Returning to the Dressage Ring After Injury

Rehabbing competitive dressage horses

Competitive dressage horses are strong, powerful creatures but even the slightest injury can put them out of commission. The stress of training can injure joints, bones and soft tissues. Horses are inquisitive and sensitive creatures, and while that makes them a joy to be around, it can also be troublesome. 

After two years of dealing with a mysterious lameness, Urbanus successfully returned to the ring with Vera Kessels-Barisone. (Credit: Amber Heintzberger)

When the worst-case scenario happens, it can be a long road to recovery. Rehabilitating an injury takes time, patience and sometimes a creative approach as you aim to heal the horse in both body and mind. The location and severity of the injury, your horse’s rate of healing and other factors determine whether he might return to work and how long it might take. 

Generally a horse’s owner/rider, vet and farrier team up to determine if and when he might return to the competition ring and at what level. Perhaps you will have to change your competitive goals to something more suitable to your horse’s physical capabilities or perhaps you’ll go on to achieve international fame. It never hurts to err on the side of caution, but a good dose of optimism can also go a long way. 

World-class dressage horse Verdades, owned and ridden by Laura Graves, once got his head stuck in the bars of a stall and broke his jaw. Grand Prix champion, Urbanus, who was competing with Olympian Michael Barisone, developed a mysterious lameness. And rider and judge Cindy Sydnor’s promising young mare, Fresca, developed laminitis with a 9-degree rotation of the coffin bone. All of these horses have returned to competition and continue to thrive.

The Risks of Curiosity

Laura Graves and Verdades have had a meteoric rise to fame in the dressage world. But before they started winning medals, Verdades, a 2002 KWPN gelding by Florett As, literally stuck his nose where it didn’t belong. The consequences were dire. 

While Verdades is now completely normal to ride, Laura Graves admits that she has had to learn much more about bits and proper fitting after his injury. (Credit: Amy K. Dragoo)

“He was in a stall with the type of stall bars that are hinged so they can be locked either up or down, but they weren’t locked,” recalls Graves. “It happened the summer of 2011 at a farm in Florida. It just so happened that there was a vet at the stable who witnessed the whole thing. He was able to get into the stall and sedate ‘Diddy’ as well as administer antibiotics right away.”

Diddy was taken to Ocala, Florida, to be treated at a medical center. “He was put under anesthesia in order for the surgeon to stabilize the fractures with pins, rods, plates and screws. There were also wires wrapped around his teeth, much like orthodontic headgear, and the exposed metal was covered with acrylic,” explains Graves. “The trauma of the surgery caused such swelling that they also stitched a length of hose up each nostril to ensure he could get adequate air.” Diddy was on stall rest and Graves treated him on a very strict schedule, administering multiple medicines four to six times per day. “I don’t remember the exact dates, but once the majority of the metal was removed, I was allowed to start small amounts of hand-walking,” she says. “I began tack-walking him sooner than anticipated because the hand-walking became more like kite-flying!”

While she was prepared to spend time shopping for different gentle bits, Graves started with Diddy’s usual snaffle. “He was comfortable to wear it, and we just removed the cavesson while we hacked. He has always hacked on the buckle, so this was a good way to keep him busy without having to touch his mouth,” she says. 

“Once we started a little bit of actual dressage again, he would tell me when he was uncomfortable and we would stop. By early 2012 we were back to schooling the Prix St. Georges and were even invited to the Festival of Champions that year. It was remarkable!”

While Diddy is now completely normal to ride, Graves admits that she has had a major education in the past few years regarding bits and their proper fitting. “All of my horses go in Neue Schule [NS] bits,” she says. “In Diddy’s snaffle bridle, he wears an NS Demi-Anky and his double is fitted with the Lozenge Eggbutt Bradoon and Slimma Weymouth. All of the NS bits are designed to be comfortable for the horse and allow a custom fit. Making sure your bits are appropriately sitting in the horse’s mouth, and in the double making sure that they are not interfering with each other is key. Every horse is different.” 

Diddy still has a spot in his mouth where food will get stuck that Graves has to keep very clean, but she says that it is minimal, considering the severity of his injury. “He doesn’t have the straightest smile anymore either,” she laughs. 

Graves says Diddy has always been a very busy, curious horse, so it’s a constant job keeping him out of trouble. “I tell him, ‘Curiosity killed the horse!’” she laughs. “When we travel with the team now, everyone knows if you put him in a stall with flags on the front, they won’t be there for long. For me, intelligent horses will always look for something to do. Sometimes you do everything you can to be safe, but freak accidents still happen.”

Graves says that her best advice is to be your horse’s advocate. “As owners in emergency situations, we are often surrounded by professionals who are trying their best to do their job, and it can be intimidating. But no one knows your horse better than you do. My horse is my child. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you think your horse needs more medication or less medication or just a break, say something, because he can’t.”

