Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
What Is a Rehab Facility? What Can They Do That I Can't?
It doesn't take much time around horses to figure out that they are good at getting themselves hurt! Unfortunately, sometimes their injuries can have long and involved recoveries. Things like deep wounds, soft tissue injuries, or even illnesses like founder can require long, involved recovery periods.
Our vets prescribe these instructions because they are what is necessary for our horses to recover fully, and if we don't follow them, our horse may not return to its full potential.
They Are Set Up to Meet the Needs of a Sick or Injured Horse
A rehab facility provides things like stall rest, cold hosing, wrapping, and medicating multiple times a day. They also typically have a small turn-out area like a round pen as well so that when the time comes, your horse can be eased back into normal turnout in a small space so they don't hurt themselves.
Constant Attention and Care
These places have the staff to monitor your horse closely and the time to dedicate to their specific needs to get them back to their full potential. Most of us horse owners do know basic first aid and how to medicate a horse and wrap a leg or foot.
It's not that we don't have the skills; it is that some horse owners don't have the time to dedicate. Your horse's rehab will depend on them getting the prescribed treatment (whatever it may be). Which makes it worth it to pay someone to handle it for you if you don't think you have the time.
There is no shame in not having the time to dedicate to your horse's recovery. Most horse owners work full-time jobs to pay for their horse habit, which puts obvious limitations on their time.
Your Injured or Sick Horse May Not Behave Like Their Normal Selves
When a horse is injured, besides being in pain, he will most likely have to change his routine. A horse that is used to living outdoors with a run-in shed may not take well to stall rest (as you will read below, this is what led me to my experience using a rehab farm).
They may be okay with it for the first few days, but after being cooped up, even the calmest horse who is used to primarily being outside may act a little crazy. At a rehab facility, the staff has the experience and ability to sedate your horse if necessary, whether it be because he is unhappy with stall rest or he reacts badly when doing bandage changes or cleaning his wounds.
The staff at these places are also the masters at getting medication into a horse. Most horses can be tricked into anything pretty easily for the first few days, but when it is necessary for long-term medication, many horses get wise to it and become difficult to medicate.
If you are an experienced horse person, it's not like they can do things that you can't. It's that they have the time to dedicate since it is their full-time job, and just like any other job, since they deal with sick or hurt horses all the time, they know every trick in the book to get whatever done that is necessary.
When your horse's recovery depends on a specific rehab plan, you may find it well worth it to have a rehab facility handle it for you.
Some Things to Consider
I certainly hope the need never arises for any of you reading this to have a horse get hurt badly enough to require long-term care, but just in case, here are some things to think about when deciding whether or not it is right for you and your horse.
- Are you able to handle your horse's needs at home? Remember, if he is in pain or his routine changes, he may not be his normal self and be harder to deal with than usual.
- If you think you are able to handle his needs, what happens if you get sick or have to go out of town for some odd reason? Is there someone else that would be willing and capable of doing it for you?
- Does the farm your horse lives at have the necessary amenities that he might need as he recovers? For example, if he has to be weaned back to turn out, do they have a small area, like a round pen?
- If your horse's rehab requires a lot of icing or hand walking, with work and family schedules, do you have the time to do it? Remember, your horse's recovery depends on him getting prescribed care; not providing it means that he may not recover fully.
- Is your regular vet on board with the idea of you caring for your horse at home? Can they get there quickly in the event of an emergency? If your vet is recommending a rehab facility, as much as you might not want to, you should definitely consider it.
So, You Do Decide to Use a Rehab Facility
Here are some things to keep in mind if you do decide a rehab facility would best meet the needs of you and your horse:
- Use one that your vet recommends or that one of your other horse-owning friends has had a good experience with.
- Make sure your vet speaks with the facility so they understand the instructions and something doesn't get missed in translation. If this isn't possible, have the vet write it out for you to give them.
- Make sure you are aware of all the costs involved, payment instructions, etc.
- Make sure that you are realistic about the timeline your horse's rehab could take, and make sure that your vet and the rehab facility all are on the same page with how to go about things and how long it might take.
- Check visitation hours. Some places allow you to drop in whenever you want; others are by appointment only.
- Find out what their normal protocol is for giving you updates on your horse. Will it be daily? Do they call you? Do you call them? Do they accept text messages from clients? How often should you expect to hear from them? Finding out all of these things beforehand will help keep your mind at ease while your horse is away from you.
Finn's Story: What Led Me to Choose a Rehab Farm
My horse Finnigan lives outside in a field with a run-in shed. We feed the outside horses with feed bags and check them over at mealtimes. So the only time Finn goes in the barn is for the vet, farrier, or getting tacked up to ride. Standing in a stall has never been part of his routine.
Finn came in one day very lame with a nasty, infected puncture wound on the inside of his upper right front leg. It was gross and terribly swollen. I take puncture wounds very seriously, and of course, the first order of business was to try to clean the wound. I don't blame him for acting out because I'm sure it hurt, but despite my best efforts, I couldn't get the wound clean, and now I had gotten my already injured horse all worked up.
