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A slow return to work after spelling or injury.  Why is it important?

I often treat horses that have had 4-8wks on spell back trotting and cantering in their first ride, or even first week back in.  This is not advantageous for your horses body or wellbeing.

Imagine if you have come back from a four week holiday in Bali where all you did was lie by the pool, drink a number of cocktails and gorge yourself on the amazing food, and then two days back your personal trainer has you doing 20minutes of squats followed by 20minutes on the treadmill?  I think you would be complaining… loudly!!  I know I would.  So why do we expect our horses to do the same on their first rides back from holiday?  We need to condition them for what we expect them to do”.

I regularly see people turn their horses out for a spell and then within a week of them being back in work they have them out in the arena daily working on flying changes or gridwork etc….. and they think nothing of it because the horse puts up with it (most of the time). But really what you are doing without noticing is creating micro damage to the tissues.  They are starting to undergo strain and tearing at a microscopic level.

If a horse has been on rest due to injury, it is imperative you work with your veterinarian and therapist to ensure the right return to work program is incorporated. No matter the recommendations, the concept of it being slow and incremental is still the same and vitally important.

All return to work programs should start with at least a one to two weeks of hand walking. The main reason for this is that the back muscles are the first to lose their “tone” after a period of rest so we need to start building these without the added weight of a saddle and rider.  You should also be incorporating some ground work in the arena that includes lateral work. The reason for this is that the horse needs to be capable of doing this before being asked under saddle with added rider influence.  All horses have their own natural posture and preferred way of going, and when they have time off they lose their ridden conditioning so fall back to these ways of going.  Focusing on eveness and balance early sets them up for being able to carry the rider.

Bone density is also an important part of hand walking.  It has long been recognised that bone density is related to the amount of strain to which the horse subjected.  The greater the load, the larger the bone mass, but the reverse is also true. A decreased strain will result in a reduction in bone mass, and this happens when your horse has time off. An incremental return to work program will help increase the bone density of the horse so that they are physically ready for more load..

Working your horse from the ground is all about observation, and use the time, especially when they are returning from injury to observe how the horse is using themselves.  For example do they drop their hindquarters to the inside on the left rein but not the right etc.  Groundwork should be continued through the walk, trot and canter right up until the day your horse is back in their regular routine, and really beyond that!  If the horse moves in an unbalanced fashion without a rider, they are more likely to be worse with a rider (unless it’s a superb rider who can use their body to balance their horses).

Once your horse has done their period of hand walking it is important to start building their core muscles.  When a horse is roaming in a paddock they’re not too bothered about conditioning their core muscles, they usually move on the forehand in a pretty strung out way.  But when we get on them and start to ask them to move in a collected frame, their core (pectorals, abdominals and back muscles) are essential to support the horse.  Skipping this crucial step can lead to lower back pain and potentially more time off or a delayed return to peak performance.

Core work can be started under saddle at the walk and is an essential yet frequently forgotten part of a return to work regime.  In a human, this would normally take the role of pilates or yoga and it is not too different for horses, although we are talking ridden exercise here.  Polework and lateral exercises are an essential part of the program, but they do need to be targeted specifically to your horse, so it’s handy to consult a coach or therapist at this point, to pick the best exercises for your horses conformation and natural posture.

In all exercises though, aim for stretch, lift and spring to engage your horses core.  Stretch works the topline and back, lift will get the abdomen activated and spring requires the involvement of all the core muscles.

Stretching is an easy and excellent way to support the horses body through fitness and conditioning, especially as part of the warm up or cool down.  There are stretches for the horses full body and some are especially designed for activating the core.  Check out this great video on stretches you can do yourself: https://youtu.be/tugE_W9me9k

Once you have started to build up the core muscles of your horse you can begin incorporating fitness work.  Building fitness of the horse involves all the body systems that the horse has: cardiovascular, respiratory, lymphatic, thermoregulation, energy production, soft tissues and skeletal.  If you have no understanding of these and how they may influence fitness it may be time to pick up a book.  We have a short ebook on this as well as an online course that may help you here.

It is handy to know what was normal for your horse when they were in work, so you know what to aim for in your return to work (hint: this means go and take your horses temp, heart rate and respiration for a week!!).  Try and gain an understanding in what is involved for conditioning your horse, because this part of the routine will take you to the point where your horses fitness is back where it started.

Aside from developing core, increasing fitness and preparing the body for work, a slow return to work program will also prepare the brain and get those motor neurons from holiday to work mode.

The most important component though is a rest day.  The process where the body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibres by fusing them together to form new myofibrils actually happens during the rest phase. So when you are conditioning your horse the rest phase is just as important even more so then the exercise phase. And this doesn’t just include rest days, but rest periods during your workout, and is one of the reason why a good warm up and cool down are so vitally important.

Last but not least, make sure that your diet is supportive of this return to work and that your saddle and bridle fit your horse, as they may have changed shape whilst out of work!!

As I said earlier, a return to work program is individual depending on the horses breed, discipline and history of injury.  However a general return to work for the average healthy horse after 4wks spelling we might follow a routine such as this:

  • Week 1: 10- 20 minutes walking – 5 days in hand or long reining
  • Week 2: 30 minutes walking – add basic walk schooling movements e.g leg yielding and poles, 5 days
  • Week 3: 15-30 minutes walking under saddle, 5-10 minutes trotting on the lunge, 5 days
  • Week 4: 30 minutes walking, 10 minutes trotting, start school movements under saddle 5 days
  • Week 5: 30 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting – add ridden polework, 5-10mins canter on lunge.  5-6 days
  • Week 6-7: 20 minutes walking, 20 minutes trotting, 5 minutes canter.  5 – 6days
  • Week 8: 15 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting, 10 minutes canter – add basic canter schooling movements e.g leg yielding. 5 – 6 days
  • Week 9: 15 minutes walking, 15 minutes trotting, 15 minutes canter – add polework in canter. 5 – 6 days
  • Week 10 & 11: Normal Schooling – Dressage Competition, Raised canter poles
  • Week 12: Begin Jumping

P.S.  My handy hint for returning to work is…..

Have a plan.  This will stop you from wanting to do too much too early (if you’re sticking to that plan!!).  Make sure you get your therapist and coach on board to help you too, they have experience that can assist in a safe return to work process and they often know your horse well.

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