Sticky Transitions

I love "Fix A Flat". It’s a product that puts air and glue into a flat tire and instantly saves you from inertia. It kept me on schedule last summer when I awoke to a car with a completely lifeless hind right. I panicked for 2 minutes before I remembered that I had a can in the trunk. In less than the time it took for Roadside Assistance to get my coordinates, I was on my way to Churchill Downs for Derby Week work.

I would love to invent a product like this for horse bodies. I’d call it “Fix A Lig” or “Mend A Muscle”. I want to guarantee instant improvement in 3 minutes! But even Fix A Flat has limitations. You still need a solid rubber tire to support the patch job so you can get to the gas station, add air, and be on your way. And it's sticky, so it usually gets all over your hands and clothes. And then your steering wheel. But I digress.

Back to the point. 

My OTTB undermines my work every chance she gets. First, it was a career ending fracture requiring stall rest. Then stubborn pyloric ulcers. Next, a kick injury needing sutures, constant tending, and more stall rest. Then a sore pelvis, sticky shoulders, more ulcers, hindgut issues...

We have exhausted many means: chiropractic, nutrition, medication, rest, exercise, tack changes, bodywork, modality work. 

I have lost patience. Where is my can of Fix A Filly?  

I have been called in to work “fix a flat” type miracles on horses with complicated issues. In some cases, dramatic improvements are seen immediately. But often, it takes a few sessions to unravel the mystery and get the horse comfortable enough to sustain healthy movement patterns. And even in cases when the work seems to elicit miraculous change, the results require conscious maintenance. Some people use this as proof that therapies don’t work. By that logic, eating breakfast doesn’t work because I am always hungry again by noon. But I digress. Again. 

I just worked on a horse that was “worse” after an adjustment. This intended “quick fix” had backfired and I was expected to fix the quick fix. I often work on horses with backs so sore that it’s hard to imagine them competing well after one therapy session. Yet sometimes these horses win big. Many factors add up to a victory, so I try not to think too much about this—but it does seem perplexing. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent law to winning in this game.  

But there is a formula. 

The best teams simply commit to the daily process. They use bodywork therapies on a regular basis, over time. Then one day, you’ll hear a trainer say: “He hasn’t looked this good in months!” And it feels like a quick fix.  Truly, it’s been time, hard work, rest, patience, faith, good choices, good teammates, support, and lots of frustration.  

We look at success stories as static entities. They seem to have been always in existence—like monuments of Greek gods. We may be in such a hurry to celebrate big wins that we conveniently forget to honor the small, sticky transitions.  The losing battles and small progresses are the bedrocks of “success”.  

Life is not static. The physiological processes of bodies are so ridiculously complex that I find it amazing that movement occurs at all, flawed or not. Injury and pain relief can happen in an instant but real healing always requires patience. Some injuries seem to respond to a “quick fix”, but almost all therapeutic solutions (bodywork; chiropractic; surgery; injections) require some time for complete success. It is the practitioner’s job to nudge the body towards recovery; it is the body’s job to mend.  

I’ve read that metamorphosis must be a truly painful experience for a caterpillar. Upwards of 90% of its cells die, and it regenerates new ones. Even before that moment, it undergoes an ardous journey:  

It begins as a slimy egg. It grows into a cute, fuzzy larva. It gets chased by birds. It gets hassled by kids. It slowly transitions into an odious pupa within a sticky cocoon. It waits. It suffers. Then, a miracle suddenly emerges from the sticky goo-- a winged creature that is safe in its perfection.

Then it gets chased by birds. It gets hassled by kids. It winds up pinned into a scrapbook.  

When the struggle feels like an overwhelming, immovable constant, and the win seems monumental, I try to remember that life is always moving. Even if it is unbearably         s   l   o   w. Things will get worse, so it’s wise to enjoy--or at least appreciate-- the current phase. Things will also get better. The best formulas implement strategies that support slow improvements towards "miraculous" wins. 

Horse life is both movement and inertia, and it is made up of sticky transitions that cannot be instantly fixed by a miracle product. 

But I’m working on it.

The Wild New Norm

According to an equine behavioral study, horses that were returned to the wild after 30 years of management spent 70% of their day (15 hours) grazing. As a human who has been thrust into the wild new norm—aka: unemployment + quarantine—I can relate to those statistics. Since I live with a chef, my hunkering home hours are probably more gluttonous than most. In that regard, I suppose am lucky. But when your primary purpose is eating and watching endless news briefings, your thoughts simmer with surreal fears about mere survival, leaving you feeling like an anxious prey animal in an uncultivated region. 

