Since I don’t know the day Harley was born, I count the first of the year as his birthday like they do for thoroughbreds, which means he is 19. Yes, he is getting up there, but he is pretty spry. He doesn’t wan’t to retire yet, and he gallops around with Chaco easily. Christmas Day 2017 he came up completely lame in his left front leg with swelling and heat. Each time I wrapped his leg he would shake with fear due to the pain. It killed me. It broke my heart, and ever since that day he has had a recurring gimpiness in his left front leg. I call it gimpy, because even though I wouldn’t call it a full limp you can tell it bothers him from time to time.
Harley is the best horse. He will do whatever you ask of him simply because he trusts you to not lead him into trouble. For years he gave kids rides at a local dude ranch serving as the horse in their cowboy dreams. I often wonder how many times the kids kicked him pretending to chase after the bad guys, or how many screamed and cried scared to death; he never bucked anyone off as far as I know. What I do know is when my neighbor brought her toddler over one morning, he ran the other way. He wanted nothing to do with any kid anymore. Can you blame him?
While he was at the dude ranch, they never did any physical conditioning, so Harley is going to have a sway back. He carries all of his weight down in his stomach because of this, and I feel that this lent to the problems with his leg. They also didn’t take care of his hooves at all, and his toes were way too long and he walked toe first. His front left hoof was the worst. In another blog to come, I’ll tell you about how I learned how to trim hooves because of him, and how his hooves are in much better shape.
When Chaco went in for surgery, I decided to do exactly the same rehabilitation with him as I did with Chaco. He got a month on small turnout, and I began walking him for fifteen minutes a day when Chaco started. Now we are doing 25 minutes a day. As he progressed I added poles, and we walked and then trotted over them. However, I never put him on the lunge line; instead I led him through all of the routines. Each time after our works I expected him to be sore, but each time he comes out of it better and better.
This is when I realized this is a much better way to work with a senior horse. Why in the world should they be put on the lunge and forced to do circles, which can be hard on their joints? Harley and I trot circles together, but his leg seems to handle them better when we trot them off the line and together instead. Why? Off the lunge, he and I can vary the circle size based upon how he is doing that day. I think not having the strain of sustaining the same size circle over and over is much easier on his joints, and I can trot him out of it into a straight line whenever I want. Basically, getting away from the lunge allows for a lot more creativity in what you can do with your horses and how to get them back into shape. We can easily vary the exercises without the constraint of the lunge line, and the fantastic thing is he has lost weight while his leg remains sound.
I do several targeted exercises based upon Jec Ballou’s book, Equine Fitness, for both of the horses. I find that they really create balance and symmetry in the horses, and they help strengthen and warm up the joints in a beneficial way. Instead of riding Harley through the exercises, we do them all on the ground together. Soon we will do them under saddle, but this was a great way to start. I like going through the obstacles with him for another reason; it really develops a strong relationship. When he sees that I am right there with him, it strengthens our partnership; he doesn’t have to face it alone. Harley wasn’t worked in the arena much at all during his life after his initial training, so everything I’m asking of him is new and mentally challenging for him. It can be scary, so being by his side helps. More importantly, we have a lot of fun together. For Harley the exercises have helped strengthen up his back, and I did get it to lift a couple of inches since I brought him home.
This weekend it is time to put a saddle on him and ride him for fifteen minutes. I’m looking forward to see how he does. When I can start riding Chaco, Harley will be by his side each step literally. He is healthy and sound enough to hit the trail with Chaco again, and his age isn’t slowing him down. He will let me know when he’s ready to retire, but for now, he is as eager to go as Chaco is.
Forget that lunge and really work WITH your horses instead of standing there while they run around you. It is a lot more fun, a lot more creative, a lot more dynamic, and a heck of a lot more beneficial for you and your horses; senior or otherwise.