Saving Derby’s leg: A diary of a tendon injury, part 2

The vet outlined a 4-stage recovery plan for Derby, each stage to last around 6 weeks. Stage one was walk work in hand; stage two was walk work under saddle; stage three build in some trotting work; stage four, get back into the school and build up to ‘normal’ work. Stages one-three were all to take place on the roads. So we began walking him, in hand. I say ‘we’ because there were four of us on a rota. Oliver had pretty much read us the riot act on this one. No days off. Three times a day every day followed by ten minutes of cold hosing. And NO days off. Did I mention NO DAYS OFF. Also 3, THREE, count them, THREE times a day. So I drew up an Excel spreadsheet and marked off the dates and the columns, morning, lunchtime and afternoon and filled in the ones I could do, so that Clare could then organise her staff rotas around a tendon injury. Clare, myself and two of the women who worked for Clare commenced Operation Derby’s Leg. I don’t think I’m the only one who started to get a Proclaimers earworm and found myself muttering ‘And I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more’ on a frequent basis. This wasn’t too bad when I was leading Derby, but it got me some strange looks in the supermarket.

He had to walk for 20 minutes each time and here was the snag. Derby doesn’t really get walking, not ridden or in hand. He’ll slop along, scuffing his hind feet. You can get after him and make him walk but he is incredibly good at gradually, millimetre by millimetre, taking shorter and shorter steps so that you find yourself shuffling up the lane wondering why a snail has just whizzed past. Chase him up too much and he can actually go backwards. In the school this is not a problem, there are all sorts of ways of keeping him interested so that he ends up walking well without realising it, but on the roads when you are not allowed to trot, there are few options.

In less troubled times, before the tendon injury

Add into this mix the fact that Derby likes to talk. He witters away to you when you are riding him. There’s an almost constant conversation going on, in that respect he’s very like a stallion or a purebred Arab, even though he’s actually an Anglo-Arab x Hanoverian gelding. But riding him you quickly learn to tune into his voice ‘No, not the bins, mind that, mind that bracken, dear god no, I don’t go near dock leaves you KNOW what happens with dock leaves, oh look, Sarah’s ponies are out up there. COW, COW ALERT COW IN HEDGE, oops, sparrow, didn’t see that there, hang about, car coming, let’s pull over’. (In all seriousness, I ride him on single track lanes, he knows we pull over for cars, he hears them before I do and pulls into the nearest passing place for them well before I’m aware of their approach. I’ve learned to listen carefully to him). If you fail to listen to this voice he has a tendency to buck to get your attention. Not a big buck, but if I’m out with another rider and we are talking about their horse, I’ve got around a minute before he does some kind of leap or buck to ensure the conversation turns back to him. Leading him in hand made this conversation difficult because there was no immediate physical contact, reducing my ability to hear his voice. So he would grab hold of my sleeve with his mouth and wave my arm around as we walked up the road. All four of us learned to wear thick sleeves, because telling him off for this would involve him leaping backwards and the conversation quickly became ‘Help, help, get the RSPCA on speed dial, she’s trying to beat me up. AGAIN’.

We timed ourselves walking. Ten minutes out, see how far you can get in ten minutes, turn around carefully, ten minutes back. We used the passing places on the lanes as markers and tried to get a little further with him each day to improve his walk. I was approaching exhaustion but there were no other options. He was my horse, my responsibility. I was lucky to have the dedicated help with him that I got but still it was tiring. Walking, in addition to my usual cycling, made me lose weight that frankly I did not have to lose. But Derby was getting sounder. The vet had told me that I could turn him away for 6 months but he warned that if I did that, the tendon was more likely to heal as lumpy scar tissue that would not be sufficiently strong and elastic, and less likely to heal as nice, neat bundles of fibre. Steady, frequent work for short periods was what he needed. And Derby seemed fine with it. After all he was working for an hour a day, even though he wasn’t being turned out. We had no choice but to walk him up a slight incline so that gave him even more work and even if he was a little excited the first time out, by the time he got to his afternoon walk he was generally calm.

