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Exercise for my rescue mare

From: Christina

Dear Jessica, I got a mare from a horse rescue place four weeks ago. She is so sweet and gentle! I can't imagine how anyone could have been cruel enough to be bad to her, but she was in terrible shape when the rescue got her (about four months before they let me take her home) and if you can believe it she was rescued from her own breeder!!! There was some kind of nasty divorce that happened last year and the wife kept the farm but I guess she decided not to feed any of her husband's five horses, so she just shut them up in a little barn in the back of the property and never went there any more, and the kid that worked for her and took care of her "good" horses in the big barn wasn't too bright if you know what I mean, so he kept watering them (thank GOD!) but he didn't feed them because she told him not to. Finally somebody turned her in to the rescue people or else those horses would just have died in there, there was no grass anywhere and they had eaten the barn wood and everything else, and two of them were already dead. How horrible is that!!! But lucky for me I used to work with a friend who is with the rescue now, and she called me when the horses came in to tell me that she thought two of the mares would be good horses for me if they lived. One didn't live, but the other one did and now she's in horse heaven with her own stall in my four-stall barn, and a four-acre pasture that she shares with my two old horses. They are both in their twenties and both of them are just lovely personalities and so nice to the new mare, it's as if they know she's a rescue and needs lots of extra TLC. She fits in perfect here and we all love her. I named her "Paloma" which is Spanish for "dove."

So on to my question at last! My husband and I built a round pen last year when we thought we were getting two young horses (long story, basically it didn't work out) and it's a nice pen and I would like to exercise Paloma in it. I just want to know how much exercise would be okay for her. She has gained a lot of weight since they rescued her and more weight since I got her, and she looks much better now. Here's why I'm not sure what to do. Yesterday I had a good friend of ours over to supper and she asked about Paloma, we went and looked at her and I told Judy that in two days it would be a month since I got her, and I was going to start working her in the round pen. Judy has had horses for years and years and knows a lot about them, and she said that she didn't think I ought to do that, I should probably wait six months and just leave her in the pasture and not do anything "work-like" with her. I trust Judy but I'm a little frustrated here, and I worry about Paloma getting bored hanging out with the old geezers in my pasture. They are 26 and 23, and she is only four years old!

Judy couldn't tell me why she thought I shouldn't put Paloma in the round pen for another six months, but she said she had a feeling that it wouldn't be right. So can you please tell me if she is right and if she is, WHY is she right? And what can I do with Paloma for those six months if I can't work her in the round pen? I know that it's bad to run horses in a small pen, but my pen is 50' across with grass footing, and I wasn't planning to make her canter for at least a couple of months, just walk and trot. I've always trusted you and your books and HORSE-SENSE for advice with my old horses, and we made the round pen 50' across because you thought that was better than 35'. So will you please help me once more and tell me what to do with my beautiful Paloma?

Thank you and bless you, Christina

Hi Christina!

Paloma is a lucky girl. I'm so sorry to hear about what happened to the horses before they were rescued, but I've worked with horse rescue for enough years to say that unfortunately the story and all of the details are very, very familiar. I've never been able to understand why some people try to take revenge on other people by abusing or neglecting their animals - it makes no sense at all, does it?

Your round pen sounds very nice, and you will eventually be able to enjoy working Paloma in there, but I'm with your friend Judy - wait before you do anything that even vaguely resembles real work. Here's why: Your mare was rescued from a bad situation and was in such bad shape at the time of her rescue that she needed months of rehabilitation before she could be adopted. Paloma may have been in her previous bad situation for many months or even years - you did say that she was rescued from her breeder, so it seems likely that she had spent her entire life in that place. Rescue horses in poor shape have certain things in common. They are, to say the least, UNFIT. Some of these horses have been kept in crowded pens or locked into a stall or tied to a tree or fence, barely able to move for months or even years, and when you combine the lack of mobility with the starvation - horses don't eat the insides of their stalls unless they're desperate - and probably the thirst as well. At least Paloma and her friends got water, even if they weren't getting any food...

Anyway, here's my point: Paloma was lucky to survive, but she didn't get away scot-free, and although she may become entirely sound and healthy again, it isn't going to happen in a hurry. You know that she was terribly thin and had no muscles to speak of, and had to be rehabilitated to some extent before you could even take her home. Now she's gained some weight and is probably beginning to get her muscles back into shape just walking around the pasture with your two oldsters. (By the way, if you put pedometers on your pasture horses you would probably find that they're walking at least 10 miles a day if not the normal, average 20 miles.) But she is nowhere NEAR fit enough to begin work! "Pasture fit" is a good starting point, but it will be six months or more before she is even pasture fit. Right now, she is completely unfit, and needs to be built up slowly. She'll do the first, long, slow part of this all by herself if you'll let her - just keep her in that pasture!

Muscles are the easy part of rebuilding a neglected horse - we can see them and notice the changes from week to week and month to month, just as we can notice that the horse's coat is going from dull to shiny. That's all good, and it's all visible. But the horse's entire body has to be rebuilt, and the more difficult bits are the ones we can't see: tendons, ligaments, and bones. Paloma probably looks and feels better now than she has in many, many months. But all of her structures have been weakened, and ALL of them will take time to become stronger - it will take her bones a year or more to remodel and reflect the good care you're giving her. So don't be in a hurry to start doing any kind of formal exercise with Paloma. Take your time, get to know her, build her up, let her walk around and enjoy her freedom. Hanging out with your old horses is not going to bore her - she's in horse heaven, remember? And when she feels like trotting or cantering, she'll do it - but when she does things by herself, she can stop doing them instantly as soon as they stop feeling good. That's not an option for a horse being worked by a human. Also, although a round pen with a 50' diameter is a great tool, it's not the right tool for Paloma at the moment because even trotting for five or ten minutes on a 50' circle could put too much strain on her legs. The time will come when you'll be able to take her in there and do some work, but be patient.

Your friend Judy sounds very sensible. Talk to her, talk to your vet, and if possible, talk to the vet who looks after the horses at the rescue facility. He - or she - will have a good idea of exactly what's involved with bringing a rescued, neglected horse back to health and eventually to fitness as well. Think of Paloma as you would think of a young teenager who has spent many months living in a small closet with nothing or almost nothing to eat - you'd need to rehabilitate that child for a long time before signing her up for the track team, or even for an active aerobics class. Pushing too hard could cause permanent damage.

Don't worry - right now, you're giving Paloma exactly what she needs: freedom to move, companionship, grazing, regular food, vet and farrier care, and lots of personal attention. All of that can and should continue, and the six months - or even a year - will go by very quickly. If you're worried about boredom (which I suspect is more likely to be yours than hers in any case), you can buy a clicker and a clicker-training book (I recommend CLICKER TRAINING FOR YOUR HORSE by Alexandra Kurland) and have fun with those. ;-)

It makes me sad that there are so many horses like Paloma, in need of rescue and new ownership - but it's very heartening to know about cases like this one. Congratulations to you on getting such a nice mare, and congratulations to Paloma on finding such a good home!


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