Returning to Play: Restarting After Injury

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Sometimes our inside voices just aren’t loud enough to save us from unseen dangers with horses, and let’s face it, we’ve all been there – made the expedient move, instead of the smart move, and paid the consequences.

One of the problems with getting older is guess what? You don’t heal as well as you used to. In my case, it hurts for a longer and more intense period of time, and rehab wasn’t a given. I was totally surprised, at first, by the amount of time it took to heal from my major injury and how weak I was when I got back to riding.

I have to credit my experience with rehabbing racehorses for a gem of wisdom I used that I think helped me. It’s the concept of “tack walking.” This is simply tacking up the horse and walking it in hand. It’s a way of schooling young racehorses, it’s often used for rehab purposes or for calming, and sometimes a training technique. I’ve used it on rehabbing horses who were meant to be ridden when coming back to work, where lunging was not indicated. Walking in hand, while the horse is tacked, has a number of super advantages for an older rider

  • It’s warmup for me. Walking for a few minutes in the arena footing is a great warmup, especially if it’s a bit deep and soft – lots of good exercise in that
  • I position myself to walk the horse approximately at the place where the neck joins the horse’s shoulder, with the reins over the horse’s head, my right hand near the bit and left hand holding the end of both reins.
  • I walk my horse in the exact pattern I expect to ride in the ring – past other horses, around jumps, past things, in the 20m circle I hope to be riding, or around the outside edge of the ring, seeing everything. It’s important to see the track you’ll ride, and walk it with both of you.
  • There’s a reason for that – I want to see how the horse reacts to the doorways, horses, jumps, etc. in that pattern, BEFORE I’m in the saddle trying to hang on. If my horse reacts – to anything – while I’m leading him, then I am forewarned about his behavior while I may be mounted, and WHERE it might happen.
  • Walking with your horse is going to give you an idea of how your horse feels that day, before you put your foot in the stirrup, or make lunging plans. I will know from walking beside him for a few turns around the ring how aware he is today, how fired up or how quiet he may be.
  • You want him to walk beside you, marching along, not towing you and not dragging along behind. If he invades your space or bangs into you, correct him and establish pecking order right from the first step into the ring. If he drags behind and acts uninterested, bring the dressage whip with you, reinforce your “cluck” aid and encourage him to walk up correctly beside you. This helps you get him prepared for receiving direction once you are in the saddle, and it sounds like a small thing, but it can make a difference mentally to the horse.
  • Those things – setting the tone, checking the attitude, and familiarizing with the ring – all help me, because I don’t have the reaction time I had when I was 20. I am less able to make a save now than I was as a young rider, and those facts are what they are. So knowing what might be coming or where to expect a teleport practice is going to forewarn me!

Here’s what to keep in mind as you return to riding after rehabbing:

  • Lead him to the mounting block and park him. Literally. The “sit and stay” of the horse world – the mounting block needs to be a place where movement only happens by your direction. The horses that explode once you get on them, or freak out when you drag a foot over their but when mounting – these are the things that terrify me, and I want to do everything I can to prevent accidents when I am at a vulnerable position, on one leg, while mounting. I want my horses to be comfortable, quiet, accepting and standing at the mounting block no matter what. So take your time there even with an apparently broke and well trained horse. (I don’t try to mount from the ground.)
  • Have you stretched yourself? Bend at the waist, touch your toes with both hands; bend your knee, one leg at a time, pulling the bent knee up to your chest while standing on one foot, then the other leg; lunge, using the mounting block steps; do some arm windmills; trunk twists; etc. I do stretch most of the time before I mount, just a couple of minutes’ worth, but it’s very helpful for me. I know there are great riding exercises one can do and probably experts who can chime in with complete workout regimens – but just stretch, somehow, before you get in the saddle.
  • Listen to the little voices. Does the horse just not seem like they want to be ridden today? Is there something not quite right about the way they are walking – too tense? Something noisy outside the ring, something scary coming down the road, what if the wind blows a tree branch across the indoor roof? Am I ready?
  • Don’t think your seat will save you. Make sure your legs are ready for catching your balance – make rising to a two-point one of the first things you do when you mount, stretching your heels down, feel the horse’s sides with your calf, allow your shoulders to be square and back straight.  And occasionally while riding, walk, stay on a circle for control, and check that your two-point still works.
  • For goodness’ sake, shorten your reins. My biggest problem! The worst excuse for falling off I have ever heard was, “I didn’t want to hang on his mouth,” so they left the reins long – literally having no control when the horse threw his head up and the reins were 14 inches too long. We just can’t reef in that much rein in time to make an adjustment in steering. Ride with a shorter rein than you think you need. If it is a well trained horse, it’s used to being ridden on contact. Along with that goes the mantra – “let go”. If you are going, don’t hang on; another hard thing to do!
  • Don’t look down (again, one of my problems) and don’t ride with a narrow focus. Keep your chin up and head turning, and take in what is going on – so you can be prepared BEFORE your horse sees the cat jump out of the rafters onto the arena fence. It’s always a good plan to stay on a circle with your horse slightly bent in direction of travel when we are just getting back started. Safer for you and correct for your horse.
  • RELAX. When I started back riding after my injury and rehab, I was a bit worried about my fitness and balance and about the fitness of my horse. I had to get over that worry, and just take it slow. I wasn’t able to ride for an hour first time back. I had to be happy with 15 minutes, and most of that at walk. But I pushed a little more each day back and soon, by the end of the month, I was up to 30 minutes of riding time and able to stay comfortable at all three gaits. I made it organized – today a circle and a half at posting trot, tomorrow, twice around; next day, three times around and so on.
  • Everyone’s experience is different and everyone’s horses are different. Be patient with yourself and your healing process, and with your horse. If you think your horse would be better for you if ridden first by a more able person before you sit on, then do it. Same for lunging. If you think it might be a good idea, then do it.
  • Expect rusty – in everything. Posting will be hard. Your legs and back will hurt. The amount of contact with the reins will be confusing. Stirrups are going to feel short, and you may adjust them a few times before they feel OK again.
  • Don’t let how you feel today make you sad or depressed. Believe in the process and give it time. I ripped off the lowest dressage score I have ever had in a recognized event a year AFTER I had my injury, so you can get back to form and back to competing and riding just as good if not better than you were before injury! Just be smart about your restart! Good luck!