After her horse Wizard sustained an injury that required stall rest and handwalking, Kelly O’Neill became an “expert” at both and was kind enough to share with us her survival tips. Hopefully, none of you will need these anytime soon…
HOW I SURVIVED THE DREADED “STALL REST AND HANDWALKING”
Everything seems to be going fine when suddenly you feel (or see) that your horse has pulled up lame. You call the vet and he or she gives your horse a thorough examination. The length of time may vary, but the prescription is usually the same: “Stall rest and then some handwalking”.
I consider myself quite an expert on stall rest and handwalking since my Thoroughbred, Wizard, had both a suspensory strain and a bowed tendon– the first layoff lasting 4 months and the second lasting 18 months. I learned to be patient, inventive and resourceful to get both Wizard and myself through that time.
First and foremost, be sure to get clear instructions from your veterinarian regarding what you can and cannot do with your injured horse. Run any of these suggestions by him or her before beginning. Some suggestions may not be appropriate immediately following the injury, but might be able to be done closer to the horse’s return to work date. And be specific – don’t tell your vet you’re going for a walk around the property and not tell him this includes hills or extremely hard surfaces.
This is absolutely the toughest thing you’ll ever have to do with your horse. Typically, it is the athletic horse that gets injured, and an athletic horse is a fit horse with a lot of energy. Usually, the first few days after his injury your horse may be on pain medication and not feel like doing much anyway. Again, check with your veterinarian to be sure you get a clear meaning of “stall rest”.
Much of the vet’s instructions will be based on the nature of the injury (mild to severe) and the age/disposition of the horse. Can stall rest include access to a 12×12 attached paddock? Can he come out of his stall at all to just eat some nearby grass? Can you let him “hang out” in the cross-ties while you groom him?
I was somewhat lucky in that Wizard is one of those “bombproof” horses and was in his 20’s at the time of his injuries. Excess energy was not usually a problem with Wizard (getting ANY energy was usually my goal…) so I was able to do a bit more with him without fear of him reinjuring himself.
I also moved him to a barn closer to home so I would have more of an opportunity to visit him. I also made sure that his stall was in an area of medium activity so he could have things to look at. We were at the end of an aisle where a lot of horses walked by on their way in and out of the arena. We were also located near one of the farrier’s shoeing areas and people typically hung out there with their horses. The barn allowed me to keep Wizard’s stall door open so he could hang his head out – he got lots of pats and carrots from visitors to the barn. I think this helped keep his boredom level down.
I spent a lot of time with Wizard. I often took my mail or office work or even my lunch and sat outside his stall while he munched his hay. I even went so far as to pull grass along the road and bring it to him to eat since it was too far for him to walk (OK, I’ll admit this may seem a bit much, but, hey, I love my horse!).
I also did A LOT of grooming – taking him outside of his stall to close-by crossties for a change of view. I vowed that I would have the best looking lame horse in the barn! He was always clean and had the most beautiful mane and tail of his life. I’m sure currying and brushing also helped with his circulation and muscle tone. I also spent lots of time practicing braiding – something I never had time to learn before. We also read up on massage and “carrot stretches” and worked on those as well.
We even managed to learn a few things during our convalescent time. Some of Wizard’s ground manners needed improvement, so we worked on ground tying as well as getting used to “girthing up” the saddle. Wizard was a lesson horse for many years and I think he always associated the saddle with having to work. After a few days of “saddle on/saddle off” with nothing but carrots in between, he gave up his antics. Then, in one of my dog training classes, I learned about “clicker training” and decided to use the principles to teach Wizard a few tricks. He learned to drop his head and touch his nose to an orange training cone on cue – both of which helped long after Wizard went back to work and to this day.
It seemed like forever, but FINALLLY came the day when the vet said we could begin handwalking. Knowing that Wizard is an easy-going horse, I thought nothing about it as I put on his halter and entered the indoor arena. WRONG! Wizard showed me some moves that I never thought he knew – dancing, rearing and some genuine “airs above the ground”. Luckily I had bandaged his legs for support and protection so no damage was done. My trainer was nearby and took control of Wizard and settled him down while I regrouped.
