Reprinted from the June 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Purchase a copy of this book HERE.
After a diagnosis has been given or a surgery performed, horse owners with limited experience rehabilitating their equine partners are faced with a tidal wave of questions and challenges: "I can't get to the barn every day—who'll wrap my horse's legs or administer his meds?"; "What if my horse goes ballistic confined to a stall?"; "Should I change my horse's feed?"; "To my horse, ‘hand-walking' means ‘airs above the ground'—how can I safely walk him while he's on stall rest?"
While the best source of advice is always your veterinarian, the experience of other riders who may have survived a similar experience (and lived to tell about it!) is invaluable.
"A horse needs to be properly cushioned and bedded so he can rest," says KESMARC's (Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center) Kirsten Johnson. "If he doesn't have enough bedding, he'll fight to keep himself comfortable. It's essential to have a deeply bedded stall, even if you have stall mats. Do not skimp—use at least 10 to 12 inches of bedding.
"We think the best bedding—and the healthiest because it produces minimal dust and allergens—is cardboard. We use bedding from Hunt Club. Straw, because of mold, mildew and allergens and its overall negative effects on a horse's airway, is the single worst choice for long-term bedding.
"The stall should be cleaned out thoroughly at least once a day and picked out regularly throughout the day. Horses sleep longer, more often, and sounder on a clean bed. And rest is essential to any recovery."
"Horses that are confined to stalls or small paddocks during their rehabilitation," says Kirsten, "need diets that provide less energy but not less nutrition—a feed that is fiber-rich and low
"My first choice would be a good high-fat/low-carb extruded feed. If you don't have access to extruded feeds, you can use a senior feed. Gradually introduce the new feed over a period of seven to 10 days. You can continue to top-dress with your horse's regular supplements.
"Never simply cut back on the quantity you're feeding your horse. He will feel deprived and unhappy and keeping your horse emotionally healthy is an important part of a successful rehabilitation program.
"If you are unable to hand-graze, it's important that your horse still get a daily supply of fresh grass. All you need is a weed whacker, a rake, and a clean muck bucket."
Most riders will tell you that the most difficult part of any rehabilitation program—for both human and equine—is the weeks or months their horse was confined to a stall. But with a little imagination and some heavy lifting, you can—with your vet's approval—create a moveable and size-restricted turnout that will allow your horse to graze near his buddies without jeopardizing his recovery.
Size-Restricted and Moveable Containment
Dealing with a fit, stall-bound Training Level event horse is not for the faint of heart, discovered Diane Francisco of Monroe, North Carolina, when Stryder, her 10-year-old Thoroughbred/Appaloosa cross, was recovering from a torn check ligament.
"He bolted, kicked, and dragged me—and once, my husband—whenever we took him out of his stall," remembers Diane. "Trying to hand-walk Stryder was a disaster." To save "a little of our sanity and prevent more injury to all of us," Diane devised a system that allowed Stryder be out of his stall in a safe, grass-filled environment.
In one of their paddocks, Diane set up round pen panels and sectioned off a 20-foot area where Stryder could graze in semi-freedom. She made certain the footing was good and hole-free, and additional panels were set up next to Stryder so that Rusty, his "pony pal," could graze near him. The panels were moved each day so that Stryder would always have a fresh supply of grass. Diane began with 30 minutes of turnout for Stryder and worked up to five hours a day over the next two weeks.
When Stryder was finally cleared by the vet for turnout with the rest of Diane's horses in her 35-acre pasture, she once again put the panels into service. "We hoped it would desensitize Stryder to being in a large area again so he wouldn't go crazy and run forever once we let him loose." She began by partitioning off a 30-foot corner of the pasture and then gradually added additional panels making the area larger and larger. "By the time we had used all the available panels, Stryder was in an area approximately 60 feet wide. One day I just left a panel open. Stryder casually grazed his way out of the pen and joined his buddies.
"Using the fence panels was probably the best idea we had throughout Stryder's rehab. Since Stryder was so fit and used to a more hectic schedule, combating boredom was a major part of his care, and being able to graze kept him reasonably calm and occupied while giving him some time out of his stall. Everyone was happy and safe."