Verdades overcame the challenges of a broken jaw to eventually compete at world-class competitions like the World Cup Dressage Finals and continues to perform at the elite ranks of the sport. (Credit: Amy K. Dragoo)

Nature Is the Best Medicine

Olympic rider Michael Barisone, who is based in Long Valley, New Jersey, and Loxahatchee, Florida, took Urbanus, a KWPN gelding by Hemmingway, to Florida for his Grand Prix debut in 2013. He scored 74 percent and made lots of headlines, and then he was sick for two years. “He looked dead lame and we couldn’t identify which leg,” says Barisone. “It might have been Lyme or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but he wasn’t lame in a limb. It’s like when you get the flu and you ache in every joint in your body. He felt like somebody flattened all four of his tires.”

They never did figure out definitively what was wrong with him, but Urbanus returned to competition in 2015 with Barisone’s wife, Vera, and scored 70 percent at Grand Prix last summer. 

“Personally I think time and nature are the best medicine for a horse,” says Barisone. “We didn’t throw him in a 20-acre field with 2-year-olds, but we put him in a 60-by-80 paddock with a tall fence and solid footing with a good base, and let him move around, which made all the difference. I also had a chronic colicker who went to live out on grass and stopped colicking.

“Letting a horse be a horse is often the best thing for them,” Barisone continues. “I don’t have a veterinary degree, but I have 35 years of experience. If a horse is so unsound that I can’t walk around the farm on the bit nicely—if it’s that bad, I need to either turn him out or put him down. If a horse is locked inside and going crazy, it’s not therapeutic. A dressage horse needs a back and a crest, and if you want to bring him back, you’d better keep that. Take him out and hack him. If he’s locked up he’ll lose his muscle tone and his cardio and become a raving maniac. Old people who break a hip and are bedridden have a high mortality rate. Physical fitness is the key to longevity. If you lose it on a horse at 13, you’re not getting it back.”

Barisone acknowledges that there are useful things like swimming and other therapies, but he also believes that the rider’s relationship with the horse is important and that it can be maintained better with things like walking up and down hills, keeping him happy and healthy and letting nature do its job. 

“There’s always new technology and that’s all well and good,” he says. “Often I think that a failure with horses that need to be rehabbed, though, is a lack of common sense. It’s like having a relative who has cancer, and an ad for a new drug comes on. Bang, we all jump up thinking it’s all going to be OK. We do it with our horses, too. Our vet tells us about the latest, greatest thing, but usually the solution is common sense. Personally, my best success is with simple stuff that made sense.

“I know a knowledgeable farrier who buys polo ponies who are ‘broken,’” continues Barisone. “He has a farm in Vermont with steep hills. They’ll take a trailer load of polo ponies up, turn them out barefoot, and about 80 percent of them come back in the springtime healthy and sound. Nature is a miraculous thing. I think time and common sense are the greatest healers.”

That’s not to say that Barisone won’t try various therapies in rehabbing horses, but he currently has another horse who he hopes time and nature will heal as well as it did Urbanus. “Timeless, or Taz, the horse I’d be getting 85 percent with if he were sound, has a hitch in his gitalong,” says Barisone. “We don’t know if it’s his back or pelvis, but we think he slipped on ice. He goes around my ring, and my assistant, Justin Hardin, can do nine tempi changes with him, but he doesn’t walk evenly. I have to hope that nature’s going to help him align his body again. 

“If it doesn’t, so be it. Worst case, he gets a great retirement as a happy horse. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I know that all the things I’ve tried haven’t worked. Veterinary medicine can be wonderful, but time and nature work, too. Time’s a funny thing. I’ve had horses come in with a fat leg, and I give them a week off. Ninety percent of the time it’s better after 10 days. If it’s not, then we’re 10 days into his six months off.”

Michael Barisone says that time and nature were the best medicine for Urbanus. (Credit: Amber Heintzberger)

In It for the Long Haul

When rider and judge Cindy Sydnor’s 14-year-old Hanoverian mare, Fresca, foundered a couple of years ago, Sydnor knew that she needed patience and a game plan. She was no stranger to rehabbing a competition horse. More than 30 years before she had ridden a horse at Dressage at Devon for a friend of hers. When he became suddenly and extremely lame, the owner took him from Boston to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, but they were unable to determine the cause of his lameness. 

“He couldn’t even leave the stall,” recalls Sydnor. “He was in there for months—approximately six months, maybe longer. Because I’d worked with him and shown him at Devon, and the owner knew I lived on a farm in North Carolina, she gave him to me so that I could turn him out. I tried putting him out in the pasture, but he couldn’t really get around and he didn’t want to leave the stall at that point.”

Sydnor’s vet, Dr. Richard Cochran, in Apex, North Carolina, had a look at the horse and diagnosed a fractured sesamoid bone. He did surgery, removing bone shards from the tendon that had been causing the horse excruciating pain. “He had been at Third Level, and I had him for five more years and got all the way to Intermediaire I,” says Sydnor. “I don’t tell the story to badmouth New Bolton at all, I’m well aware of their prestige. But it was a wonderful recovery. A lot of times with an injury like that you’d be happy with pasture soundness, but he was completely sound. He had maybe two to three weeks of stall rest, but I could hand-walk him pretty much from the beginning and gradually moved to mounted walking. Every time he had a checkup he kept passing with flying colors.”

