Tonka’s Sacroiliac Joint Progress

By Terry Golson

Recap: Tonka has had recurrent sacroiliac joint issues which cause back pain, which I know because he tells me in a myriad of ways. When the SI joint flares up, Tonka moves away from the mounting block. He doesn’t willing do upward transitions. It gets so bad that he refuses to move under saddle. Back in October of 2017 I took him to The Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University to see Dr. Bubeck, who specializes in horse sports medicine. After an extensive evaluation, Tonka had his SI joints injected. It was not a quick fix, but several months later, Tonka was back to being a happy and eager horse under saddle (and we had a great show season and many good trail rides.) But, the SI joint acted up again and in November he went back to see Dr. Bubeck. He got injections (a cocktail of drugs that is good for joint health.) But, a month later, there wasn’t much change. My horse still hurt.


Getting him better is a Catch-22. Tonka needs to do lots of walking, cavaletti, and going up and down hills to get stronger to compensate for his weak SI, but it hurts to do that. When I’ve gone to physical therapy, I’ve been willing to grit my teeth and do the exercises because I know it’ll be better for me in the long run. I can’t explain that concept to Tonka. I don’t want him to develop negative associations with me or with riding. I also hate to see him uncomfortable and in pain. But I have to get in the saddle and get him moving correctly. So, Dr. Bubeck prescribed gabapentin, which calms the nerve endings. After a couple of days on that medication, Tonka was able to walk, trot and canter without showing signs of pain. After two weeks we took him off of the gabapentin and almost immediately the symptoms returned. So, Dr. Bubeck put him back on it for at least a month, and in the meanwhile she told me to go ahead and do the physio.

We’re having a good time! First of all, Tonka was bored sitting around. Even exercising indoors, being asked to carve patterns in the arena engages him.


We’ve lucked out. It’s been an unusual January. The ground is dry. No snow.


It is cold, though! We bundle up and get out. It’s very pretty.


We can go out the door of the barn and ride a loop of about 3 miles. There’s one big hill. Going up and coming back down is awesome for Tonka’s joints and developing his back strength. It’s likely that Tonka’s SI issues are never going to go away entirely. Doing this hill work on the trails is going to be a lifelong key to keeping him sound. Neither of us object to that!


Riding the trails keeps us happy, and that spills over to when we are indoors, doing the other key component of this rehab – the balanced work in an engaged frame that Tonka needs to do to correct his posture and get him to use his core so that he doesn’t strain his SI joints.


On days when it’s too cold to ride, I hand-walk in the arena. The goal is to get fit and strong. We’re on it! It’ll be awhile before Tonka returns to his former form. That’s okay. We have all winter.

What are you taking the time to do this winter?

9 thoughts on “Tonka’s Sacroiliac Joint Progress

  • nikki negrea

    It’s cold, but not too cold in N Salem, NY. Off for a conditioning ride today at Baxter Rd. Getting ready for eventing in SC in March…I’ll let you know how things are going. Always working on lateral and horizontal suppleness. Am wearing a stick-on heat patch and several layers. April is only part-clipped so she stays pretty warm and we move on…

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I put heat packs in my riding boots so that when I get off my feet don’t feel like they’re shattering. Tonka isn’t clipped at all and he stays plenty warm when out for our hacks, but he does appreciate a blanket at night 🙂

  • John Schaller

    Thank you for the great blog! This week, we’re getting one of the few periods of sustained rain that we get in Vegas each year, so we are actually hand-walking and otherwise trying to keep the horses exercised and with good feet while things dry. For the winter overall, getting one horse to stop going behind the bit is probably the main project.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’m glad you found it helpful! Here’s an idea for you – rephrase your winter project. “Stop going behind the bit” doesn’t say what you want. A horse could stop going behind the bit by reaching down and eating grass 🙂 I’d say, “I’d like my horse to stretch forward into the bit, accepting contact while using the muscles in his topline.” Or however you want to describe it. That gives you specific criteria to aim for.

      • John Schaller

        Thank you! Yes, on my part I want to focus on keeping my hands low, with a soft and slightly bent elbow, doing straight transitions up and down, and on circles leaving flexion primarily to the outside rein and inside leg. And particularly at walk, when she comes forward and connects I want to mark and reward, shooting for a little in front as a preference. I need to figure out how many reinforcements and/or time make for a good period of work on this.

        • Terry Golson Post author

          That’s very well thought out! Although the usual advice with marker R+ training is to do a very high rate of reinforcement, I find that less than 6 clicks per ride is best. Remember that if you’re riding as you describe, there are plenty of other reinforcements built into the experience for the horse. Sometimes stopping movement isn’t welcome by the horse, and sometimes you don’t want to interrupt the conversation. Click for new and increased criteria, or for something particularly difficult for the horse. That said, I always like to find a good stride at the beginning of the ride to click so that there’s a good vibe to the start of the ride.

  • Jan

    Hoping Tonka recovers enough to not be in pain, nothing worse than an animal suffering. I was wondering with all the different movements that a horse does not normally do could the Dressage have caused part of the problem, as I do not remember you mentioning his joint problem before that?

    • Jan

      Answered my own question, just read your old blogs and realized that when you got Tonka in 2013 you started doing dressage then. 🙂

      • Terry Golson Post author

        I believe that he’s always had this issue and that it wasn’t noticeable until I started to do more than walking on trails. The dressage both strengthens him so that he can compensate for where he’s weak, but if pushed too hard, will exacerbate the problem.

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