by Linda Chamberlain
The vet looks at your horse, shakes her head and says the fateful words…BOX REST.
If you are like me, you might consider arguing or negotiating or trying to find another way. Because, if you keep your horses in a herd, roaming on tracks and paddocks, you will be causing enormous stress to an animal that might have his own methods for getting well, something we humans don’t always understand.
There is also the worry that by confining your injured horse you might be causing additional physical harm so in this article I’m going to examine ways of minimising the risk and questioning whether horse keepers use box rest too often and for injuries that might do better with an alternative approach.
Tomas Teskey (left), the US vet, is convinced that confinement can be detrimental. ‘When it comes to healing and rehabilitating horses from most any problem, movement and providing for freedom of movement is at the top of the list,’ he said.
‘Horses do more damage to their bodies and psyche when confined. Even horses with serious injuries heal more completely and more quickly when allowed freedom of movement with friends on a grass diet. This is easy to understand when we realize how horses have been healing themselves for millions of years.’
OK, many of you will be thinking that a wild horse with a broken leg will be a dead horse. Don’t worry. We will be hearing in a moment from the owner of a domestic horse that is recovering from a broken tibia following three months of box rest. I am not saying there isn’t a need for confinement but the keep-still-and-put-your feet-up approach is used for abscesses, tendon injuries, laminitis and other conditions that cry out for gentle movement. The right type of movement can have a vital role in bringing a long-lasting recovery.
This is my horse Sophie who is determined to introduce me to the A-Z of equine ailments. Last autumn we sampled a serious one – strained tendons – and no, it wasn’t caused by my wild riding. They were swollen, in the classic bowed shape, and I had a vet look her over. She needed to rest but I wasn’t going to put her in a stable, I don’t have one.
However, I do have a very sizeable sick bay in their woodland home. It is a fenced area, with a gate, around their field shelter. It is mainly concrete, has some lovely shade and a deep straw bed at one end. Within a few days of this type of ‘confinement and gentle movement’ with her friend, Charlie Brown, she was walking well.
After a couple of weeks I thought she was ready for more space but I was wrong and she was lame again the next day. This kept happening. We were going into winter and I couldn’t find a space that would give her safe turnout. We were walking her out in hand with Charlie Brown following at liberty and she was improving but she wasn’t back to full strength.
And then I remembered a part of our track that would be ideal. It was flat, predominantly concrete, with a soft spot under some pines for resting. The hard ground meant she wasn’t inclined to trot when she shouldn’t even though it was mostly covered with leaf litter (see left). The flatness ensured there were no jolts to her legs and no slips. We had a challenging winter in the UK but fortunately, by the time the snow lay deep on the ground she must have been strong enough to cope with some excitement and speed.
Tomas Teskey’s thoughts chimed with my own. ‘Freedom of movement with other horses in a track system or as large of an area as possible works especially well when combined with natural hoof care, which respects the horse’s natural abilities to heal their bodies through improved circulation and sensation,’ he said.
‘Diseases and problems that are thought to be incurable really are incurable by conventional means. Only when we respect horse’s natural abilities to heal themselves when provided the ingredients they need to heal do we enjoy witnessing their healing process. This is accomplished by allowing horses to build strong feet, strong bodies and a strong immune system, using natural hoof care techniques, space to move, a grass-based diet, appropriate complementary supplements, and herd mates. Balancing the teeth is important as well, as confined horses develop many specific problems with their teeth. This is best accomplished with hand tools and an eye for improving and maintaining healthy tooth angles.
‘Increasing movement in relatively small areas is possible with the use of perimeter fencing, track systems, hay nets stuffed with grass, friends to chase and be chased by, and other habitat-enriching things, like gravel, ground poles, water or mud, and barrels. The human fear of horses hurting themselves or worsening their injuries is unfounded, and is actually responsible for horses failing to heal or developing further disease and disability.’
So it was an exciting moment for me when we could gradually increase Sophie’s space and take longer walks in hand. There has been no return of the lameness and she was brilliantly calm when we took up riding once more.
Vet Ralitsa Grancharova (right) is another firm believer in horses living outdoors in a herd and I was interested in her views on healing tendons with gentle movement.
She said: ‘Horses with injuries usually require a small area for the time of recovery for two reasons. Firstly, especially when it comes down to tendon injuries, they shouldn’t overdo it and move too much, too quickly or jump. Secondly if they are on painkillers, movement is not recommended as lack of pain may give the false sense of lack of damage and therefore allow more damage to occur through too much movement too soon.
