Earlier this spring (as you might recall), my horse Hannah returned to Kentucky from a winter training stint in Florida feeling "not quite right" under saddle. A few chiropractic and veterinary exams later, my trainer, veterinarian, and I collectively agreed the best "treatment" for my 4-year-old--who had most likely been worked harder than she should have been while away--was simply some rest.

The summer hay belly Hannah needs to work off is evident as the vet gives her a once-over.

Photo: Kevin Thompson

Now that Hannah has enjoyed five months of vacation, my vet has given me the green light to start riding her again. When she told me there was no reason not to put Hannah back in work, I was thrilled. I immediately called my parents to gush about how good our little homebred was feeling, and I begged my boyfriend to come to the barn to see how well she'd progressed. Then I looked at the list of rehab instructions my vet had left me: five days trail riding at walk; five days trail riding and hills at walk/trot; seven days walk, trot, canter; return for re-evaluation. Reality check. Getting Hannah back to her former self wasn't going to be quick and easy and awesome.

First of all, despite sporting a grazing muzzle all summer, Hannah looks like she's due to give birth to twins any day now. She's overweight, incredibly out of shape, and easily winded. Secondly, although she just turned five, Hannah is still young and green and slightly unpredictable.

Hannah and I enjoy views of endless horse pastures during our evening trail rides.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

This means I can't really do a whole lot with her until she regains some of her stamina and sheds a few pounds. It also means trail riding across the 250 acres of rolling hills I'm lucky enough to access is safer said than done. Like many of you, I'm sure, I do have a regular 8-to-5 job. By the time I change from work to riding garb and drive the 20 miles in rush-hour traffic to the barn each evening, most of the other boarders are untacking and turning out for the night. And if asking an energetic 5-year-old to walk around on a loose rein isn't challenging enough, try encouraging her to do so without any buddies.

We're now on Day 5 of our vet-prescribed strengthening and rehab exercises and so far, so good. I've discovered that the sponge balls pet stores sell as cat toys make for great equine ear plugs. They might be neon pink and green, but they do help quiet the boogeymen. I've also learned the evening turnout schedule and know which paddocks to avoid riding by (i.e., don't let Hannah sight in on horses running and bucking with joy when released). And when I sense a spook or buck brewing, I point Hannah up a hill; her playful antics are suddenly no longer worth the effort.

Also, I keep my cell phone in my pocket at all times and stay within eyesight of the barn. One of these days when we do find a trail riding buddy, I'll venture to the other side of the property and try out those hills for change. But for the time being, I don't want to risk a 250-acre horseless walk of shame back to the barn in the event Hannah has a truly youthful moment.

I'm sure everyone's situation is different and we all face individual challenges when rehabbing or conditioning a horse. What are your tricks or routines for safe rehab?