I can't tell you how happy I was to find this article at HC. This was a rough winter for my horses (and, by extension, for me) and making a comeback was a real head-shaker. I had four horses out of five either injured or ill or both for more than four months, and June brought both extreme heat and I real quandary regarding rehabbing these beasties and myself.
Many of my horse friends are trainers or competitive riders. Most of them are hard-driving folks for whom an "easy" workout is two hours of warmup, jumping, dressage, or western disciplines. So when I talked to them about having to bring back four horses into some semblance of fitness, the responses I got were just as I'd expected. Only my vet seemed to be on the slow train to recovery bandwagon. Everyone else was just terrified at the thought that these horses might go months without seeing a jump standard or a pole-bending pattern.
My horses are all seniors, which adds to the complications. There has been ample research done and reported that indicates that continuing a senior horse in work is the best way to ensure good health, sound joints, and a solid mind as long as the work isn't too much for the animal. What is "too much" depends greatly on what disabling conditions the horse may be facing.
Let's start off with a few articles from some popular sources:
From The Horse, we have "Conditioning the Older Horse" and "To Ride or Not To Ride". Both offer some sage advice about how to assess the horse's condition including his mental state, and when it's okay to push his limits a bit.
And from KP Products we have "Dealing With Arthritis in Senior Horses". From that article I pulled this quote, which summarizes the whole work/no-work issue:
There is no doubt that action is better than no action when it comes to mobility. As an osteoarthritis sufferer myself (aren't we all?), I can absolutely, positively state that the pain and stiffness is far less noticeable when I'm moving. Meds help too. Anti-inflammatories come in many varieties. I'm a Mobic fan for myself. My two arthritis horses are on Previcox and doing splendidly.
Of course, arthritis isn't the only issue older horses face. This winter I had the 30-yo (see photo) down with neurological Lyme disease that resulted in muscle spasms and all sorts of sideline injuries from his inability to walk straight. He's healed from the worst of it but there's a problem with aging tissue. It just doesn't rebound like the younger, fresher stuff does. Back in December, he was doing dressage and pole-bending. Not now. Probably not ever again.
The 19-yo found ehrlichiosis somewhere and embraced it. He also had a bruise on on hoof. The fever from the illness caused a laminitic attack. Whoa! He's healed from the worst of it all, but the stone bruise that came as an unrelated bit of fun is just now growing out. He was sound. He will be again. At his younger (relatively) age, he'll wind up just fine, I'm sure. His tissues have been notoriously good at recovering.
The 23-yo was a puzzlement, and we finally settled on a diagnosis of a combination of an actual impact injury (most likely a slip that banged her shoulder against the doorway of the run-in shed) and some arthritis. She recovered nicely, then re-injured the same shoulder in the same way. A second recovery was going swimmingly until the very hard ground caused her to have a stone bruise as well. Even that has now passed, and she's 100% sound.
The fourth problem was a case of "false sole" on the 17-yo's front feet. It took a while to figure out that he'd grown humps that had caused bruises on his soles. I took the rasp to the humps the minute I found them, but the resulting bruises took a couple of weeks to heal. He's fine.
Where I found myself at loggerheads was as the advice rolled in and I began to feel like quite the lazy owner as I was happy to simply walk a recovering horse in the riding ring or up and down the driveway for five or ten or fifteen minutes instead of doing hours of "rebuilding" (as one friend called it). Muscles, I was assured, needed to be rebuilt quickly before they atrophied.
Good point. It's the pace that's in question. So the first article above was a welcome affirmation. Walking is fine. It's fine for old humans. It's fine for old and recovering horses. The cool thing about horses is that they are more than willing to tell you what they need if you'll listen. If the horse is obviously unhappy at the prospect of being saddled and going for a ride, it's probably too soon. If he's huffing and puffing and wants to quit five minutes into the rehab ride, it's too much. If he gets less sound instead of more as you ride, it's too much too soon. If you're having to haul on the reins to get him down to a walk, he's ready to do more.
Always remember that we're their caretakers. They aren't our employees. It doesn't work to be too demanding. What works is keeping them fit and happy at whatever level they can manage.