Updated: Jan 10, 2021
The short answer is equine rehabilitation is the restoration of the horse to his original manufacturer's specifications. This includes restoring fully emotional stability, natural unrestricted movement, comfort, and overall health...or at least as much as possible.
While this may sound simple, a horse's body is a many splendored compilation of interwoven systems. Once there's been a disruption from "normal," returning all those pieces to optimal working order can be a complicated task since one or many of those systems may be involved.
Let's Be Specific
There are two main categories we're dealing with when we're rehabbing the horse. Physical rehabilitation and psychological. These two aspects of your horse's being might seem separate, but nothing could be further from the truth. They are so utterly entwined that you might as well think of them as one.
There is no way for a horse to be physically uncomfortable without it having an emotional affect on him (or her). Likewise there is no way for a horse to experience mental distress without it having some physiological impact on the body.
Keeping that in mind, let's take a closer look at each category independently strictly for convenience sake.
Anything that relates to the body falls under this heading. It includes but is not limited to hooves, muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, teeth, posture, and movement. Problems in any of these areas can cause pain, limit mobility, and alter behavior.
Under this category falls emotional issues such as learning problems, unwanted behavior, and the fallout from traumatic experiences. Unfortunately equines experience emotional distress far too often due to the prevalence of fear-based and forceful training techniques and misconceptions about their natural behaviors, and high level emotional capacity. Horses are also very sensitive to pain. That makes it easy to ask way too much far too quickly. The result is a horse that is coping vs. thriving and can result in the horse experiencing confusion, anxiety, developing reactive behavior, or becoming emotionally withdrawn. .
How Can We Help?
The first step in the rehab process is to recognize the problem. When a horse refuses to cooperate, regularly acts fearfully, is chronically nervous, or seems to have "checked out," that's a sign he would benefit from a physical and/or emotional makeover. We can start by reducing stress and making sure the horse has everything a horse needs to be a balanced individual. This includes room to run and play, friends to interact with, a proper diet, compassionate handling, and physically compatible exercise. Doing more fun things with your horse that encourage engagement, curiosity, and play. will make your horse feel tons better too. Rehabilitation is not just about making a horse less awful. It's about restoring his enthusiasm and interest in life!
Restoring the Body and the Mind
A general working knowledge of equine behavior and biomechanics are going to serve you well during the rehab process. There are also some highly qualified behavior-based trainers with education in applied animal behavior who can help.
When I'm rehabbing a horse, my favorite tools for creating trust and confidence in a fearful or aggressive horse are choice, clicker training, low/reasonable expectations, and non-reactivity - in me not them. Being able to express themselves without negative consequences is a vitally important part of the process. It is empowering for the horse and valuable to me to know exactly how the horse is feeling.
When addressing physical issues, I first assess the horse for areas of imbalance, pain, asymmetry, and dysfunction. I evaluate the condition of the hooves, teeth, observe movement, and scrutinize the horse's musculature to see what adjustments need to be made going forward. Then I design a management and exercise program that best suits the horse's needs - continuous reassessment being another important aspect of the process. That may also include body work, a visit from the neuromuscular equine dentist, and regular visits from my barefoot farrier. Last but no less important, I formulate a balanced diet for the horse to ensure he is receiving the right nutrients to support overall health and healing.
Slow and Gentle
The process of rehabilitating a horse should always be carried out with the the horse's best interests ahead of anything else. That means he chooses the pace at which he progresses and we ask for what he can do, not what he can't. Our number one goal is to set our horse up for success.
In general horses are pretty easy going creatures. They are quite willing to do what we ask of them. It's our job to make sure they are physically and mentally prepared, willing, and capable of performing those tasks. Rehabilitation gives those horses that have had less than ideal experiences a second chance at enjoying a far better life experience and more able to enjoy a joyful partnership with us.
Seeing a once uncomfortable stressed-out horse become happy, relaxed, engaged, and capable of using his body as nature intended is an incredibly rewarding experience...one I HIGHLY recommend. Anytime we can help another being, especially one who has done so much for us, have a better life is definitely time and effort well spent.
After (and we're not done yet)