If this could happen with my 20+ “bomb-proof” horse, I will caution those of you with younger and/or excitable horses to BE PREPARED! Talk to your trainer or perhaps even have him/her take your horse around at first. Let other people riding in the arena know what you are doing. Decide in advance your handwalking route; don’t just wander aimlessly, possibly cutting into another rider’s circle or approach to a jump. Think about using a stud chain. Try to start your handwalking in a place (arena, round pen, etc) familiar to your horse and at a time when it is calm and quiet. Consider having a friend with an older, calm horse walk with you. Wear gloves, a helmet, good shoes or boots for safety, and carry a whip for reinforcement. I also found rewarding good behavior (and distracting bad behavior) with treats to work well.
Okay, you survived your first few days of handwalking and now it is getting SOOOO boring. Around and around, you feel like you know every grain of sand in the arena. Time to get creative! If there are other “handwalkers” in your barn, try to work with barn management and set aside a time when you can have at least part of the arena to yourself. As they say, misery loves company and you can at least have someone (human) to talk with.
Again checking with barn management, see if you can have music played during your walk time. Wearing a radio or stereo with headphones is also an option, but you MUST remember to stay alert and be able to hear what is happening with other horses and riders in the arena.
One of the best things I ever did was to “walk” my dressage test with Wizard. First, it helped me to more easily memorize the test as I’m a visual person and I could actually see where the letters were in the arena. But, more importantly, as I approached each letter, I could mentally give myself the instructions I would need to do when I rode Wizard – half halt, shift weight, lower leg back, give with the outside rein, etc. I had plenty of time as my approach to the letter was a lot slower on foot, and could even stop and have a “do over” if I needed to. When I started riding again, I was so programmed to do these things that it came automatically.
I also set up several ground poles and cones and walked Wizard over and around them. We also went through some parallel poles on the ground, aiming to “whoa” right in the middle. We even practiced a few “backs” through the poles. This made it more interesting for Wizard, and also improved our verbal communication. The advisability of doing these exercises really depends on the nature of your horse’s condition so PLEASE check with your vet first.
Lastly, as Wizard improved, we decided to explore the nearby trails as part of our handwalking program. When we realized that some of the trails were too narrow for both of us to walk together, I decided to try ground driving from behind. I put on Wizard’s bridle and lunging surcingle, attached a couple of old lunge lines through the rings, grabbed my lunge whip and walked behind him as I urged him along the trail. It was very fun and excellent training for Wizard to become the driving horse he is today at 27!
AND WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Okay, so far it’s been all about your horse. Now what about you? Your partner is out of action and all your friends are still riding and going to lessons and shows. What can you do? Well, actually there are quite a few things:
Take lessons on a school horse, if not at your facility then at another. Riding different horses (and even taking lessons from different instructors) really helps when you can ride your own horse again. Or, see if a friend would like help exercising their horse. When a friend of mine experienced a time of “horselessness”, I was more than happy to let her ride Wizard for free and have a day off from going to the barn (although my husband did keep asking me what I was doing home so much…).
You might also consider leasing or sponsoring a horse during this time, or going on a “riding vacation”. And don’t isolate yourself from lessons and your riding friends. I know it hurts to see everyone else progressing, but I found that I learned quite a bit by watching other people ride – hearing what the trainer said and seeing someone do it suddenly made some concepts I’d been struggling with crystal clear. I attended a lot of clinics and lessons at my barn standing on the other side of the fence with Wizard grazing next to me (another of those “win-win” situations for both of us – and I swear Wizard was listening, too).
You might even consider volunteering at some local horse show events – instead of riding, I scribed at our barn dressage show and it was an invaluable experience to see things from the “judge’s eye”. I then quickly became popular when I volunteered to call dressage tests for other riders. I also started videoing some lessons and shows for riders and made some extra money for all those veterinary ultrasounds, as well as learning more about hunter/jumpers and eventing.
So if you hear those dreaded words, “Stall Rest and Handwalking, “ know that this too shall pass – with a little creativity.