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In my last article, 'Our Kissing Spine Journey – Part 1 | Diagnosis', I shared the story of my horse Dee’s Kissing Spine diagnosis, from my initial worries about her health to finally finding an answer to what was causing her behavioural issues under saddle. In this article, I focus on the rehab stage and how we began the process of rehabilitating Dee, from the ground up.
Now, I will start by saying that I firmly believe that the rehab is categorically the most important part of the Kissing Spine journey and the pivotal point between successful or unsuccessful recovery. I did A LOT of research and reading into the rehab stages before Dee’s treatment and there are so many varying opinions, options and directions in what is right, wrong or otherwise. So much so that I actually felt totally overwhelmed, confused and anxious about what the right thing to do was. However, one thing that did stand out clearly was that those who had dedicated time, energy and consistency to their rehab plans, seemed primarily to be the ones who had the more positive outcomes.
I don’t believe that one size fits all when it comes to horses. Every horse is completely different in what will suit them, what will bring the best results and over what time span, and only you and the professionals working with you and your horse can decide this. However, I would also stress the importance of listening to your gut instinct; you know your horse best and your personal knowledge and feelings about your horse’s health can be invaluable alongside professional advice.
I began by seeking the advice of my vet on what he felt we needed to do rehab-wise. Because we had treated with injections as opposed to an operation, his advice from a medical standpoint was that we could begin work under saddle pretty swiftly. So he gave me a very basic, four week rehab plan under saddle to work with. I also sought the advice of Dee’s physio who gave me some fantastic guidance and taught me the most beneficial carrot stretches to do with Dee before and after working her, as well as lots and lots of exercises to build her up, using raised poles, labyrinths, bending exercises etc.
I immediately knew that getting back on her within a few days and starting from there wasn’t going to be right for Dee, or for me. Aside from the fact that she had been out of work for a few months and was unfit and weak, she was also going to have to overcome the psychological aspects of having spent potentially several years in discomfort under saddle. I was also going to need to adjust my mindset, overcome my anxieties and be able to get back on board positively. For me, jumping straight back on felt wrong for us, instinctively.
So, armed with the advice and plans from the professionals, I then set about writing a bespoke rehab plan to suit Dee and I – combining the professional guidance with my own research and knowledge and the assistance of my instructor. The end result was an initial, four month (very detailed) plan, mapping out exactly what needed to be worked on day by day, week by week, for how long and in what way, in order to get us to the point that we were back under saddle and riding away.
It was intense and those feelings of being overwhelmed never left me through the early parts. I knew that a rehab plan as full on as Dee’s was not something I could do alone; not only did I need someone with more experience but also someone who had the time to dedicate to this alongside me. So I made the decision to move Dee to my instructor’s yard for the first few months and pay for rehab livery, so that I was not in it alone and to ensure Dee got 110% of the time, expertise and knowledge she deserved. It was the best decision I ever made and I whole heartedly think our progress and outcome would be very different had I tried to take it all on singlehandedly.
The first eight weeks were to be groundwork only, I wanted to build her back up slowly and properly, so that she was strong and able to adjust to working correctly, and mentally I wanted to start her again to help reset her mind and attitude. She also had physiotherapy bi-weekly throughout this period. We began with two weeks of just walk, in long lines, starting with 10 minutes twice a day, utilising a huge array of pole work exercises, labyrinths and straightness exercises, whilst also taking her out of the school and on hacks in the long lines, with hill work. Getting her straight and engaging her core were the two main goals to start with and then we moved on to working on her flexibility and bend. Raised poles were amazing for getting her to lift her core in walk, stepping across straight poles got her stepping under, and the in hand hacks kept her interested and working without realising it.
After the first two weeks, we slowly introduced trot work; again starting with a minute or so of trot and building up gradually. Finally, after around 6 weeks, we added in some canter work. We mainly long lined her, but we did also lunge on one line some days or take her in hand on others. She was also turned out daily. At week 6, we also reintroduced the saddle and worked her from the ground but with the saddle on a few times a week. The purpose of this was to test her reaction to it but also to ensure that it didn’t come as a total shock once we started ridden work again.
Throughout all of this, I also used a massage pad to warm her back muscles up before any exercise and then a magnetic rug after, both of which Dee seemed to enjoy and she tended to respond better than if we worked her without it.
We also felt that, because Dee carried herself so inverted and upside down and had done for so many years, a training aid would be useful and beneficial to her, to gently encourage and guide her back into the correct frame. We opted for a chambon that came from between the legs and attached to the bit rings and only ever went taught if she really raised her head up high – it was suitable for ground and ridden work, so something to see her through all stages of the rehab. It was also gentle and didn’t fix her into a position. We used it just twice a week or so, the rest of the time she was unaided. Not everyone agrees with or likes aids and that is a personal choice but, for me, it was a useful tool in aiding the process and one she has responded well to.
I would say the main challenge I faced in the groundwork stages was keeping it interesting – groundwork twice a day every day becomes quite dull for both human and horse after a while, no question about it, and I wanted to retain Dee’s engagement and also ensure she was having a positive experience. By constantly changing what we did, utilising all sorts of different pole layouts and mixing hacking with school work, we managed to keep it as engaging as possible. No two days were exactly the same and I spent HOURS of my life on the internet every day looking up new exercises and layouts to try. I found anything that challenged Dee’s mind and really made her think seemed to be her favourite, whereas anything too mundane would see her losing interest or predicting your next move.
From the human standpoint, the initial period of rehab was… terrifying! You are so consumed with feelings of anxiety and worry over whether they are still in pain, whether the treatment will have worked, whether all of the time and money spent will be worth it, that it is sometimes really hard to see the wood for the trees. Every tiny set back seems like the end of the world and you become obsessed with progress, progress, progress. You are scared to hope because the pain of that hope being extinguished is too much to contemplate. Yet you are so elated every time a step forward is made. It is mentally draining, combined with being physically draining, and just a real rollercoaster of emotions. Having my instructor by my side through all of it kept me sane, kept me realistic and gave me a voice of reason – a support network is key!
However, thankfully, after 8 weeks of solid groundwork Dee was looking amazing! She was fitter, stronger and happier and really seemed to be enjoying her work – she was calm, willing and jolly. Her topline was coming through and her frame was a million miles improved from day one. The time spent with her throughout this also meant our relationship and bond had strengthened tenfold, which I believe also contributed largely to our future progress, and there seemed to be a light flickering at the end of a long, dark tunnel. A part of me began to believe that maybe this would work, maybe I had done the right thing…
Find out how they got in the third installment of Cara and Dee's Story, 'Our Kissing Spine Journey - Part 3 | Rehab: Back In The Saddle'.
For more information on Kissing Spine, including what causes the condition, what the clinical signs are, how it's diagnosed and the treatment options available, please see 'How To Recognise And Treat Kissing Spine'.