process of re-backing them over a couple of days. I then return to the by-now-familiar routine of the work on the ground. Their recognition of the floor plan and the poles is reassuring and helps to re-establish trust.
If you have not ridden for a long time, then before you get back on board again you should get yourself fit doing both cardio and stabilising excises that will improve your core strength following recommendations from your physio.
“If you are unfit you will be imposing an unstable load onto your horse that will compromise re-education aimed at getting it to use its body correctly and risk it sliding back into bad posture habits”
Over a period of time (and the length of this will vary with the individual animal) you will be rewarded for all your work by seeing your horse become more symmetrical in its musculature and muscle tone over the topline. Work in the arena should be interspersed with hacking. Hack first on level surfaces and then build up to include the varying footing found on bridleways and by doing hill work. Hacking on uneven ground and up and down hills both challenges and strengthens the horse’s ability to balance and stabilise itself over different terrains.
This process of re-educating a horse will normally take me three to four months. During this time I will have continued monthly veterinary chiropractic treatment and fortnightly physiotherapy to unlock and mobilise the horse as it becomes more mobile. All being well, I now start to incorporate into schooling sessions the ridden lateral exercises that the horse was able to perform before its injury and work towards getting the horse ready to do a dressage test.
“Aspects of the rehab programme, including the pole work, can be included in the ridden pre-test or pre-schooling warm-up and in your cool down”
I advise my clients to continue to incorporate groundwork sessions into their horse’s weekly exercise diary. Having designated days each week for groundwork will enable the horse owner/rider to remain familiar with the way their horse is moving and improving — and enable them to act quickly if they observe any deterioration in performance, or if the horse shows any signs of soreness when it works — or indeed when it is being groomed. Once that has been resolved the horse owner can return to the “well body” maintenance routine.”
© Out and About Dressage Ltd, 5 May 2018.