Gilly’s rehab after injury: The plan I used to get my horse from walk to canter

By Mairi Mackay

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19th February – First trip out for Gilly and Mairi since the injury. Photo by: Christine Dunnington Photography

It’s been a couple of months since I started working on rehabilitating my horse Gilly from his hock injury late last year, which I wrote about in more detail here. We’re cantering now and will start to pop over a few small jumps soon. This weekend, 11th March, we are going out XC training and while we won’t be doing anything very taxing — some canter work, getting reacquainted with water and maybe a few small jumps — keeping Gilly used to going out and about with other horses and reminding him to stay sane in wide-open spaces is an important part his rehab too.

It’s been a long — and I’m not going to lie – at times tedious couple of months getting to where we are right now. But I have really noticed the benefits of taking things slow and I’ll go into that in a bit more detail later.

Walk

He was very weak after being out of work for eight weeks and Wiola and I decided he should spend a month just walking to gradually get him into condition before asking for anything more strenuous. So, Gilly and I went out on lots of progressively longer hacks, starting at 20 minutes and adding five minutes every four or five days until we reached an hour.

During those hacks, I focused on asking Gilly for a really energetic, swinging walk, making sure that he was working his hindquarters. I also focused on his posture: Gilly can hold his neck high and be hollow and above the bit, so I tried to be vigilant for that and ride him forward into the contact when it happened. I also spent a lot of time riding him on a long rein to keep him as relaxed as possible. Later on, I started riding a few steps in a leg yield both ways and big circles and figures of eight in a field on our hacking route with the aim of making him more supple.

Trot

Gilly started trot work with a few short bursts of trot, which I built up by one minute a day in intervals with walking rests in between. I kept an eye on how he was coping with the extra workload but, because we had taken things slow in the beginning, he sailed through the extra work unfazed, and I decided he could cope with increasing the trot work by two minutes each day. I also shortened the hacks to around 45 minutes.

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When we first started trotting, things were a bit all over the place and he had his nose stuck in the air and was quite excitable. But as we progressed to longer trot sessions and started schooling again, I’ve been able to start to work on the quality of the trot and ask him to work in a better outline. We’ve still got a long way to go but he seems more willing and able to work in a better posture than before his injury.

Canter

By the time we were riding about 20 minutes trot each session, which took about three weeks, Gilly got quite fresh, and we decided that he was fit enough to slowly introduce canter work into the mix. I added it in in exactly the same way as trot: Starting with a few short bursts to see how he felt and then adding a minute a day to build up his stamina and condition. I’ve been doing lots of canter work in a big field near our yard so that he has space to stretch his legs and to get us both used to cantering on uneven grassy surfaces for later in the year when we are competing. This plan is just what I am doing. If you are bringing your horse back into work after an injury or even just into fitness after time off, talk it over with someone knowledgeable who you trust like your instructor or your horse’s physiotherapist, so you can work out the best regime for your particular horse.

Core exercises and ground work

As well as the work he’s been doing under saddle, Gilly has also had a few sessions with brilliant physiotherapist Rachel Keeble and I do exercises she has recommended to strengthen his core before and after he’s ridden. Beforehand, I do a series of balancing exercises and afterwards I do carrot stretches. I do the balancing exercises with Gilly after I’ve groomed him and he seems to find them relaxing. As you can imagine, he pretty much lives for the carrot stretches. I’ve also been working with him in hand doing various ground pole exercises (again recommended by Rachel) and turns on the forehand and haunches and leg yields in walk that Wiola has been helping me with. I’ll talk in more detail about the in-hand work and core exercises in another blog, but I think they have been a great addition in the mix for Gilly’s rehab. I think they are gently helping to re-train him to use his body in a better way — in baby steps and very slowly — but I think they are making a difference.

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Moment caught by Christine Dunnington. Not all photos Chris takes are of “print & hang in gallery” quality. She’s also documenting our sessions in quick snaps, sometimes even with a phone camera 🙂

Although Gilly is at the end of his rehab I will keep doing the in-hand work and pole exercises.  I’m a complete convert to in-hand work. From the ground, it’s easier to see what imbalances and difficulties your horse might be having and it’s helped me to develop my awareness and eye.

When I started a couple of months ago, I was hoping to get Gilly’s hind legs more active and get him off the forehand.

He’s now more willing to walk forward and is getting the hang of using his whole body, although keeping him off the forehand is probably a lifetime of work for both of us! Another of my aims was to improve his suppleness and mobility through the shoulders with lateral work. I think this will take much longer to achieve as he puts a lot of weight on his right shoulder but I’m much more aware of how this manifests in the way he moves and will keep working on it. One real difference I’ve noticed is his willingness to work over his back more and have a better neck posture. I put that down to all the conditioning work we’ve done — and not being obsessed with his neck posture. One of the key things Wiola teaches is to ride the horse from leg to hand and focus on riding the body and not to worry about the neck posture as that will sort itself out once the rest of the body is working properly.

Gilly is almost out of rehab but his training is a work in progress and I’m excited to keep going with everything I’ve learned.

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