Injuries are to horses like barn flies are to summer. They happen. And rehab is not for the faint of heart. Riders like us work hard to fund this mad passion we have for our horses and our sport, but often these fragile athletes have a plan of their own. Even a seemingly minor injury can wipe out an entire show season, erasing a year's worth of work and gutting us to the core. It takes a lot of angst, sweat, and tears to bring an injured horse back to sound, healthy, and happy work. And yes we know that having a laid up pony is a first world problem - but trust us, that doesn't make it an easier pill to swallow.
With that said, rehab is a tough process for the horse physically, but what about for the rider? It's an emotional journey, and not the kind you read about in Oprah's book club. If you don't get knocked off your feet the first time you take a stall-bound horse out for a hand walk, then you'll feel like it. You will feel sorry for yourself and be pissed at the world (if you don't, then you should be nominated for sainthood). More than likely though you’ll need to work through the five stages of rehab grief. Based on my last nine months, here’s how to do it:
Regardless of symptoms, you self-diagnose and treat any lameness as an abscess. After a few days of stall rest, Epsom paste and messy use of disposable diapers, saddle him up and get back to work. Still a problem? Get your chiropractor out ASAP, and maybe the body worker. Ask yourself when the saddle was last reflocked? That must be it. Only when you notice he’s still 3-legged lame do you call your vet. During the lameness evaluation, constantly ask the vet questions. Suggest possible diagnoses and carefully explain what’s “normal” for your horse. Try something like: “He was perfectly sound yesterday and he never plays in turn-out.” Don’t wait until the lameness evaluation is complete to start asking her for a prognosis.
2. Anger & Blame
Once you’ve received the final diagnosis, such as digital flexor tendon, suspensory ligament injury (or some other heinous thing) let the tears roll. Cry hysterically while hauling your horse home from the vet. Call your significant other and describe in great detail the vet exam, the prognosis, and of course your own personal suffering. Text your trainer immediately. Maybe you've both been pushing your horse too hard? Complain about the arena footing and your farrier. Dismiss any kind words from your barn mates. Finally, post the vet’s diagnosis and rehab regimen on your favorite equine chat group. Seriously consider and extensively discuss the advice from complete strangers on how to best treat the injury.
3. Depression & Envy
Let the rehab begin. Understand that hand walking your horse is going to be a total shit show. Try to talk a brave barn mate into doing it for you while you sit in the tack room alone and cry. Grit your teeth and wish your teammates good luck as they leave for the next big show. Come to the barn late on Thursday so you don’t have to watch them load their trailers and head out. Let envy blossom. Check on-line scores hourly. Quietly celebrate their struggles, scratches and so-so scores. Hit Facebook to heartily congratulate everyone. Immediately feel envy replace guilt for your lack of honest enthusiasm. Smile and hold back the tears as they return in triumph. Put the stud chain on and make another feeble attempt to get through 15 minutes of hand walking without getting killed.
Once you start tack-walking, you’ll need to begin negotiations with your horse. Perhaps a deal that includes massive amounts of treats in exchange for a minimum number spooks, bolts, and bucks. This of course won’t work. As the walking regimen goes from 15 to 45 minutes pretend you’re doing real work. Act as if you have his attention, that he’s connected, straight and responsive to your aids. Say “good boy” often and for no reason. Ignore the looks of horror from trainers and arena mates alike as your horse uses any excuse to misbehave. On frequent occasions you’ll need everyone on the sidelines to refrain from making noise or careless movements. Do this 7 days a week. Continue your crying in private. Whenever anyone asks you how you’re doing, respond with any of the following lies: “Fan-f***ing-tastic”, “Can’t complain”, “Things could be so much worse”(knock on wood!), “Great! How about you?" Finally, as you go back for rescans, your vet will tell you things are improving, start trotting and come back in 6 – 8 weeks. Schedule for exactly 6 weeks. Why wait?
Celebrate those 1st weeks of 5 trot minutes. Ask everyone to look at how he’s moving. Feel every step and find gratitude that he’s moving out sound. Enjoy it because 1) it’s going to be at least 8 weeks before you're up to 20 minutes and 2) 20 minutes of trotting is exhausting. After that next scan when you get the OK to canter you’ll start to imagine coming down centerline, scores in the 70s and once again having something to live for - that $.89 blue ribbon. Soon you’ll happily be shifting your hard-earned money from vet bills to training. And you’ll suddenly realize everything you ever learned about correct riding is gone. A 10-meter circle is impossible. Your entire body is hanging half way off the horse when you attempt a half pass. The clean changes you didn’t have BL (before lameness) have not miraculously happened. It’s hard, but every day is a little better. Your horse is getting stronger, spooking less, the tears are drying up. You’ll remember what it takes to achieve forward and straight contact, impulsion and response to your aids. You’ll rediscover your abs, the ability to sit tall in the saddle and ride him forward into the connection. Your trainer is asking for more, and slowly it’s starting to happen. He’s better than ever. You knock on wood.