Show and competition season is well under way now, and my diary is absolutely full every week, with clients wanting to get the best from their horses performance and resolve symptoms from stiffness on one rein and resistance to canter, to bucking, napping and unresolved lameness. Every horse is individual. Every treatment is individual. Every recovery is individual.
When you explain in generic terms that every horse responds in an individual way, people accept this and seem to understand the concept. However, as treatment commences, their first question is nearly always “So how long will he/she take to recover?” Well, I can offer other examples with similar issues, generalise from those examples and give an approximate timeframe, but the point is that recovery is individual and no horse follows a standard handbook. We can only generalise using a combination of information on the history of the problems experienced, an assessment of the level of musculoskeletal imbalance and discomfort, early indicators of response to treatment and the average time it takes other horses with similar issues to recover.
So what affects recovery and return to full performance? Clearly the longer a problem has been present, the more likely it is to have produced chronic symptoms, with the horse learning new movement patterns or behavioural habits to cope. Changes in movement patterns and behaviours post-treatment can occur very quickly, and this is generally the expectation of many horse owners, but they can also take a few weeks or months to completely resolve particularly if the physical strength of the horse is affected (for example, muscle wastage over the topline has occurred).
Horses who have a combination of a highly sensitive disposition and high intelligence, are very quick learners who are highly attuned to the situation they find themselves in. Where it may take a number of repetitions of a stimulus for a more placid character to exhibit changes in their behaviour, these quick learning horses are far quicker to respond to even the first presentation of that stimulus and produce new behaviours or coping mechanisms. However, they will not ‘unlearn’ or change their behaviour simply because the stimulus (ie pain or discomfort) has been removed; they have now produced a new neural pathway of action in their brain, which they will use even if, (in our eyes,) it is no longer necessary. It therefore takes time for these horses to return to previous performance levels, and may require careful and thoughtful adaptation of rehabilitation exercises.
Thirdly every horse has an individual cellular ‘recovery rate’. Have you ever noticed how some horses can cut themselves and the mark barely shows 24 hour later? Then, others can incur a similar injury and have swollen limbs, a strong inflammatory response at the site of the injury and take at least a week to fully recover, (or even longer!) Response to injury is individual and cannot be hurried. So while therapeutic treatment aims to initialise the healing process where chronic issues have manifested, or to speed up the healing process where pain and discomfort are in evidence by reduction and removal of the causes of that pain, treatment really is only a ‘stimulus to change’ and how the horse’s body uses that stimulus is… you guessed it….. individual!
I once heard a wise man advise his young friend that there was no point in getting upset or pushing for a result that the horse wasn’t able to produce; better to relax, wait and help the horse rather than try to force it. As we all know, horses can be the definition of frustrating at times, but why waste energy and stress when as this old boy once said, “Everythin’ takes its own time”…