Initially, I thought that if I could get it cleaned and wrapped that I would have the vet out in the morning, but when I wasn't able to get it cleaned out at all and he wouldn't stand for me to get a good look at it, that plan went out the window.
I had the vet out right away. He tried cleaning his wound without sedation, and he did not have any luck either. Luckily once sedated to the point of being wobbly, Finn let him clean and wrap the wound. The vet prescribed that Finn stay on stall rest until the wound healed up enough that it didn't need to be wrapped anymore (in other words, he was going to be on stall rest for a while). He needed antibiotics, of course, and the wound cleaned and rewrapped daily.
I was so relieved that he was safe and sound that I didn't consider how I would be able to manage his wound on my own with the way he was reacting. I also didn't consider the fact that he hadn't lived in a stall since he was on the track—he is 19, so that was a long time ago!
Needless to say, the rest of that night was alright because he was sedated. It was the next day that all hell broke loose. Finn was not happy in that stall. He was trotting around on three legs in circles; his bandage was down around his knee instead of up over his wound. He hadn't eaten his breakfast because he was so worked up the other horses had been turned out. I tried putting another horse in the stall next to him. That didn't calm him down at all.
He was in pain, out of his element, and acting totally neurotic. Stupid me went in the stall with him to try to syringe him his antibiotics, which just led to me getting slammed into the wall and sending all his medicine shooting out into the sawdust instead of his mouth.
I called my vet to explain the situation, that I couldn't take care of him because he was losing it being stuck in the barn. Since turning out wasn't an option with that awful wound, he suggested not to worry; he would get used to being in the stall and calm down.
By day three, he was trying to jump out of the stall window. I shut the window, of course, but I couldn't have my hurt horse standing in a dark stall, not getting any medication or wound care. I asked my vet if he would give me something that I could use to sedate him with. He did not feel comfortable with doing that since it obviously was going to be a long process; I had to find another answer.
He was getting lamer and lamer, and the wound more infected, so after my vet told me he couldn't help me, it was off to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.
I remember being nervous about loading him on the trailer to take him, but it was like he was so shocked I let him out of the stall that he didn't know what to do with himself! He loaded on the trailer quietly.
Two Weeks at New Bolton Center
Actually, I believe it was a little over two weeks that he was hospitalized there. Since they were able to keep him sedated, they were able to do his wound care and medication without a problem.
He had a pressure bandage on his leg to help keep the infection from spreading and he was getting broad-spectrum antibiotics so it was looking much better.
He would still need at least another month of stall rest though, so before I could bring him home, they had to wean him off the sedation and see if he would let them handle him safely.
The answer to that question was no. Without the sedation, he was still just as neurotic as he had been at home about standing in the stall.
So, Now What?
Basically, he didn't need the high level of care and monitoring (think expensive) he was getting there at New Bolton anymore. So what were my options?
Basically, my choices were to leave him there at New Bolton for the next month (rack up an even higher bill ), bring him home and take my chances, or send him to a rehabilitation facility.
I had never had to consider a rehab facility for a horse before. Luckily, I have always had good vets and had enough experience dealing with the things that horses managed to do to themselves. The problem wasn't that I didn't know how to clean the wound, wrap his leg, or medicate him. The problem was that he was neurotic about being in the stall and needed to be sedated all the time.
I talked to my vet about the possibility of bringing him home and taking care of the sedation myself (per his instructions, of course). He was not comfortable with that. So my decision was made for me. Finn was going to go stay a month at the rehab facility right down the road from New Bolton.
Finn's Month at the Rehab Farm
I wasn't sure what to expect sending my injured baby to a stranger for this kind of care. New Bolton Center, they are world renown, I was more than comfortable with that. It just was too expensive for him to stay another month there, and his vet from New Bolton recommended a place that wasn't far from there, and they would even take him there for me. They would also be able to do routine checkups with him to make sure they felt that he was still healing well.
The place he went was immaculately kept. He was groomed twice a day, got all his medication and wound care at a fraction of the price of staying in the hospital. The woman who took care of him even sent me daily text message photos and reports on how he was doing.
Since they were able to keep him sedated, they had no trouble handling him, and his wound healed faster than expected. After a month of stall rest, they started to wean him off of sedation and let him out in a round pen for some exercise. So by the time I picked him up to bring him home, he was totally healed, done with stall rest, and could go right back to the field with his friends.
So, to make a long story short. It was totally worth it for him to go to the rehabilitation facility, not just for him but also for me and the others who would have had to deal with him at home acting like a lunatic!
Final Thoughts on Horse Rehab Facilities
I'm by no means a veterinarian, so I'm not giving you this information as medical advice. Just sharing my personal experience to hopefully help others who might find themselves in this situation.
Be realistic about your ability and skills with medicating and whatever else your horse might need. Your horse may not act like their normal selves when they are in pain or are stuck inside for an extended period of time. If you are up to the task, great! If not, there is no shame in opting to let the professionals handle it. We don't want to have a hurt horse and a hurt horse owner!
Communicating well with your vet and understanding what your horse's needs will be throughout the healing process will help you make the right choice. My fingers are crossed, and I'm knocking on wood, though, so hopefully, you will never have to!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.