When I begin the rehabilitation process with a horse who has physical damage and/or emotional trauma (it's very rare for them to have one without the other), I start them on a path of healing. That begins by putting them on a healthy diet, giving them a horse-friendly home to feel comfortable in, having their feet balanced, and addressing dental issues.
Next steps include evaluating behavioral/emotional needs and creating a comprehensive and compassionate program that will help them recover from whatever they are experiencing, such as fear, anxiety, aggression, or depression.
Assessing physical imbalances, asymmetry, restricted movement, and pain is part of the process too. I look at the body and mind as one cohesive until - each side of the same coin. They both directly impact the other. As and example, pain is stressful and releases stress hormones. So, a horse in pain will be more emotionally stressed and there are chemical responses that occur in the body that have a physiologic affect too.
While these changes are beneficial to the horse, his or her response is not guaranteed to be a positive one....at least not in the short term. Making changes meant to improve the comfort, movement, and mental health for a horse who has been coping or compensating for an extended period of time, sometimes years, can be a very stressful experience. Their bodies and minds are "used to" behaving and functioning in a specific way. Change is good but it's important to accept that it can also be difficult.
The series of photos above show the progress one of the horses that we rehabilitated. The first photo highlights a large hyper-developed neck muscle. In the second photo, he is further along in the process but still has remaining muscle weakness and tension in his body. There is significant improvement in the the third photo and most of the muscular distortion in his neck has decreased. In the last photo he is relaxed, comfortable, and shows healthy musculature in his body and a lovely neck.
When he first arrived, this horse was angry, defensive, and somewhat dangerous to be near. That was completely understandable. He was in a lot of pain and didn't want to be touched. He also had trust issues - no surprise there. His hooves and teeth were unbalanced and causing major discomfort. He wasn't able to move or stand comfortably. At the end of the process, he was a calm happy individual who enjoyed interactions with people and was relaxed and comfortable under saddle. He is currently thriving in a lesson program where he helps riders build their confidence and skills.
It Takes Time
The rehabilitation process takes as long as it takes. It's excessive, force, pressure, and expectations, among other things, that brings these horses to this state of being in the first place. The start-to-finish journey for the paint horse was 2 years.
It may seem daunting to consider rehabilitating a horse with issues, one that you take on or even your own horse that has been "doing okay" even though you know deep down in your heart that something isn't right and could be better.
There is effort, time, and money involved, but there is also the reward of seeing your horse transform into the healthy happy being he or she was meant to be. You will also gain a much more intimate understanding about who your horse is. Going through the rehab process will help you learn how to recognize the signs of physical and emotional distress. It will also give you valuable information you need to make choices that are best for your horse's welfare.