Hand Walking an Injured Horse

Handwalking a horseSurviving Handwalking

I consider myself quite an expert on hand walking since my horse Wizard had both a suspensory strain in 1994 and a bowed tendon in 1996 – the first one lasting 4 months and the second lasting 18 months.  I learned to be patient, inventive and resourceful to get both Wizard and myself through that time.

Knowing that Wizard is an easy-going horse, I thought nothing about it as I put on his halter and entered the indoor arena.  WRONG!  Wizard showed me some moves that I never thought he knew – dancing, rearing and some genuine “airs above the ground”.  Luckily I had bandaged his legs for support and protection so no damage was done.

My trainer was nearby and took control of Wizard and settled him down while I regrouped.   If this could happen with my 20+ “bomb-proof” horse, I will caution those of you with younger and/or excitable horses to BE PREPARED!

Talk to your trainer or perhaps even have him/her take your horse around at first.  Let other people riding in the arena know what you are doing. Decide in advance your hand walking route; don’t just wander aimlessly, possibly cutting into another rider’s circle or approach to a jump.  Think about using a stud chain.  Try to start your hand walking in a place (arena, round pen, etc) familiar to your horse and at a time when it is calm and quiet.   Consider having a friend with an older, calm horse walk with you.  Wear gloves, a helmet, good shoes or boots for safety, and carry a whip for reinforcement.  I also found rewarding good behavior (and distracting bad behavior) with treats to work well.

Hand Walking an Injured Horse

Okay, you survived your first few days of hand walking and now it is getting SOOOO boring.  Around and around, you feel like you know ever grain of sand in the arena.  Time to get creative.  If there are other “handwalkers” in your barn, try to work with barn management and set aside a time when you can have at least part of the arena to yourself.  As they say, misery loves company and you can at least have someone (human) to talk with.

Again checking with barn management, see if you can have music played during your walk time.  Wearing a radio or stereo with headphones is also an option, but you MUST remember to stay alert and be able to hear what is happening with other horses and riders in the arena.

One of the best things I ever did was to “walk” my dressage test with Wizard.   First it helped me to more easily memorize the test as I’m a visual person and I could actually see where the letters were in the arena.  But, more importantly, as I approached each letter, I could mentally give myself the instructions I would need to do when I rode Wizard – half halt, shift weight, lower leg back, give with the outside rein, etc.  I had plenty of time as my approach to the letter was a lot slower on foot, and could even stop and have a “do over” if I needed to.  When I started riding again, I was so programmed to do these things that it came automatically.

I also set up several ground poles and cones and walked Wizard over and around them.  We also went through some parallel poles on the ground, aiming to “whoa” right in the middle.  We even practiced a few “backs” through the poles.  This made it more interesting for Wizard, and also improved our verbal communication.  The advisability of doing these exercises really depends on the nature of your horse’s condition so PLEASE check with your vet first.  Finally, with our vet’s OK, we decided to explore the nearby trails as part of our handwalking program.

It took awhile, but Wizard was eventually back to normal.  And I found that with all that hand walking, I had actually lost weight!  Somehow it made all those days of not riding ALMOST worth it…


Kelly O’Neill is owner of a boarding stable for retired show horses.  She has over 20 years of horse care expertise, with extensive experience in the care of the senior horse. Kelly has been a groom for two professional rider/trainers and has assisted in feeding, blanketing, turnout, medications and vet visits at several barns before opening one of her own in 1998. She now writes on her knowledge and love of horses for both fun and as the premiere writer for Classic Equine Equipment.