Whether it’s a prolonged confinement because of an injury or due to weather, pent-up energy gets to be a problem with the stall-bound horse. The temptation is to reach for a tranquilizer, but it’s not the best solution.
Some horses tolerate stall confinement well, but others end up stall walking, weaving, rearing or worse. When an injured horse is on stall confinement, the goal is to minimize stress to the injured area. However, if the horse is carrying on in the stall you may be better off to walk him 10 to 20 minutes inside the barn aisle once or twice a day to take the edge off. Clear this first with your veterinarian first, of course.
Grazing in hand in a small, quiet area outside satisfies many horses. You must be certain you can control the horse, however, and that you can deal with any surprises that could send your just-waiting-for-an-excuse horse into orbit.
Simply keeping hay in front of the horse all day usually isn’t effective, as his intake will eventually level off. Instead, maximize the hay’s distraction value by feeding most of it during the most active daytime hours and little overnight.
You may also consider using a grazing muzzle, which makes the horse work harder to get his hay, distracting him enough that he’ll stay quieter and preventing him from engaging in the popular game of dump-the-water-bucket. It may also help prevent wood-chewing or cribbing habits from developing. Remove the muzzle overnight and in quiet times.
You can try toys, such as empty plastic milk jugs hanging from the stall ceiling that the horse can bop around or horse toys (see December 2000). However, we found most horses quickly get bored with toys.
Peace And Quiet
An isolated horse will adjust quicker to stall confinement than one that can see and hear other horses. If you can’t isolate him, try hanging a blanket over his stall during busy times so he can’t see what’s going on. He may still yell and dance a bit, but it will be less than without blocking his view. Be sure to take the blanket down for socializing when things quiet down.
Some horses behave reasonably well in their stalls but get difficult if they have to be removed from the stall for treatments. Blindfolding the horse with a folded towel across his eyes and secured under the halter cheek pieces minimizes, if not eliminates, this problem.
Blindfolding seems to almost immobilize the horse, making him less likely to shy because he can’t see. Remember, though, he can’t see you either. Stay active with lead shank pressure or jingling and voice contact to keep the horse focused, reassured and controlled. Coupled with a competent handler on the head, blindfolding is usually adequate restraint for any procedure that doesn’t actually involve pain.
Take it easy with pain relievers/anti-inflammatories. We don’t want the horse to be in pain, but if you provide too much relief the horse may reinjure himself with too much activity in the stall. If the horse eats and drinks well, moving around in his stall, albeit sorely, that’s enough, unless your vet directs otherwise.
If you have a horse that absolutely won’t remain at a safe level of activity in the stall, you truly may need tranquilizers. However, we’ve noted a growing tendency to overuse the drug reserpine in stall-bound horses.
Reserpine is in the same general category of drugs as acepromazine and also builds up in the horse over time. Its appeal likely stems from the facts that it’s highly effective, requires a low dose, can be given orally and isn’t always needed daily.
However, adverse reactions can occur with reserpine and may show up on the first dose or only after a build-up period. These can include gastro-intestinal and nervous-system reactions. Plus, the antidote for reserpine toxicity is methamphetamine, something most vets don’t routinely keep in stock.
Often less-potent tranquilizers are used in too large a dose. Horses vary in their sensitivity to tranquilizers. As little as 0.5 cc of ace injected intramuscularly in the morning will usually quiet a stall-bound horse.
Additional dietary magnesium, up to a ratio of 2:1 calcium:magnesium in the diet, can have a calming effect on many horses (see January 2001), and you may even try an herbal.
Keeping the horse quiet in the stall is a snap compared to what you’ll face when it’s time to resume exercise. The usual progression is gradually increasing times of hand walking, then turnout in a small area, then riding work and/or full turnout.
The initial days of hand walking can be rough. Keep walking sessions in a small fenced area like an indoor arena or riding ring, and be ready for anything. Given half an opportunity, most horses would like to disappear over the horizon as fast as they can run. For your own safety, and that of the horse, you must have adequate control under all circumstances. Expect the horse to shy, bolt and try to take off with you at a moment’s notice, if not constantly.
It may help to walk the horse with a fly mask on. The slightly decreased visibility makes a lot of horses think twice before acting up.
A simple rope shank is not likely enough, unless you can find someone else to walk the horse with you, one on each side. This is a good arrangement, but only when both handlers are experienced enough to know how to keep control of the horse and keep themselves out of danger without pushing the horse into the other handler. Otherwise, a chain shank over the nose or through the mouth may be necessary.
When hand walking is ordered, it should be continuous to get the full therapeutic exercise effect. However, for the first few days, it may help to settle the horse and establish a calm attitude if you stop frequently to let him graze or just get his attention and give him a few pats.
The question of tranquilization usually comes up again during the transition from stall to exercise. Use the same guidelines: only if absolutely necessary to keep the horse safe and always in the lowest dose.
Remember that tranquilizers build up in the body over time. If using one for longer than a week, try decreasing the dose or spreading out the interval between doses to avoid oversedation. Once the horse is behaving well, start progressively dropping the dose until he’s off.
When the veterinarian outlines a rehab program, you will often be given the option of either turnout or riding after the walking phase. Safety for the rider and safety for the horse are sometimes at odds. A horse turned loose is certainly free to overdo it and hurt himself, but an explosion under saddle is a risk for the rider. The best approach for both is usually turnout in a small area, progressing to one the size of the area where the horse will be ridden, preferably the same area where the horse will be ridden.
Longeing may seem like a good compromise, but the repetitive circles often aren’t good for a horse recovering from an injury and many horses will carry on as much on a longe line as they would when loose. You could also pony the horse, if you’re experienced in that activity.
Stall confinement and rehab is a tough time for both horse and handler. A horse can try your patience, but it’s important to remember every instinct the horse has wants him to run free with other horses. Wh en you look at it this way, it’s easier to appreciate just how much we are asking of the horse.