When my wonder mare Callie broke her left hind splint bone in November of last year (did I say break? I mean shattered into shards that had to be picked out of her leg), I knew the road to recovery would be long. I also knew that every horse has a unique way of dealing with the stress of stall rest and recuperation. Callie had always loved her job and her turnout time, so I had a feeling that her transition would be challenging.
Within four days of a stall-only routine, she started to rear (even with some prescribed Trazodone) during morning turnout. I consulted with my veterinarian, and we decided that since she wasn’t lame or in pain, she could handle the 100-foot walk outside each day to one of the small rehab pens, provided she came in at noon for lunch and stayed there the rest of the day. And much to my surprise, all she needed was that teeny bit of outdoor time with her friends to be content. After a few weeks, she began to whinny at noon to come in for lunch. She never reared again or caused a scene, and we began to slowly wean her off the Trazodone with no problems.
The weeks turned into months, and before I knew it, Callie’s follow-up set of X-rays showed that the upper break had healed, and she was cleared for hand walking and staying out all day in her rehab pen (though at first she definitely still wanted to come in for lunch at noon). So off we went, walking around without any funny business or kite impressions. It helped that I always had treats on hand, and she’s so food motivated. She would much rather eat something than spook or be silly. A few more weeks of that, and the vet cleared us for…drumroll…tack walking!
That’s right, I was finally going to ride my little mare again.
On the Big Day, I walked outside with as much excitement as I had the day I first tried her in Florida. Callie, for her part, happily walked out to the ring, ears forward and ready.
Then, I got on. Callie was…let’s just say…less than thrilled. She plodded around the ring at a snail’s pace, stopping at every opportunity. At first, I thought it was maybe the small amount of acepromazine I had given her just in case (vet prescribed), but the next day sans ace turned into the same deal. Barely walking forward, head shooting up in the air when I touched the reins, and that tendency she had to lean against my inside leg? Well, it was still there and then some.
Our 15 minutes of walking each day, what I thought would be a thrilling bonding moment, actually turned out to be her protesting at having to go back into work, and me lamenting that fact. But why was I surprised? Callie loved to work, but given the choice, most of us certainly like NOT working more. She was getting all the love and treats and princess treatment without any of the usual caveats. Could I really blame her for being less than thrilled now that her job once again loomed on the horizon?
On our second day of walking for 20 minutes, I happened to do our session with my trainer Liz teaching in the ring. After I got on, and we sulked around for three minutes, I picked up the reins to avoid a young student, and Callie’s head shot up in the air, protesting the contact. Liz immediately said, “Oh boy, that’s no good. Put her to work.”
I’m not sure why it took actually hearing those words for the lightbulb to go off, but suddenly I realized that even though we were just walking around, we could, of course, still be working. Callie’s recent reticence suddenly reframed itself as boredom: She wanted to DO something, and all I did was plod with no goal or plan. I picked up the reins, and this time when she tossed her head, I kept my contact steady, closed my leg, and asked her to walk up into the bridle, coming into a soft feel and engaging herself from behind. Her step immediately perked up, as did her ears, as she became round, attentive, active and ready for what was next. I pointed her towards some poles on the ground, and we practiced placing her steps at each one so she could stretch juuust a little bit to get over it. After what seemed like five minutes, my timer went off letting me know that, in fact, 20 had passed.
Our increasingly long walks together have turned into the joyful bonding time I had envisioned. Since we’re only walking, we’re able to really focus on the basics of body placement and engagement. Sure, we’ve slowed down in our speed, but not in our thinking, and that’s the part an intelligent mare like Callie loved anyways.
It turns out that the silver lining in our rehab process is the opportunity to take our training back to square one. Without a progress-halting injury, we wouldn’t have this time to just focus on each gait with such laser attention to detail. Do I still wish that she had never had the injury in the first place? Of course, of course, of course I do. Nobody wants to see their horse suffer, and a full recovery still isn’t written in stone. But even if she isn’t sound for more than flatwork, I know that we’re building that flatwork foundation back in a way that it might be even better than before, setting her up for a new job maybe as a lower-level dressage horse where she can still excel and be the star we both know she is.
No matter what, though, her future will still be full of treats. Some things will never change.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur with a little APHA mare named Callie, who has a passionate love of peppermints and jumping with her knees to her eyeballs. She resides with her increasingly horsey husband and three cats in Boulder, Colorado.