The dreaded words many horse owners hate to hear – stall rest. Whether it’s a week, a month, or several months on end, stall rest can be stressful and frustrating for horses and owners alike. Here are a few tips to help make stall rest a little bit safer and less stressful. As the reasons for a horse to be on stall rest vary, please check with your veterinarian before making any changes to your horse’s diet and routine.
Break the Boredom
While it is tempting to give your stalled horse toys to keep him occupied during stall rest, be careful that the toys won’t cause your horse to be too active. Most horses are on stall rest to limit their movement; therefore some toys (like “grazing” toys) may actually do more harm than good. Before giving your horse a boredom breaker that requires a lot of movement, check with your vet to make sure it won’t be detrimental to your horse’s recovery.
One of the best ways to limit your horse’s boredom while on stall rest is to keep him or her occupied with plenty of hay. If your horse is prone to being overweight or eating too quickly, try a small-hole hay net, like a Nibble Net. These hay nets slow down the horse’s consumption of hay and keep them occupied longer.
A few simple changes to your horse’s diet may help keep him healthier and happier while on stall rest. As always, be sure to make any dietary changes slowly.
First, I like to wet or soak the hay of any horse on stall rest, especially a horse that is used to being out on pasture. Grass has a high water content (much higher than hay), so wetting the hay helps replace some of the moisture lost by not grazing. This helps keep the horse properly hydrated, and hydration is essential to keep the horse’s gut moving and prevent colic. Certainly, many horses will adjust their water intake when not on pasture, but wetting the hay is just one more way to make sure your horse is getting enough water. Also, be sure to monitor your horse’s water intake every day and call your vet if you fear your horse is getting dehydrated.
Second, make sure to adjust your horse’s diet to keep him or her at a healthy weight during prolonged stall rest. If your horse was active prior to stall rest (working regularly and/or getting a lot of turnout), you may need to reduce or eliminate the amount of grain you are feeding. Reducing grain not only helps the horse maintain a healthy weight, it may also help to keep the horse calmer. While individual needs vary, even my hardest keeper needed only a ration balancer and free-choice hay to maintain a healthy weight on long-term stall rest, whereas he needed upwards of 6 pounds of high-quality senior feed and 1 cup of oil in addition to free-choice hay when in full work. When possible, I like to replace grain with a ration balancer (such as Triple Crown 30% or Blue Seal Sunshine Plus) or a pelleted vitamin/mineral supplement so I know the horse is getting all of the necessary nutrients its body needs.
If your horse is prone to ulcers or tends to stress when confined, ask your vet whether a daily maintenance dose of UlcerGard or an ulcer preventative supplement is warranted. I prefer to spend the money on a preventative than have to treat a full-blown case of ulcers and the other issues (like colic) those ulcers can cause. Alfalfa is rich in calcium, so adding some alfalfa hay, pellets, or hay cubes to your horse's diet can also help buffer the gut. Because alfalfa is rich in calories, though, some horses may not be able to maintain a healthy weight on stall rest if their diets include significant amounts of alfalfa.
When wet shavings and manure pack into your horse’s feet, they create the perfect environment for things like thrush and white line disease to thrive. To avoid this, bed deeply and clean your horse’s stall thoroughly at least twice a day. If you can clean it more often, that is even better. Pick your horse’s hooves after you clean the stall, to remove all wet shavings and manure. Treat any thrush or white line disease at the earliest signs to avoid serious infections.
Exercise and Hand Grazing
Follow your vet’s guidelines for exercise and hand-grazing. If possible and agreeable to your vet, break up hand walking and hand grazing into shorter, more frequent sessions so your horse gets out of his stall more than once per day. Pay close attention to the footing outside and avoid hand walking and hand grazing on slippery surfaces or in mud, especially if your horse is recovering from an orthopedic injury. Rehabbing a horse on stall rest, particularly one with an orthopedic injury, should be done very slowly. Better to go slowly in the beginning than have your horse strain or re-injure itself, leading to even more stall rest.
Sometimes, Drugs Are Your Friend
Hopefully your horse will adjust well to stall rest and won’t require any medication to keep him calm and safe to handle. Unfortunately, some horses do not deal with confinement as well as others and may become difficult to handle or become a danger to themselves or their handlers. As much as we may want to avoid it, some horses on long-term stall rest will require a long-acting sedative to keep them calm enough to heal without worsening the injury or causing undue stress. Still more horses may need a shorter-acting sedative so they can be safely hand walked or ridden while on stall rest.
If your horse becomes difficult to handle or if you fear your horse is getting so excitable that he may worsen his injury, ask your vet about sedatives that may be helpful. Always ask about the potential side-effects and make sure to remind your vet about any medications your horse is already taking.
While stall rest is often unpleasant for horses and owners alike, the above tips may help make stall rest a little less stressful for your horse. Hopefully your horse’s stall rest sentence goes by quickly and your horse makes a full recovery! With some extra precautions and a bit of patience, you'll be back in the saddle in no time.