Thoroughbred Logic: Rehabbing Injuries, Part Two — Surviving Stall Rest

“Overall, stall rest sucks. But, with patience and a little tactful creativity, most horses make it out and eventually back to the fields and competitions.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week, come along for the ride as Aubrey discusses various options when it comes to surviving stall rest.

Last week, we forayed into the ins-and-outs of rehabbing injuries and peeked at a few options for long-term healing. This week we get to focus a bit more on the hell that is stall rest.

When stall rest happens, there is inevitably a lot of time spent worrying about a horses’s future many months down the road. Equally, there’s a fair amount of time spent worrying about the present and having to”walk” the 1200-lb lit-fuse jumping bean from stall to cross ties, or out back to hand graze. I’ll be honest, I feel like I can sympathize… being cooped up is my personal version of hell (worse though, if someone kept playing “Margeritaville” or Christmas music on repeat).

My most recent stall rest kiddo, Needles Highway, does his best “hey human, let me out” face. Photo by author.

I don’t really know how equine memory functions, so I can’t say if they perfectly remember brighter days of running in fields and tussling their buddies; I bet in some way, though, they do. But watching them watch their friends turn out in the morning, I’m certain there is no question as to whether or not they know that their current situation sucks — a lot.

Stall rest is the type of thing you just slog through day-by-day, month-by-month until the vet gives you the relief of the year all summed up in one short phrase, “Good to go.” Until then, whether or not your horse is “good” or “bad” on stall rest, I have found that ample patience, general creativity, and a few tricks are handy when trying to keeping them as sane as possible in confinement:

1. Provide enough hay to keep them happy

This is pretty simple. Slow feed hay bags are your friend. When they have something to munch on, their stomachs are happier and they’re less distracted by the annoyance of their four walls. Your pony might gain a touch of weight on stall rest, but in my opinion that is better than the inverse option… a hangry, bored Thoroughbred on stall rest? No thanks.

Friends apparently come in all shapes and sizes. Here, Juice (Pulpituity) checks out Zoey’s antics during his stall rest back in 2020. Photo by author.

2. Keep access to their friends and toys (if they care about them).

Horses still need to horse. So, if they can access a friend through a window or an allowed location, great. If not, they will likely find ways to find a friend over top of the stall or spin and paw and generally destroy things in defiance (hell, they might do that anyway). My stalls aren’t perfect for the friends aspect, but it is possible for the resting horse to touch and snuffle a buddy through a partially open door (using a stall guard or the like) or their small window. That access often goes off the rails around here and games of bitey face get intense, but it helps keep them sane(r) in the short and long run.

Friends are good. Matching friends are better. Photo by author.

Toys, fancy salt licks, etc. all are fine if your horse will play with them. The only thing that mine have ever actively enjoyed were stuffed animals (odd, I know) and the constant game of toss the halter/blanket/whatever is on the neighbor’s stall bar. Here is Mountain Holiday and Western Ridge being cute during Mountain’s stall rest in 2021.

**In October of last year, we lost Mountain after colic surgery. I miss him more than words can describe, plan to slowly honor his goofy, lovable memory in all the ways. I’ll eventually find the courage to collect those words and write something on that whole experience, but in the meantime, I’m refusing to edit him out of this barn’s past. So there he is, in that same stall where Juice stall rested his suspensory, breaking my heart and being his usual, lovable old-soul goofy Thoroughbred self.

3. Maintain some form of interaction-based schedule.

A schedule doesn’t mean that you need to hand walk at 6 AM sharp every morning, but it does mean that the horse has the opportunity to get out of their stall during the day. Maybe out for a hand graze, or a grooming session, maybe a short walk (if allowed by the vet). If nothing else, it is always valuable to spend time with them — and if you can’t safely groom outside of the stall, you might be able to do so inside.

Crafty remained so ridiculously reasonable through stall rest that he was able to graze in a flat halter with minimal concern. Photo by author.

4. Don’t be afraid to use the “necessary” equipment

Anyone who has stall rested a Thoroughbred (or really, any horse — let’s be fair) probably knows well that each of these moments of interaction could be explosive. So, another tip is to use the necessary equipment to keep you both safe. A horse that can get away from you is likely to re-injure itself in the process of running off. To avoid that, I prefer a relatively rigid rope halter for those that are known to be feisty, but I’m also not afraid of putting a horse in a stud chain to be able to move them around the barn safely. Safety first — for you and for them. So if you need to wear a helmet and protective vest while hand walking them, don’t be afraid to do it. When exiting stalls and going for short outings, a rested horses’ feet often go flying far more often than I’d like — all the better to be prepared.

Juice out on one of his daily hand walks in a rope halter while rehabbing his suspensory in 2020. Photo by author.

5. Don’t be afraid to contact your vet for help

My vet is awesome at helping me construct rehab plans that take both the horse’s mental state and their injuries into consideration. In the same vein, vets can also help get you through stall rest, if needed. Some kiddos require a little extra “assistance” to keep their brains and limbs in tact. So sometimes my friends respond to, “What’s your trick for stall resting so and so?” with a one word answer: “Reserpine” (and I might add: “whiskey”). I have been lucky and thus far have managed to keep them pleasant without pharmaceuticals here, but I’d be running to them if a horse were about to take the barn down or further injure themselves within their four walls. Better living through chemistry is a real thing in the land of rehabbing horses.

Craft Charger popping around his first show back post-stall rest for his stress fractured cannon bone. His rehab was successful and he’s fully back at it, antics and all. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Overall, stall rest sucks. But, with patience and a little tactful creativity, most horses make it out and eventually back to the fields and competitions. It always surprises me when their cooped-up self settles out and returns to the kind, easy-going critter they were before the stall. And when that happens (as it does, every time), I am so grateful.

So, if you’re in this boat, just keep waiting it out (with your vet on speed dial and your bar stocked). And if you have been here before, you know what comes next: the actual rehab and all the literal and figurative ups and downs that come with the process of transitioning from stall to rides and turnout. We’ll get to those parts of rehab a little later this winter. In the meantime, stuff the hay bags, hug your horses, and appreciate all the rides.

Mountain Holiday getting some interaction during his stall rest last year. Did I mention today that I miss that kiddo? Photo by author.