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In the last instalment of our story, 'Our Kissing Spine Journey – Part 2 | Rehab: From The Ground Up', I shared my experience of the start of the rehabilitation process with Dee, how I tailored the recommended exercise plan to suit her, and how I tackled the issue of keeping it interesting! In this last part of our story, I reflect on what it was like to get back in the saddle and look at where we are at 18 months down the line from her initial diagnosis.
I can still remember the day we got back on Dee (D-Day) like it was yesterday. My stomach was in turmoil with mixed emotions; excitement, fear, hope, worry. How would she react? Would all of the groundwork have paid off?
We had worked so hard; laid the foundations, restarted her from the ground, taken our time, listened to her before moving to the next stage, ensured she had received the right medical and physical treatments. Would it have been enough?
We had been working her on long lines for a couple of weeks, in full tack by this point, to get her accustomed to the feeling of a saddle on her back again. So, on day one of my return to the saddle, we tacked up and long lined her as usual for fifteen minutes or so. Then it was time. I stood on the mounting block in the school and took a deep breath. Every fibre of my being was desperately praying for a positive reaction as I put my foot in the stirrup and gently lowered myself into the saddle. Dee stood quiet as a lamb and, as my instructor gave her a pat and reminded me to breathe, I closed my leg on and asked her to walk on.
Five minutes in walk was all we wanted her to do that first day; a couple of laps, no pressure, all quite passive. I remember my instructor advising me to try to ride ‘normally’ but I still felt like she was made of glass and I struggled to not ride her like she might explode or break at any point. However, she was good as gold and calmly walked round the school, seemingly quite happy to do so. I remember how weird it felt, like I was riding a different horse, because she was carrying herself in a completely different way to the way I was used to. No longer inverted, tense and high headed but relaxed, supple and rounded.
I cannot describe the emotions I felt after that first little ride; tears of relief and happiness pricked my eyes as we halted and I felt the hope grow stronger inside me. My instructor clearly felt just as proud and relieved as she came over to us and patted Dee. This photo was taken at that moment and is one of my most treasured images of our journey, as I think you can literally feel the emotion from all three of us in this image.
From that day forward, we gradually added ridden work back into Dee’s routine and into our rehab plan. We started with short, ten minute schooling sessions in walk after some groundwork, or a hack around the block with some hill work, and built it up from there. We also continued to use the same chambon under saddle as we had used to support her groundwork, to keep consistency in the way we wanted her to carry herself and to aid and support her move back into ridden work.
For the next few weeks, we gradually increased the length of time she was ridden and then we introduced trot after about two weeks of walk work. To keep it interesting, we mixed her week up with a combination of flatwork, pole work and hacking. For me, the biggest hurdle was resetting my mindset and way of riding Dee and learning that, nowadays, I could ride her like any other horse; I could have a rein contact, I should have my legs firmly on and I could expect a response to my aid, as opposed to an explosion. It was really hard and, to this day, I am still at times way more passive than I need to be when I ride her.
She wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t a miracle transformation; she hadn’t transformed into Valegro overnight and she still had moments of tenseness and a tendency to default towards an inverted carriage, which is to be expected after several years of being in pain and carrying herself a certain way. Do not under estimate the impact of the remembered pain and the muscle memory the horse will have – this is probably the hardest part to repair. However, from the perspective of those of us who knew her, she was a changed horse. On the ground, at work and under saddle, she was so much more visibly relaxed, calm and happy in herself and she was a much nicer ‘person’ to be around. At the point she was due to come home with me, she was walking and trotting under saddle for twenty minutes at a time and was now working at a canter on the ground. Her weekly structure was three days ridden and three days groundwork, with one day off a week.
Moving her back to our yard, away from the comfort zone we had created and the daily support of my instructor, was another point at which I felt terrified, uncertain and anxious. I would say our first few weeks back at home saw a little bit of a set back in our progress, which was totally down to me losing some self confidence and having a wobble in my ability to go it alone. However, luckily I recognised this and have no issue admitting to myself when I am not helping a situation, so I was able to put measures in place to stop my self-doubt getting in the way of our progress.
Initially, I paid my instructor to come twice a week to teach and work with us, and I reviewed our rehab plan and routine to see where it needed tweaking to better suit my strengths, preferences and abilities. For example, despite trying to crack it, I am USELESS at long reining – I just get my hands all in a pickle! So I adapted our groundwork so that we would only long rein outside the school on hacks, as I was better able to manage the lines on the straight than in the school. I also decided to learn how to work with Dee in hand, to prevent too much work on a circle with one line.
In the coming weeks and months, we had many ups and downs – we had good rides and bad rides, break throughs and setbacks, I felt hope and I felt deflated – but that is horses! Kissing Spine or not, horses are living, breathing beings with opinions and a personality. It was easy to forget that at first and attribute every moment of tension, every objection to what I was asking her and every marish moment to pain. I was a nervous wreck at points and it took me a long time to be able to move past that ever-present fear that she was in pain. I had to come to the realisation that treating her Kissing Spine was not going to remove her opinionated, sassy, stroppy, marish behaviours and that if she threw her head up during a session or had a stubborn moment where she did not wish to do what was being asked of her, it didn’t immediately mean she was in pain or going backwards. I don’t think that worry will ever completely go away; in the back of my mind, I am always on high alert trying to read her behaviours and ascertain whether they could be pain related. However, I have now got to a point where I am not expecting perfection 100% of the time.
I have had to learn to adjust my expectations on both Dee and myself over the last two years. I have also had to learn to be patient, beyond all things. I was, at times, working towards an expectation in her ability, my ability or both that was totally unrealistic and losing sight of the level we were at and what any other ‘normal’ horse and rider would be achieving at that point. I also had to learn to adapt my routines, my plans and my focuses to suit her needs and what she responded well to, and to accept that things take time.
For example, schooling will never be Dee’s happiest place but she loves to hack. So, I adjusted her routine about eight months ago to include only one or two schooling sessions under saddle a week and increase her hacking – it worked a treat and I now get 1000% more from one schooling session with her than I did when I was doing three or four in a week. In short, I was being far too rigid in my methods, way too hard on myself, comparing our progress unfairly and being overly critical of us both, which resulted in us losing the enjoyment along the way.
Dee and I are now eighteen months down the road from our first diagnosis, and what a journey it has been. Dee is back at full capacity and, to those who knew her before, is a different horse. I still work to quite a structured routine with her day to day, to ensure we stay on track and that she remains fit and strong, and I have continued with a maintenance plan when it comes to regular physio etc. But generally speaking, she is just like any other horse now and we have even been able to get out (in between lockdowns) to do a beach ride and some cross country... and enjoy it!
I can honestly say that both Dee and I have gone through a transformation of sorts during that time and we are both so much happier, more confident and more relaxed than we were. I have found the pleasure in riding again, as has she, and I now see a smiling face and pricked ears in most of my photos and videos, as opposed to grimaces, tears, stress and sadness. Looking back and seeing how far we have come gives me a boost whenever I am having a moment of self doubt or questioning our progress.
The decisions I made in how I approached Dee’s treatment and rehab, for us, were categorically the best decisions I have ever made. It has been the most educational period of my life, when it comes to horses, and I would be lying if I said it was easy or enjoyable – it is a hard slog and the rehab is life long, so you have to be prepared to commit financially, physically and mentally to having a KS horse. Be prepared to mess it up at times, to back track, to question yourself and to look back and kick yourself for things you would have done differently. But, when it goes well, you will smile wider than you ever have, feel elation and pride beyond measure, see your confidence soar and know that the bond and love you share with your horse is rock solid.
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'.