Twenty-eight days have passed since my retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, fractured a medial sesamoid bone in his pasture, and I hope I’m not speaking too soon when I say things are looking pretty good. This morning we hit a pretty important milestone. But before I get to that, let's talk stall rest. This is a big issue for owners caring for injured horses—especially high-energy injured horses—and if I've learned anything in the past month from hearing friends' stories and reading Facebook status updates, it's that each horse handles it differently.

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Happy's veterinarian, Dr. Ashley Embley of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, preparing his leg for an ultrasound exam three weeks ago. She found no tendon or ligament damage in association with his sesamoid fracture.

Happy’s initial angst (yes, I see the irony in his name here) about and boredom with being stall-bound meant more weaving and stall-walking—his longtime stereotypies. But he quickly settled into a routine of twice-a-day hand-grazing sessions, with a whole lot of snacking on hay interspersed. At my team member Erica's recommendation (her horse has been on stall rest a few times in recent years), I first tried a slow-feed haynet to keep his mind (and mouth) occupied, but I found that it frustrated him more than anything else. (I’d hang it up in the stall, he’d check it out, try to extricate a few pieces of hay, then sneer back toward the stall door with the face of, “Why did you put my hay in a cage!?” Then he’d ignore it, even if I’d filled it with gorgeous timothy hay). Eventually I added a regular haynet beside the slow-feed one before putting the slow-feed back in storage, and I mix the farm's orchardgrass hay with a few flakes of timothy or a timothy-alfalfa mix.

I tried using a slow-feed haynet at first.

Stephanie L. Church

Indeed, it’s been a process learning what works for him and for us. At one point I was looking for additional enrichment items to put in his stall, and I purchased a U.K.-company-produced ball in which you deposit “horse nuts” (not a common phrase here in the States but, on some investigation, I found that it means large extruded feed pellets). Theoretically, the horse tumbles it until the treats fall out of a little hole to the ground. Happy took on the challenge briefly, adamantly pushing the ball until it bounced off the stall walls. Horse nuts were dropping everywhere, but Happy was too occupied with the sound of the tumbling snacks and kicked bedding over them before he could notice their presence. Happy’s determination escalated to pawing at the treat prison before he let out a deep sigh and went back to the haynet. The next morning the ball lay forlornly out in the barn aisle. (If anyone has any tips for getting this to work, or which cube/pellet/treat to put inside the ball that can be seen/detected in a stall with bedding, let me know in the comments below.)

I thought about getting one of the enrichment toys in the form of a treat dangling from the ceiling, but given my horse's propensity for scratching his big, doelike eyes, I’ve decided that items swinging at face-level might not be the best idea.

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This is why we can't have nice things (or at least hang them from the ceiling in the stall)

Grazing sessions have ranged from the mundane to the epic. Happy has, for the most part, kept all four feet on the ground—at least he did for my friends who stepped in to hand-graze him while I traveled for a few days. (Two of them, without consulting each other, texted me to say he was “a perfect gentleman.”) He seems to save his antics for me, so I really must stay on-guard for airborne moments. A few mornings both my podcast-loaded phone and my coffee have ended up on the ground. 

It’s been interesting to watch Happy’s demeanor during this time off. He is generally an easygoing, brave guy, nonplused by usually “spooky” things (I could open and hold an umbrella beside him on a few mornings while my raincoat was in for repairs). Even so, my veterinarian and I made the decision to add reserpine, a long-acting tranquilizer, after a particularly heightened stall-walking and weaving day when we realized his leg wasn’t getting all that much rest.

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The reserpine has subtly altered his reactions to stimuli. For the first few days, he was a bit like a sleepy bull in a china shop. He’d walk determinedly, head lowered, in one direction and seem to forget I was holding the lead. As he motored down a lane between paddocks and I tried to keep up, I’d remind him I was there, and he’d snap back out of his reverie. Also, my generally nonverbal horse began whinnying with abandon when I’d arrive. It’s probable he now associates me with freedom and grazing, but I like to say that the reserpine lowered his nickering inhibitions.

Lately, Happy’s pent-up energy has combined with the slightly dulled demeanor and some chilly, windy days for interesting results. Someone shut their truck door the other night and he was suddenly in the air. Another morning this week I simply sniffled and he leapt sideways.

It’s probable he now associates me with freedom and grazing, but I like to say that the reserpine lowered his nickering inhibitions.

My veterinarian, Dr. Ashley Embley, came out for a recheck this morning. Besides the fact that he didn't take flight during the jog, I'm pleased to report that Happy is sound at the trot and Dr. Embley said the healed wound and the leg itself look fantastic. Happy is as perky as ever, and we’re eagerly anticipating a transition to controlled turnout in the next day or two. This process will bring its own challenges, but they’ll be welcome, because there’s nothing better than fresh air in your lungs, warm sunlight on your back, and green grass at your feet when you’re a horse (well, at least one that doesn’t have metabolic issues).

What challenges have you dealt with when your horse was on mandatory stall rest? How did you cope?

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