‘Horses with tendon injuries usually need rest in the first few days. However box rest without any sort of movement is also not ideal for a tendon injury. Most human physios agree that tendon injuries require some sort of strain on the damaged area as to help promote healing in a way that will allow usage of the damaged tendon in the future. Otherwise stagnation and lack of usage will lead to repeated damage when the tendon is fully healed and the patient returns to their normal lifestyle.
‘Balance between rest and movement is essential and should be applied in the correct time frame, which is strictly individual, but in general acute tendon injuries require rest and chronic ones or ones recovering over a couple of weeks to a month require movement.
‘The amount of movement should be carefully determined based on how it affects the damaged area, the emotional state of the animal and its overall health.’
So now, let’s hear about Hugo, a newly barefoot cob who could probably tell you everything you need to know about box rest. He suffered an appalling break to his tibia while his owner was on holiday. She returned to take up his care and was advised he needed box rest for three months. The prospect was daunting and all the time she was giving care and comfort her vet was warning there was the very-real prospect that his leg could shatter if he moved on it too much.
How on earth do you persuade a flight animal to keep himself still for three months? Not only that, the challenge is to also persuade your flight animal to stay still and calm once his leg is improving and his brain is becoming increasingly bored.
Hugo’s owner, Peta Donkin, had to be careful what boredom-busting techniques she made use of. A treat ball in his stable was out of the question as the curious cob engaged with them too much…and moved about. He became obsessed with food as it was the only highlight of his day and Peta was able to make use of that.
She takes up the story – ‘His box rest was 12 weeks of complete containment. He didn’t have a bandage or support due to the location of the fracture, and our wish to allow Hugo to lie down if he needed to. I never wanted him to be sedated and tied up, I thought that if I was going to lose him, at least he would have relative comfort if he had to go.
‘So he is a greedy boy, always content if he has something to chew on. To stop him nibbling the wires and cables that run along the wall next to his stable. I had to think of food that would keep him occupied but also keep him still. No treat balls! And keep the barefoot diet in mind!
‘His favourites were whole swedes and whole celeriac hanging on strings or inside little munch nets. I gave him munch nets with fibre blocks in twice a day too.
‘He would also have two buckets of fast fibre every day, as I needed to keep his tummy moving to avoid the risk of colic, but I just tipped the mush out and added fruit and veggies like fennel, carrots, pear, melon, swede, beetroot, lettuce – and he would be able to root about in the pile and get dirty, but love it!! I have some videos of him being noisy and like a pig!
‘Another great boredom breaker was the location of his stable, actually. It’s an open-sided box on a busy yard, always a lot going on and lots for Hugo to see and watch. He became popular in the yard and people always stopped by to give him a cuddle or a pat or a treat! I did have to write a sign for his door to warn people he was recovering and not to over excite him!!
‘I also froze fruit and veg into large blocks when the weather was hotter, and he was a bit more mobile, and just let him have them on the floor. They didn’t last long!!
‘I was actually in America on holiday when the accident happened, and my friend called the vet and was there for Hugo very late into Sunday night! I flew home the next day thankfully, and decided not to move him from the box he’d been placed in. He also needed to be separate from other horses to avoid excitement and the setup of the yard meant he could have company two boxes down but keep the box in between empty. Now he’s having a few hours’ turnout a day, I’m worried as there are other horses all around him, but at the moment he’s next to a 30-year-old who doesn’t move much, thankfully. I still need to keep him still and calm and not encourage any running about.’
She found his hooves deteriorated during this period since they couldn’t be picked up to clean, let alone trim. Latest report from Peta is that Hugo’s hooves are much improved after a trim and he is out 24/7. My tip for managing bare hooves that can’t be picked up is to invest in a little decorator’s tool called a Stanley Surform which are only a few pounds from a DIY store. They are a mini rasp and if you stand your horse on soft ground or bedding you can tidy up and stop them getting long. Great for elderly or arthritic horses, too.
Well, dear readers, I hope you never have to do as much nursing as Peta and I have done in the last few months. If you do, I hope this article helps. And if you need to consult a vet about an alternative approach to healing you can’t do much better than seeking out Tomas Teskey (email@example.com) or Ralitsa Grancharova (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It’s the 100th anniversary of women winning the vote this year. I will be interviewing some very special women whose work has always been a male preserve – trimming horse’s hooves.
BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.
My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This page-turning book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society.
‘I originally bought this book from Linda at a horse show a couple of years ago but only just got round to reading it. I wish I had read it ages ago! I was absolutely gripped from the first page. It is brilliantly written, well researched, and told with compassion.’ – Amazon UK reader.
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