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Winter fitness for the coming-off-an-injury horse

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  • Winter fitness for the coming-off-an-injury horse

    My vet is wonderful, but not always the best at helping me work out a fitness schedule, and I like schedules.

    My 18-year-old (eek!) horse is recovering well from sesamoiditis that led to a very mild re-injury of an old suspensory lesion. We've changed his shoeing (farrier: also wonderful,) continued his isoxsuprine, and done three treatments of shockwave therapy both to hopefully kickstart some remodeling in the bone as well as to treat the suspensory. He was never lame because of the ligament but it was inflamed and sensitive, so although it was not the area of greatest concern, we treated it and it's not something I particularly want him to reinjure again.

    Today he was cleared to advance his exercise. He is now allowed to do more lateral work, do trot poles and raised poles, and jump small obstacles. For the last 4 weeks he has been doing 20 minutes of active trot and canter flat work (with a couple of 1-minute working walk breaks- he's worked down to 2 of those) in addition to a 10-minute walking warm up and 10 minute cool down. We recently switched barns and their ring is on an incline, so he's doing a bit of hill work almost every day, as well as trotting slopes in the field when footing permits. I felt that he was muscle-sore after 2-3 weeks of that and did a week of light trail walking last week. He now feels better in his body. The key at this point is to build his fitness (particularly of the hind end) without boring him out of his mind or breaking him again. As we come into February, month of the crappy weather, with only an outdoor ring, consistency of fitness work can be a little difficult.

    So: when you are rebuilding muscle and cardiovascular fitness after injury, other than "don't rush it" and "listen to what the horse is telling you about how he feels," what are some things you keep in mind for success? Particularly in the winter, when the weather may limit exercise because of footing and temperature?

    This is his first week back into flatwork after his walk week and in the back of my head, depending on how he feels, my idea was to do another week of flatwork and ground poles only, and then start introducing raised poles and the odd canter crossrail next week, footing permitting. I'd be inclined to not jump him until March if I didn't know how much he hates flatwork and how done he is after 6 months of doing only boring stuff. I can avoid an expression of Irish opinion, and get more work done in less time, if I put a little jump or two into his flat routine, but I'm having a hard time figuring out when the "this horse is strong enough and healed enough to do more than the odd crossrail" benchmark is going to be. I want him to be able to do 30 minutes of raise-your-heart-rate flatwork by April so he works off his spring grass calories, but I do not want to reinjure him. That is a goal; but obviously he will set his own schedule, more or less, based on how he feels. Any suggestions to offer?
    "I'm not always sarcastic. Sometimes I'm asleep." - Harry Dresden

    Amy's Stuff - Rustic chic and country linens and decor
    Support my mom! She's gotta finance her retirement horse somehow.

  • #2
    I think you have a good plan.

    My go to, with any horse: long and slow. Lots of long walks (active, energetic walks), preferably on a hard surface like a road.

    Otherwise, just go slow and steady. Add in a little more time and/or intensity every 5-7 days. Ease up if you're feeling something other than great.

    Hugs and kisses to the boy!!! I can't believe he's 18!!!! Makes me feel old.


    • Original Poster

      He doesn't think he is 18. Still acts like he's 4. It's a bit hard to take him seriously as an elder statesman when his head is sideways and he is begging for your sandwich. I wish his body thought it was 4 too, but unfortunately his bones are starting to act their age. I really do think that having a job (and being the barn darling adored by all, or at least fed by many) have kept him as mentally young as he is. I want to do all I can to make sure he has many more happy, healthy years with a job that suits his changing body. I wish that darn leg of his would agree with me.

      The tough part with him, as I learned when he did the suspensory the first time a few years ago, is that he hits a point in his fitness/lack thereof where he feels like he is back-sliding and getting lame behind; his stifles and SI bother him when his back end is weak. (The original suspensory injury was probably due to over-compensating for a sore SI, quoth wonderful vet.) Hence the commitment to hind end muscle development and weight management, which support the health of the back end. So I'm watching to be sure the front leg is loading as well as it should and identifying whether any off step is front end in origin or back end weakness. Makes for some over-analytical rides... And makes me glad that the best grass in his field is on top of the hill, so he works himself!
      "I'm not always sarcastic. Sometimes I'm asleep." - Harry Dresden

      Amy's Stuff - Rustic chic and country linens and decor
      Support my mom! She's gotta finance her retirement horse somehow.


      • #4
        After bringing back my sassy TB from 4 1/2 months of near complete stall rest, the biggest piece of advice I can offer is don't be afraid to walk. And walk. And walk. And walk. I often found that he would be fine with the first couple of days of a slightly increased workload and then become very sore and seem to backslide. It sounds like you are already incorporating lots of walking and are constantly evaluating and adjusting as needed, so keep up the good work!

        Also switching from one longer ride to two shorter rides/day really helped get him over some of the rougher/back-sliding periods. But that was only possible because another rider was able to do one session/day - I could not have managed both.

        I also received next to no advice (other than "just start riding him") from an otherwise very competent vet despite asking every way I could think of for guidance developing a rehab program, so I do understand how frustrating it is trying to figure out what the right plan is.

        I also found that switching his turnout buddy from another older gelding to a much younger, more active (but no too rowdy) horse kept him moving a lot more in the field which helped not only his general fitness, but also his arthritis. Not sure if that is an option for you, but it really worked wonders in my situation.