The horse was an off-the-track Thoroughbred, but they determined that the injury was from the warm-up at Devon, which Sydnor says was nothing like today’s footing at the time. “I remember him hitting a rock, and he stumbled and regained himself. He wasn’t lame at the time, but that’s when it initiated. The footing back then was rocky clay, which was back before my children, who are now 35 and 33. The footing has greatly improved since then.”

Fresca, who foundered between the age of 9 and 10, did not experience a metabolic founder. She had a chronic crack down the front of her hoof, and then managed to get a stone bruise, which triggered enough pain that she foundered in both front feet, causing a rotation of the coffin bone of 9 degrees. 

The mare was treated by Dr. Becky Scarlett, the director of the veterinary school at the University of North Carolina, in Raleigh, for many years; and Richard Mansmann, a veterinary podiatrist who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, along with his farrier, Kurt vom Orde, who is based just 30 miles from Sydnor’s farm in Snow Camp—also in North Carolina. “Of course, they started with a lameness exam, and she was quite sore,” says Sydnor. “The right front is the one with the crack, and it’s always looked worse, and they evaluated her sensitivity at the walk and maybe a little jogging, then used hoof testers and then did X-rays. That revealed the devastating rotation of the coffin bone.

“We drove there in the trailer and did this exam,” continues Sydnor. “Dr. Mansmann and Kurt designed a special aluminum shoe with a wedge and all these fancy things, and we left there with a horse who was almost sound. Even in the X-rays taken after shoeing, the rotation was almost gone. I don’t know how that can be, but I saw it myself. Actually, she just recently had a check up and there’s such a difference now.”

Given the pain and inflammation from the founder, Fresca had to rehab very slowly in spite of the immediate improvement. “She was feeling so much better after that, but, of course, I couldn’t just start riding her,” says Sydnor. “She actually went back to very, very light work: walking in hand, then mounted, then gradual riding over the next six months. Little by little, with regular shoeing, her feet began to look normal again. There was some tendency to flare, which was managed carefully, and her feet are almost normal now.”

Cindy Sydnor’s Hanoverian mare, Fresca, was able to compete at Fourth Level after recovering from a case of founder. (Credit: Courtesy, Cindy Sydnor)

At the time that she foundered, Fresca was training and showing at Second Level. But Sydnor has continued with her training and the mare won the Fourth Level North Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association championship in 2013. “I’m slowly working toward the Prix St. Georges with her, and she feels good. I just keep my fingers crossed,” says Sydnor, who is careful with Fresca’s maintenance. 

“She lives out with other horses. I do watch her weight—she gets a low-starch, pelleted feed and a couple of supplements. Most of us have moved away from the old-fashioned sweetfeed with corn and molasses. She’s not a terribly easy keeper, so she’s not prone to blowing up if she has a week off. Just last week the vet measured her neck to check her crest because that can be a warning sign that she’s getting too fat and might founder. 

“It is frustrating, but I feel that if you get the support and encouragement honestly from your vet, there’s a good prognosis for your horse,” continues Sydnor. “It’s kind of like a marriage—you’ll stick by your horse through thick and thin. Other than retiring them somewhere, you can’t just get rid of them, and I love them even when I can’t ride them.Luckily, we have this great farm with good pastures.”

Like Barisone, Sydnor feels that a natural environment helps promote healing in horses. “What I can’t tolerate, and never will, is that with a lot of injuries this incredibly protracted stall rest is prescribed. I’ve lived through caring for a couple of horses with minor suspensory injuries in my life—one of them is mine—and I still turn them out. I understand there are scenarios where you do have to keep the horse contained, like the horse with the fractured sesamoid. But a horse doesn’t understand why he needs to be confined for six to nine months. It’s bad for every other system in his body and it drives him to hurting himself or practically killing himself.”

Sydnor feels that the tides are changing in recommending stall rest for soft-tissue injury. “The vet who helped me with a horse with a modest suspensory injury recommended stall rest, and I told him I wouldn’t do it because the horse would go crazy. The injury healed and healed, and the horse was perfectly fine just from being turned out. Honest to God, more often than not, the horses do fine. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! The bad news is that basically, you can be looking at a minimum of a whole year, and people don’t want to hear that.”

Your horse’s current age and level of training may determine how much time, energy and money you actually want to invest in his recovery. He might require stall rest, surgery or expensive therapies or maybe some simple downtime will do the trick. Sometimes turning a horse out works miracles. Sometimes it doesn’t, and maybe then he’ll be a pasture ornament for the rest of his life. But if you have the time and patience and access to good turnout, it could be worth a shot. 

Injury and illness can be expensive and frustrating. We work hard to achieve training and competition goals and being sidelined is not part of the plan. But it can be worthwhile to keep your chin up and find a strategy that will heal your horse. Whatever the issue and whichever approach you decide to take, it is inspiring to know that these horses and others have gone against the odds and made a successful return to the show ring. 






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