I know I’m not the only horse owner who deals with an unfortunate (though beloved) companion. My horse – an 11 year old ¾ polish Arabian ¼ Saddlebred mare – is one of these accident prone people. Perhaps she is a reflection of her guardian because I am also one of those unfortunate people who have the unlucky ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every time.
More to the point: I try not to let it discourage me. We aren’t dead yet, so there is still a chance we can be fit and healthy in general. Or at least between accidents!
In late May of 2010, only a short couple weeks after a splint injury (due to a well-aimed kick) was relegated to "impressive blemish" status, my mare Deli injured her right hind leg. It’s unclear how exactly she did so, but the result was a severe tear of her groin, hamstring and dock muscles on her right side. Initially the fear was that she had injured the tendon or even fractured her stifle – both things that could not be diagnosed properly while the leg was swollen to elephantine proportions. She was in a lot of pain, and during the initial emergency call her temperature reached 104 degrees – a fraction of a degree more than that and Deli would have been taken to the hospital. The severity of the wound and her temperature warranted oral antibiotics and bute for several weeks. That month was a struggle for me because tending her included three hours of cold hosing and icing a day, along with experimentation with different kind of bandaging to resolve the swelling that ran all the way up to her croup (see photo - that was 3 days after the injury and the swelling had actually decreased). Finally I discovered that clay poultices were the only thing that helped and we ended up poulticing her leg for 24 hours then having it off for 8 hour and so on for nearly a month. Throughout this Deli was a good patient – which is not something she can typically boast about!
My vet was pleased with her progress even early on, and we ruled out the possibility that she had injured bone. Tendon damage would be something that would show as distinct lameness when she got back into work. As the swelling resolved itself she became more comfortable moving around her paddock, and even trotted a little in the pasture. During my regular vet checkups I was told her healing rate was incredible. I was relieved but not overly surprised: Deli is a healthy horse in general, though she would win any accident prone award. Pretty much every scar, bruise, and even the fact that she has a mild dust allergy can be attributed to some accidental occurrence (and not her conformation or health otherwise) rather than a naturally weak physiology.
And I guarantee you that she does not injure herself for the attention. As she is concerned vets and their ilk (including my administrations sometimes) can go to hell.
In my most lofty dreams I see us competing in endurance rides, but realistically I know we may never ride a 50-miler. The way severe muscle injuries heal mean that her muscle fibers will probably never be the same again. My vet tells me that some horses with this kind of injury return to full work and competition but they will always have a kind of “mechanical unsoundness” – basically that the motion of the injured part will be jerkier and less fluid. She says this more aesthetic concern shouldn’t hold us back competitively, but that it does mean that any kind of conditioning I do with her must be very careful and slow. The likelihood she can re-injure herself is high. But for now, she is moving great considering the seriousness of her injuries.
I understand this speech intimately because my own doctors have said the same thing about me. In September 2009 I was T-boned by a car while biking to attend class at law school. Initially I felt lucky to have limped away without any broken bones, but now, a year later, I find that the extensive soft tissue damage I suffered is still causing me pain and problems. For one, I spent most of that year needing pain killers to get through my daily routine, and especially to sleep at night. As I try and wean myself off them I find myself tossing and turning at night, or becoming aware of more minor hurts that were disguised behind the drugs before. Additionally I’m finding that my fitness is at a lifetime low, and trying to get back into shape has been painful and frustrating. Because of the injuries around my ribcage, scar tissue has contracted my lung expansion on my right side. It’s incredibly hard to exercise when you can’t breathe, but my doctors tell me the only way to “fix” this is to make it hurt. Superb, I say. My riding skills have suffered immensely too: in the past when I have been out of riding shape I still retained the muscle memory of how to do things “right”. Now I feel I retain the mental memory of what is right but my muscles have forgotten. My recovering body is disobedient, flabby and jerky. I hate it.
Overall Deli’s rate of recovery has been phenomenal. Especially considering that my first thought when I saw her with a huge leg that she didn’t seem to want to put weight on was that she had broken a bone and would have to be euthanized. In fact, I have been lightly riding her for nearly two months now. If anything my lack of fitness holds us back more than hers does! What remains as far as Deli’s injury is concerned is a general and obvious weakness in that injured leg. There is some indication of mechanical unsoundness which is, again, a sign that the muscles were severely injured and are healing in a form that is different than their natural alignment. However the weakness is the most problematic, since she is about as unbalanced as a horse can be at this point. We don’t canter – the reason why is obvious if you have her canter on the lunge: on her left lead she swings her butt inside and throws her head up to gain more “push” from her strong left hind leg. You can also feel that some of her muscles have atrophied along the top of her croup if you dig your fingers in and compare it to her uninjured side.
This is the point we are at when I start this journey – both of us weak and unfit from severe soft tissue damage and trying to get back to a point before the injury. Ideally we would both like to be at an even better point than we were pre-injury by May 2011, when an old trainer and friend wants us to tackle the Mt. Adams endurance ride. I feel hopeful that we can do this because the ride typically has a 12-mile option. It does mean that the mechanical issues I see in Deli right now will need to be resolved however, because it is unlikely she would vet freely right now. How do we fix it? When I asked my vet she said that low-intensity hill work was our best bet. Low-intensity meaning walk only, starting at no more than 15 minutes a day and adding 5 minutes each week. In reality I was happy to hear this: it meant trail riding, and it is trail riding that I have been desperate for. I have a varied background in various riding disciplines, but both Deli and I DO ride (and enjoy!) dressage in the arena. Now that I am in law school and my life is busy, to say the least, and arena work is less appealing. Dressage will always be the background to everything we do, but our priorities and desires have changed over the years. Luckily, trail riding is Deli’s favorite thing to do if she has to be working. Her mind and stride open up when out in the wilderness.
So this is where we begin. At the beginning of October 2010 we are moving to a new barn in Beavercreek, Oregon. This barn is not only a dressage training facility, but it also lies next to 3000 acres of BLM land – most of which is riddled with riding trails. Hills? We are going to have plenty of those. And quite apart from the conditioning, we are going to be training too: turning Deli into a confident and happy trail horse.