Question:I have a 22-year-old Saddlebred who is in excellent shape--better than one would expect for his age. He is a real go-getter of a horse who loves to trot and canter. Ten weeks ago he slipped, and he has a stifle strain involving the adductor muscles in his left hind leg. Initially he did not want to put the leg down at all but after about three days he began to bear weight on it. When turned out he trots with a marked limp but bearing weight. There is no swelling or warm spots in his leg at all. I was wondering what your opinion for his full recovery is with this type of injury and his age and also what ideas you have for how we can exercise him or not to help with his rehabilitation.
Answer: An injury to the muscle, whether a strain or a tear can heal, even in an older horse. The key to healing muscles is to exercise the leg in a controlled manner. The human athletes get back on the playing field rapidly because they do intensive physical therapy from the minute they get hurt. With horses, we tend to stick them in a stall and rest them. Obviously if you have a large wound with stitches or a broken bone, stall rest is critical. But with most other injuries, controlled exercise is the best.
A good general program for rehabilitation after an injury follows. You need to pay attention to how your horse is progressing with each day and make adjustments as needed. After the exercise increases, if your horse is more sore the next day he may not have been ready to move up, so you can go back to the previous level. Do not push and try to do too much, or you can have a setback.
Basic plan: Start as soon as the horse can walk comfortably on the leg, even if they are still limping. Start with five minutes if still quite sore and lame, 10 minutes if just a bit sore. Walk on nice, even footing down the driveway, on a smooth field or in an arena. You do not want to strain an injury by slipping or going through deep mud. Every four days increase the walking by five minutes. The first day after the increase pay attention to any change in soreness. After that the horse is getting stronger from the exercise, and you should see no increase in soreness.
When you reach 30 minutes walking make the work a little harder, either by jogging a few steps or going up and down hills, but only add five minutes worth of harder exercise, or just continue to increase the walking time every four days. Usually if they have been on stall rest, you can begin turn out in a paddock after they reach the 30-minute time.
Some horses are safer and more sensible if you sit on their backs and ride them for their time. Other horses have to be drugged with something like acepromazine (which can be given in the mouth if needed instead of injecting it). Some horses will run and hurt themselves more in turnout--these horses may need to be heavily drugged for several days or weeks until they settle down.
Also, massage and stretching can be done. It needs to be done without force, gently stretching the leg in circles or to the front and back. There are a few books and videos out there to help you learn. The rule is to never pull on any leg at any time, especially when you have and injury. Linda Tellington-Jones has a number of books and tapes on very gentle bodywork that you can perform yourself.
For many injuries, treatments like acupuncture can speed the recovery and help prevent some of the scar tissue from forming. If scar tissue is becoming tight, massage can help work it out. A professional massage therapist (one who has extensive training--not just a one week course) can help tremendously.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.
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