After about 4 weeks of this the vet came to see him again. Derby led up sound in walk and a little unsound in trot although that may have been his laziness and my reluctance to chase up a horse who by that stage had not been turned out for almost 3 months. Because of the lack of soundness, Oliver advised us not to ride him for another week and then only to ride him in walk. Then he said ‘And don’t put ten ton Tess on him’. Clare and I looked at him slack-jawed. Neither of us weighs more than 9 stone and at that point, with all the walking, it was probably considerably less. We were the only ones who ever rode him because one of the many things he has quite firm opinions on is Who Is Allowed On My Back. We asked Oliver how often he would need to go out once he started to be ridden. ‘Oh twice a day, like he’s doing now, like I said before’. More slack-jawedness. ‘You said 3 times a day. Three, count them THREE’. Waving, fortunately, 3 fingers in the air. Exhaustion may have frayed my temper. Oliver shuffled. ‘I always say three times a day because if I say twice a day everyone ignores me and only takes them out once a day, if that. So I say three times. Don’t worry if you have been taking him out three times a day though. You could do it four times a day if you want to’. There wasn’t much room for any more slackening, just a sort of universal shout of ‘Day jobs, we have other things to do. It’s not all Operation Derby’s Leg you know, it just feels like it’.

Turns out that people generally don’t follow the vet’s advice to the letter. It would have been OK for Derby to have been walked twice a day and for him to have one day off a week. Oliver had just not taken into account our punctiliousness in following instructions. So a week later we switched Derby to one walk in hand per day, plus one ridden walk, plus cold hosing. He remained amazingly level-headed, I think because he had got into a routine and accepted it and because he was going out so often, even if his freedom was curtailed. I took to letting him graze in hand at particular points where it was suitable, because that gave him a little more natural behaviour and because it was the right kind of gentle exercise that he needed. All in all he seemed happy.

We had a few alarm calls however. Up until his tendon injury Derby had been very healthy and had never needed to see the vet in the five years I had had him. But one evening, as I was cold hosing his leg, he started to stamp on his off hind leg as if he were irritated. As I led him out of the wash box, he had problems putting weight on it. I called Clare over. We watched, horrified, as his leg started to swell. I got him back into his stable and the swelling continued. We couldn’t bandage it as restricting the swelling could well have done more harm. By the next day the entire leg was 2-3 times its usual size and his other two good legs were also up, although the damaged one was not. We had thought it might be a foot abscess but the rapid spread of the swelling indicated something else. Blood tests showed that he probably had a viral infection. He was evidently under the weather, although he was eating alright, and for several days we went back to walking him in hand but just gently for a few minutes each time to try to boost his circulation, nothing more.

Once the swelling had settled we started to bandage his legs although we met with more firm opinions about Not Wanting My Legs Bandaged Thank You Very Much. Bandage shredding is an expensive hobby. Fortunately Clare had an unwanted pair of neon pink stable bandages she had been given as a present. We reasoned that we were on a win-win situation with them. Either Derby would accept them and not take them off, which would be good for his legs, or he would shred them as he had so many other pairs in which case we could legitimately say to the present giver ‘We’re terribly sorry, Derby wrecked your present. It’s very odd, he never does things like that’. As it happened he made one attempt on the pink bandages and succeeded in pulling them up above his knees, so he looked like a 1980s Fame reject in neon-pink legwarmers.

Towards the end of November he had another scan. The tendon had all but healed –there was a slight roughening on one edge but that might have been normal for Derby. We were allowed to commence trot work, although much of the time Derby interpreted ‘trot’ as ‘leap really high. Oh look, she’s still on board. Bit higher. I know, let’s capriole’. In the end, I don’t think this did him much good, although I tried my best to keep him calm. As I will recount next week, in February disaster struck. I had thought that if the scan showed the tendon to be OK it would remain OK but sadly this was not the case and Derby developed a hole in the same tendon. The vet was to add another 6 months on to his recovery time.

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