Confession: my pony had off work for 7 weeks and looks like a neglect case.
After seven weeks off any type of exercise plan due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my pony has lost all muscle. He still had some body fat according to our veterinarian and has been eating well, but his entire top line disappeared in under two months. I felt sick to my stomach.
What was I to do?
I wasn’t legally allowed at the barn due to restrictions and my barn owner couldn’t be expected to ride or exercise him multiple days a week while she was trying to manage day-to-day life on her own without any help and 14 horses.
I always thought of him as an easy keeper but the truth is, and my veterinarian agrees, that he cannot be off work for that long because the change is too drastic. I am aware as an Equine Sports Massage Therapist that muscle atrophies quickly. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ferrous was also stressed mentally which contributed to the significant change.
The Mental Aspect of Health
In my line of work I can tell almost immediately the horse that is an over thinker or “worrier” dependent on their stress lines and where they hold tension in their bodies. Stress has an incredible impact on our physical bodies, releasing cortisol and increasing blood pressure.
My pony is incredibly smart and prefers puzzles and games to straight riding exercises. He gets bored, and as a result lazy, easily. While horses in general don’t mind paddock time they often need behavioral enrichment.
What is behavioral enrichment? This is something I learned while volunteering as a docent in the Central Park Zoo.
Environmental enrichment, also known as behavioural enrichment, provides species-appropriate challenges, opportunities and stimulation. Environmental enrichment includes the regular provision of dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities. An enriched environment should promote a range of normal behaviours that animals find rewarding as well as allowing animals to positively respond to potential stressors.wildwelfare.org
Ferrous and I would consistently interact with groundwork, clicker training, and physical exercise in the ring or the trail. Suddenly, our pattern changed and I wasn’t there anymore.
I knew I would be negatively impacted mentally from the separation. However, I absolutely thought Ferrous would be fine without me for a few weeks, especially since I’ve traveled before for 2-3 weeks.
6 weeks in I spoke with my barn owner. I’d been organizing weekly barn happy hour calls on Zoom. After everyone else left she asked me to come and visit him in the paddock. Her words were, “You need him and he needs you.” I cried. She cried. This whole pandemic created so much stress and emotional upheaval. We were all overwhelmed.
The First Visit
I did not sleep the evening before my first visit back to the barn. I texted her ahead to work out a time when I would be the only one there, had my mask and gloves, and walked up to the paddock with wings in my feet.
Perhaps I had visions of him nickering and galloping over to me in this Black Stallion fantasy. I was sorely disappointed.
As I walked up to the gate, he saw me and returned to grazing on the other side of the paddock. I walked over to him and when I reached out to scratch him, he turned his back and walked away.
I was crushed. But, you know, spring grass. When it became clear that all the other horses wanted to say hello but my own, I stepped back and sat in the paddock, just being part of the herd once again and basking in the sun. I stayed there about an hour and then got up, dusted myself off, and said goodbye.
Our relationship is important to me and I don’t demand attention or respect. As a result, we have a very close bond (usually). As I left I turned to find him watching me from where he stood, finally making eye contact.
I visited again soon after and suddenly there was my pony, walking straight over to me to give me a sniff and a greeting. It was like he had to show me that he was fine without me and then all was forgiven.
I groomed him, gave him a full body massage, and realized just how much he’d changed in my absence. Not skinny from lack of food, but from lack of muscle. His neck was sunken, his back looked swayed, and his hunter’s bump was prominent once again.
As I mentioned we had the veterinarian come out for spring shots, where she was a little shocked. I explained to her my plans for rehabbing him and she made a few suggestions. Her most notable one was to invest in the Equiband system, which I’d never heard of but was keen to try after doing some research.
While I had the time off, I’d been planning different exercises for us but made some tweaks as a result of his body condition. He could not be ridden like this right away.
First, the plan was a minimum of 3-4 days of exercise, adjusted easy, moderate, and hard.
1.Groundwork Makes the Dream Work. Predominantly I would be doing groundwork with him: lunging with the and without resistance bands, Cavaletti poles, and in-hand exercises.
2. Bodywork is a Necessity. Massage sessions weekly with chiropractic adjustments periodically as well to assure proper building of muscle, fascia, and strengthening of tendons and ligaments. With little muscle to stabilize, the latter could easily become strained. Luckily I know a great bodyworker (ahem, me) and I have amazing colleagues who make a collaborative effort to get my pony and I in the best shape possible.
3. Slow and Steady for the Win. It’s easy to become bored or feel like you aren’t doing anything because there is no riding time or walking is the predominant speed. Cardio capability comes back before muscle, but walking is the best low-impact strengthener for ligaments and muscle when starting. It can be very frustrating to see others around you trotting their horses or cantering after time off, while you walk by. However, muscle builds from inside out and you will have a more balanced and injury-free horse in the end.
4. Small Increments. Start small. 3-5 sessions weekly for 15-20 minutes for the first two weeks. Make sure to give them a day or two off work and alternate exercises so you are using different muscle groups. Then move to 30-45 minute sessions, alternating easy, moderate, and hard. I like to move between suppling/bending, walk/trot transitions, and canter stretches as well where we canter long sides, walk or trot the short sides, as much as possible to stretch, lengthen, and build lung capacity.
*As the muscle builds back and your horse may be ridden more it is important to have your saddle fit evaluated by an Independent Saddle Fitter. Muscle tone affects saddle fit and vice versa.
Tools of the Trade
- Equiband System
This is not a training system that locks your animal into a position, faking a frame and building muscle in the wrong places. Instead, it is simply a resistance band, that is adjustable and can be used in groundwork AND ridden to strengthen without limiting movement.
The premise is to have slight resistance just above the hocks, under the hamstrings, and another band under the abdominal muscles. When your animal extends he then is reminded to reach underneath himself and works just a bit harder because of the resistance. The abdominal band reminds them to lift their backs. This is strength training using their own body weight in a lifted and extended manner. Learn more at Equicore Concepts.
2. Mini Riser Blocks
I bought these to set up an array of ground poles in low, but varying heights. Ferrous finds Cavalleti poles to be quite fun and he must use his body correctly and think about where he puts his feet. More, it helps to be straight and balanced. I can adjust them to six inches and twelve inches high, and make fun obstacles for us to work.
I purchased the mini blocks from Premiere Equestrian.
Hylofit is a wireless heart rate monitor for horse and rider that uses zone training to set fitness goals, track performance, and prevent injury. I will be using it to track our cardio capabilities, distance, and know when I can perhaps push just a little bit harder for us both. Goodness knows I can use a push myself. I take things a little too easy sometimes. Learn more at hylofit.com.
I’ll be documenting our progress over the next few weeks and months here on the blog. Please follow along and I’d love to hear your own experiences in the comments. I hope that my lessons will help others to turn a negative (the time off and muscle loss) into a positive (more balanced and strength), in the end.