Monday, June 15, 2009

The long, long road to recovery

It has been days or maybe a couple weeks since your horse has exhibited signs of lameness. Time to ride, right?

Well, yes and no. Hooves are a tricky thing. They can be under conditioned, over conditioned, too soft, too hard (there is such a thing, I'm sure), among many other factors.

It has been nearly six months since Buttercup and I have been on the long road to recovery. At first, it was touch-and-go. She'd be sound for days and days, then be lame for days and days. She'd be sound for weeks, and then exhibit lameness for a day.

I have lost muscle tone in the last year of lameness and recovery. Bud has too. We've lost a pivotal year that was supposed to be her big debut into the world of showing and the end of her "greenie" status.

It is so frustrating. As some of you have guesses, I happen to be a crier. And guess what, I've cried over this. Especially since the time is nearing for me to have children and that means I have even less time to compete with Buttercup. Biological clock meet lameness setbacks.

With my own frustrations, it is all too easy for me to get pushy. What's the harm if I just start 30 minute trot sessions next week? Oh, jumping that line won't be a bother, will it? Our walk-trot transitions are going so nicely, maybe I'll do just a few trot-canter transitions or even a walk-canter transition?

(Pictured: the rare occasion I trot Buttercup, taken on June 12)

I can't post on here and say I've babied Buttercup every step of her recovery. I wish I could. I've pushed her when she wasn't ready and I've lost days because of it. One example of this is when I got my brand new horse trailer in January. I was so excited, all I wanted to do was to load Bud and let her share in my excitement.

But she was not a fan of the new trailer. Not being one to let a horse win and end on a bad note, I had to push her and we finally came to terms that the trailer was not going to eat her. During the process, there was rearing and heavy-landing feet. I was so nervous the next day. I knew she'd be lame.

Miraculously, she wasn't.

But I learned my lesson. I would not ask anything that could result in an hour-long argument (though we continued with trailer loading to further cement the lesson).

The next month, I decided to take Buttercup for a relaxing walk on the beach. Bud's a great trail horse. You can take her out by herself anywhere and she's just as relaxed as she can be. Even at her first horse show, she barely balked at all the excitement. So, naturally, I figured with all the walking we were doing, why not mix things up a bit with a walk on the beach?

Well, apparently, her good nature stops at "OMG scary waves!" And I ended up with a horse that I could maintain, but could not calm down. I let her canter and extend into a hand-gallop thinking "She's out of shape and will end up getting winded and calm down."

(Pictured: us cantering down the beach in February)

40 minutes later, with much blowing but no relaxing, I finally took her home.

This was another moment of "Oh crap, what have I done" for me. Luckily, she was still sound the next day.

When is it OK to ride for a horse coming back from injury or hoof problems? I generally gauge if the horse is moving comfortably at the walk for several days, with perhaps a slight hitch at the trot, he may be fine with just a nice 20 minute walk to loosen him up. I don't trot until it has been a week or so after he is moving nicely at the trot with no hitch. Then, I give about two weeks of walk-trot before transitioning back up to cantering or jumping. Obviously, Buttercup and I are not cantering or jumping (and usually not even trotting) right now because she will still exhibit intermittent signs of lameness.

So, what have I been doing the last six months or so during the rehab process? Mostly playing it by ear, but a whole lot of walking with minimum trot work.

(Pictured: walking Buttercup on June 12)

I've heard trainers and instructors over the years extol the benefits of walking for horse and rider. I believe them now.

When Buttercup got her teeth floated two months ago, the vet was so happy with her proper muscle condition and how she has almost completely lost the heavy muscling under her neck. She looked good. The vet was only slightly surprised that only walking under saddle helped create the transformation.

I continue doing about 60-75% of our schooling sessions at the walk. Mostly because we are constantly in flux of being lame and being sound, and I don't want to push her too hard.

I have started taking dressage lessons on an old schoolmaster to help keep my fitness level up, and I plan to use dressage to bring Buttercup back during the rehab process.

As much as I want to jump and gallop, I have to remain patient. If walking means sound hooves faster then walking it is.

Here are some benefits of walking according to me:

• Improved balance for horse and rider
• Refinement or introduction of cues and aids
• Keeping up fitness levels without creating excess concussion on hooves or tendons
• Allows horse to relax and move out, so if his back is sore from being off he can get a little loose
• Breaks up the monotony of hand walking or just grooming (only do if horse is sound)
• You can go out on trails and just getaway from it all when frustration mounts

There are a lot more reasons to take it slow on the road to recovery, and I'm sure we'll hit many more speed bumps. But if we take it slow, maybe those speed bumps won't hurt at much.

I have some new pics of Buttercup's hooves, done June 15, so keep an eye out for an update. The best news? We have moved into a new stage in the rehab process! Stay tuned.

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