In mid-March, Covid-19 wreaked havoc on my world by forcing the closing of equine sports. Barns throughout the world went on lockdown and the word “essential” was thrown about to define jobs that sustained only the very basic needs of the human and equine species. Equine bodywork does not fall into this category.   

My own horse is living at a small farm, so I am free to visit her. I try to do so when it is quiet, early mornings. I have become fearful and anti-social. I wear a mask, gloves, and goggles, and I strip down and shower after all barn visits because I have been told that as an at-risk person I should not be venturing out. Period. 

There are many, many boarding facilities that are on lockdown. I am so grateful mine is not. But I feel like a lawbreaker and a hypocrite. I wholly believe in the importance of strict social distancing, and I support the shutdowns of mass gatherings and sporting events.   

My horse is not a piece of sporting equipment. She is my child. I helped raise her as a foal and I was struck by her sweet temperament and well-mannered mother. I followed her career, and when I reunited with her at Palm Meadows, I met a sullen 2-year-old with a broken leg. She raced once, badly, and got injured, but racing professionals rallied for her. I donated therapy sessions and other generous people stabled and cared for her. These same people knew she would never again race safely and they wanted her to have a good home. But a green and injured OTTB is not easy to adopt out. So after a few weeks of stall rest, they offered her to me. She was still healing with six months to a year of recommended therapy ahead, and I hadn't planned on returning to Kentucky with a broken baby horse. After many sleepless nights and phone conversations with enthusiastic friends, I decided to accept. Not knowing how she would pull through, or what her talent would be, I naively dreamt of saving her with my mad rehab skillz. After years of budgeting, scrimping and surviving, I felt it was the perfect time to take a risk and thrive. 

This filly had an extremely challenging new normal. Retired before her career really started, she endured extended stall rest and multiple barn moves. She was transported from Florida back to Kentucky, and she passed through three farms before I found the best home for her. She was explosive and fearful. She had ulcers. One day I was inattentive, and she spooked. She propelled into the air and twisted around, ramming her hind hoof into my sternum. It knocked the wind out of me, and I fell to the ground. I was convinced that adopting her was a huge mistake and that I was the world’s biggest idiot. Forget about having mad skillz, I was just mad. 

It has been less than a year since that accident and we are finding a shared language. Lengthy turn-out, ample grazing, ulcer treatments, vet, dental, chiropractic, bodywork, therapy and patience are helping to unlock the potential of this thoroughbred. I am learning how to be firm, and she is learning to trust.  

I started riding her in December, but she sustained a serious kick injury in February which set us back again. She required stitches, stall rest, and several weeks of nursing and therapy. I am reluctant to ride this filly right now because she is still unpredictable, and I don’t want to be that foolhardy equestrian who gets injured and takes medical attention away from virus-stricken patients.    

Pandemic life, therefore, gives us time.  

We have time to work on the ground, without the pressure or temptation to work under saddle. (*And we do so several feet away from others while following safety guidelines set down by the CDC and the Department of Agriculture.*)   

Last week we worked on relaxing her pelvis and unlocking her psoas. We started in-hand games to develop lateral movement and straightness. We jumped around on gym mats to hone proprioceptive sensibility and confidence. This week, we built up her stifles and lifted her back with double lunging, driving, and poles. We are playing on hills and along fence lines. We are working all over the farm, near buzzing tractors and weed whackers, under low hanging trees, and even during windy afternoons. This may sound simple, and it is, in a way. But for us it is an AMAZING accomplishment. Last summer we were both wound-up with anxieties.  She was a four-legged kite, and merely walking her into the outdoor arena took every ounce of courage and calm we both could manage. Now she whinnies when my car pulls in, and I can differentiate her frustration from her discomfort.   

When this pandemic became official, everything stable and normal stopped in one instant. My husband and I had to recalculate our finances because our extremely lucrative seasons ceased to be. No more relaxing cocktails with friends or cheering on sports teams with the local bar crowd. No parks, no playing, no live music, no theatre, no, no, no. Just so much stress and uncertainty and fear. The only time I found myself breathing normally and calmly living in the moment—thriving—was when I was with my horse, the same horse that had originally been my prime source of fear. 

I’m adapting to the new normal. I’m discovering a new sense of sanity by developing a partnership with my mare. During this wild, world-wide experiment for safety, we are both grazing a lot more, and now we have begun a journey towards calm.  

