Image courtesy of Shelley Paulson Photography

Horses hurt themselves. ALL THE TIME. For such enormous animals, they can be as fragile as china dolls.

No matter how much you try to bubble wrap them, they will find a way to tweak, torque, or tear some part of their anatomy at one time or another. 

If you’re anything like me, you give thanks every day your horse stays sound and say a little prayer to whatever higher being you believe in to keep him that way. That is… until he doesn’t. 

Let’s be honest. No matter how much you love your horse, managing even a short-term physical problem can be emotionally draining. Long-term issues can send you over the edge (or to create a planner.)

That’s why I decided to ask my friend and equine rehabilitation therapist, Brooke Drassal of Drassal Equine Bodywork, to help us wrap our heads around the ups and downs of dealing with the recovery process and what we can expect from it. 

Here we go.

Q: So I just want to dive in and ask you a few questions about what happens when our horses get injured and what to expect. Let’s start with an easy one. What types of injuries do you commonly see and help horses recover from in your practice? 

Brooke: One of the biggest problems I’ve seen over the last few years is hind end lameness. As your horse moves, he almost looks like he’s a car with a flat tire. What that really means is that the horse isn’t engaging correctly from the hind end which translates into a weakness.

Usually, an owner or trainer will bring me in after the vet has worked on the horse, injected joints, given protocols and they still aren’t seeing the results they want. That’s when I’ll start working on the horse and get involved in the rehab process. I find that we always make progress with the therapies and exercises I provide. And ultimately we have a good end game.

The challenge for my clients is always during the middle of the process where we hit the most ups and downs.

Q: I know how that is. I found with my one horse, in particular, the process was like peeling back the layers of an onion. We’d make progress in one area then other things would get worse. The whole recovery process was tough. From a rehab perspective, something that I thought was going to be short term actually became long term. What’s been your experience with these types of nagging injuries?

Brooke: When I come in right away after a horse has been injured, we’re going to have a better chance of helping it heal better – even minimize the chances of reinjury. That’s not to say a reinjury won’t happen again, but because I’m able to help decrease inflammation of the muscle fibers and reduce scar tissue the whole recovery process goes more smoothly. 

Does the recovery take less time? Not necessarily but the rehabilitation process definitely sets your horse up for success in the long run. We’re diminishing the amount of scar tissue, creating new muscle memory, and reducing the amount of compensation. That dysfunctional way of moving or compensating behavior is such a big problem. 

The horse can injure himself in one place and then create new issues by compensating to avoid pain.

For the horse that has a chronic issue, a lot of times it’s breaking up the scar tissue in one area and then dealing with all the compensations elsewhere. A horse that has a shoulder injury may end up compensating on the hind end. This compensation leads to weakness and a lack of support from behind. So the injury itself may be scar tissue that’s not all that uncomfortable, but the compensation has made the horse lame and nothing’s helping. And instead of focusing on strengthening the hind, only the injury gets addressed. 

Ideally, the process involves doing more than pinpointing that one spot. For instance, you may need to tackle those supportive areas too so the horse can get off its front end and give the initial injury time to repair. It’s a beast, especially when you’re dealing with compensations and relearning muscle memory.

It’s so important to understand all of this takes time. We may have planned for six weeks but then realize the recovery and rehab process is taking longer than expected. 

Q: Given all of that, what would you say is the biggest thing owners don’t realize when they go into this whole rehab process? Is it the fact that they think it’s going to be an easy fix?

Brooke: I think a lot of times I’m the last straw. They’ve tried other things and hope I’ll be the last person who can finally fix their horse’s problems. While I know ultimately we’re going to have success, I’m used to the process being a process. 

Many clients are so excited before we start and then after our first three sessions, they’re wondering why their horse still has a problem. I think the expectation is that I’m super magical.

Believe me, I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everything ok.

But, the reality is that the process is an investment of time – not just mine but yours as well. Because I leave my clients with exercises. Think of it like PT for humans. When you do your exercises, you see progress and backward slides. The same thing happens with your horse. They get better and then they get worse and then they get better and worse. This can be extremely emotional. I think that nobody expects to have such emotions with all of this work.

Q: I get it. I’ve called you many times in tears when things didn’t seem like they were immediately going in the right direction. What words of wisdom could you give to people who are going through this process? 

Brooke: I remind my clients to hang in there and trust the process. If you’re working with a specialist who’s really good at what they do, give it a month and see how things progress. Remember, you have to think about the end game. Think about how you’re going to have your horse back and all the things you’ll be able to do together again. I know rehab is time-consuming and emotional. It’s a roller coaster with ups and downs along the way. But, the ride will end before you know it. 


Key takeaways on coping with the ups and downs of rehabbing your horse

  1. You’ve got to think like a detective – When horses injure themselves, they can start moving in ways that cause new problems for themselves. The injury may just be the tip of the iceberg. Be prepared to uncover compensations and address them as they come up. (You’re peeling back layers of an onion. If the rehab process doesn’t make you cry then my mixed metaphors should.)
  2. Being proactive in the rehab process sets your horse’s recovery up for success – The sooner you start helping your horse recover, the better the outcome. (If procrastination is your go-to strategy, you might want to think again.)
  3. Plan on the recovery taking longer than you expected – Think of rehabbing your horse like you’re remodeling your house. Add in 30% more time and budget accordingly. You’ll be thrilled if the process goes faster but not shocked if it doesn’t. (Expectation management is the name of the game.)
  4. Take it day by day – There will be ups and downs. Your horse may seem to be sliding backward one day and then make big progress a few days later. You can manage the process but you can’t control how your horse’s body will heal. (I don’t need to remind myself that control is an illusion. My horse does a great job of it for me.)
  5. Keep track of your horse’s progress – This one is a bit of advice from me. After rehabbing two horses, I found it incredibly helpful to write down every therapy, exercise, medication, and resource used. I would document what worked, what didn’t so I could see how far we had come, and where we needed to go. (This is one more reason to have a notebook dedicated to your horse. The only thing better would be an equine planner. Grab yours here.)

Brooke Drassal is a certified equine rehabilitation practitioner who uses Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) and massage therapy to help horses of every discipline perform and feel better. You can find out more about her and access great resources on her website at drassalequinebodywork.com. Follow Brooke on Instagram and Facebook.

Get the Building Better Habits mini-email course when you subscribe to The Focused Rider.

In this 3-part email series, you'll discover ways to make small changes designed to help you enjoy the journey with your horse even more.