Ask the Vet: Lameness and Rehabilitation

Answered by, Lisa Borzynski, DVM, Wisconsin Equine Clinic and Hospital
Courtesy of AAEP

Question: I have a 7-year-old Warm Blood horse that had a right dorsosacroilic tear diagnosed 12 months ago. He is back in work but after only six months off. I am slowly building him up but would like some exercises to target the area. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your horse’s injury! I’m assuming that this was diagnosed with an ultrasound and that you have had a follow up ultrasound to determine that the injury is healed and you are able to proceed with work.

I approach back pain/injury from many different aspects.

1) Establish or maintain a base level of fitness

2) Core strengthening and supplying exercises from the ground

3) Professional saddle fitting or saddle recheck before resuming under saddle work

4) Rider fitness and balance

5) Core strengthening under saddle

6) Physical therapy modalities

7) Topline supplementation

I’m not sure where you are in your fitness program, but if he has not had any type of work or hand walking I would start with hand walking for 20 minutes per day and increase by five minutes per week for the first month.

During this time, you can begin core strengthening exercises on the ground. If you are not to familiar with carrot stretches, belly lifts, pelvic tilts and supplying exercises, I would recommend having an experienced massage or physiotherapist out to demonstrate proper techniques.

After a month, I would start lunge work with 10 minutes of walking for the warm-up then five minutes of trot and 10 minutes of walking to cool down. Add five minutes of trot work each week over the next month.

Slowly add exercises to strengthen the back and core before getting back to work under saddle. It is critical to rebuild the muscle and topline that has been lost over the extended time off. Long and low stretching while asking the horse to come forward on the lunge line will help to lift and round his back.

I am a big fan of the Equicore pad, which can be used during lunge work and under saddle work. A Pessoa type lunging system is also useful, but some disadvantages are that it can be a bit tricky to adjust properly, horses are still able to “cheat” and hollow their back, and it cannot be used while riding.

With devices such as these, it is important to start on the lightest contact while still maintaining the position of the equipment and gradually increase the tension and engagement. I would also slowly increase the amount of time using these. I typically start with 10 minutes three times a week the first week on the lightest contact and then gradually increase the amount of time and tension each week. Be careful with horses that are sensitive about their hind end. That is another advantage of the pad. You can just attach the bellyband initially. These devices help to prevent the horse from hollowing his back during work, but it is not a foolproof system, so pay attention to your horse’s engagement and the lift of the back.

It is critical to have your saddle evaluated before you start back with under saddle work. Even if you have had it checked in the past, it’s important to have an experienced saddle fitter reevaluate your saddle every six months especially after time off. The change in musculature will alter the saddle fit and it’s very important that your horse is comfortable and uses his back correctly.

If you have not been riding other horses while your horse has been out of work, I would recommend getting back into a riding/training program on other horses to be sure that you are fit and riding in a balanced position. Incorrect riding can hinder his recovery and performance.

When you do begin under saddle work, I like to incorporate a lot of long and low walking and trotting and encourage the horse to step from behind, lift the back and feel the swing. As you increase the collection, be sure to incorporate suppling exercises and lateral work. Poles on the ground can be incorporated for strengthening.

If at any point he is showing signs of pain such as reluctance to go forward, tightening or spasms in the back, pinning the ears, or bucking, then back down to the previous level of work. If pain persists, have your veterinarian out to reevaluate.

There are many different physical therapy modalities that can be beneficial for back pain. I believe they all have some value. Their use will depend on availability, cost and your personal preference. I believe that veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT or chiropractic) by a licensed veterinarian is the most beneficial. A good massage or physiotherapist is also very beneficial.

I am not a big supplement user, but I do like to use a topline supplement on my own horses and my client’s horses to build and maintain topline musculature.

Good luck to you! I hope this helps and that he makes a full recovery!