Equine Gratitude

November, 2019       

Thanksgiving is around the corner and the days are getter darker and quieter.  'Tis the season for wine, cheese, and counting blessings.  Although I find the #grateful craze, well, grating, the concept of recognizing and celebrating the good things in life is profound. 

An appreciative perspective seems to enrich one's well-being, and scientific studies suggest that gratitude can positively alter your brain chemistry.

Gratitude is one of the driving factors of what I do every day.  It was out of a sense of gratitude that MEND was founded.  We recognized the hard work of horses, and we wanted to offer a way to reward and even improve their efforts.  Horses that receive bodywork may or may not win their classes---there are far too many factors that add up to a win or loss.  But we believe that bodywork gives horses an edge.  It provides physical comfort and injury prevention.  This may encourage them to perform at their best and allow them to excel in the work that they do.  This is what good horse people truly value—the TRY, the investment, the partnership. 

Good relationships occur when there is mutual “grooming” in the form of gratitude.  We strengthen alliances when we listen to one another, say "thank you", or pat a colleague on the back.  Bodywork is a compassionate tool that not only alleviates bodily aches and pains, but also serves to bolster the spirit.  Healthy minds and spirits are key components of enduring athleticism.

I believe that gratitude is not uniquely human.  When I first started practicing equine massage, I was blown away by how each horse took a moment to acknowledge me when I got it right.  There was a thoughtful head turn, a gaze into my eyes, and often an attempt at mutual grooming. 

These behaviors are exhibited time and again at therapeutic bodywork sessions, and I am grateful when my clients show appreciation.  Fellow bodyworkers have joked that we crave this kind of acknowledgement—a nuzzle, a nicker, a gentle lowering of the head.  It reinforces the benefits of the work.

Sure, horses are happy when we feed them and leave them alone to graze, and there are days when a client shows "gratitude" simply by not kicking me to death when I attempt work on a tight hamstring.  But, hey, I appreciate that too! 

It is easy to argue that I am humanizing these animal encounters.  But humans are animals.  Since equine animals have been domesticated by human animals for thousands of years, doesn’t it stand to reason that we exhibit mutual manners?  Especially if we have done a good job of it?  I believe that if happy humans can feel gratitude for other humans and even other species, then happy horses can experience gratitude for us.  We can notice espressions of this emotion only when we allow it.

 

SYDNEY seems to enjoy his spa...

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I have encountered many examples of equine gratitude over the yearsI will share a couple here.  One big moment was with a 21-year-old horse named Valentino.  He was a prize-winning eventer from a good background, and I met him as a semi-retired lesson horse.  Val was a wonderful mount, but all hell would break loose when you tried to groom and tack him.  He would lunge and bite and scare the living daylights out of you.  

VALENTINO... not so keen on tacking up

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As a newly certified equine massage therapist I was curious to see if I could helpI was convinced that every horse displaying cranky or mean behavior was just sore and acting out.  I put my hands on him very carefully and he lunged at me as expected.  I stopped and waited and tried again.  Again, he came at me, ears pinned and teeth bared.  This pattern went on for a while until eventually Val accepted my hands and settled down.  When I found the right pressure and the right spot, he softened and relaxed.  When I inadvertently went too deep or too fast, he turned back into a self-protective monster. 

As time passed, we discovered a mutual connection.  I was able to finish up the session, leaving Valentino (the former terror) sleepy and sighing.  His defensive posture had softened, and he finally looked relaxed and comfortable.  Then he did the unexpected.  He began licking my hands like a dog! 

I had never been licked like that by a horse.  Horses have licked grain remnants or salt from my skin, but this was different.  This was a deliberate act of thankfulness.  I was stunned.  This threatening, angry creature was now lavishing my hands (the hands that had massaged him!) with puppy-like kisses. 

Note the myofascial restriction & atrophy in Val's thorax, especially saddle area...

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Another memorable moment of equine gratitude came from Sydney, a cute little chestnut quarter horse.  This 15-year-old enigma was lovely on the ground, but his work behavior perplexed everyone.  He would not go forward, and he was consistently rearing under saddle. 

Once again my “therapy” mind wanted to set things right, so I met Syd in his paddock and massaged his left side.  When I finished, he walked a few steps away and processed it—shaking, licking, chewing.   I told him I was new at massage and if he liked my technique I would continue to work on his right side.  I then walked a few feet away and turned my back, waiting for a response. 

Of course, I felt mildly madWhy on earth would I expect this interaction to have any effect on this horse?  Why would he even understand what I was trying to offer?  Am I naively anthropomorphizing this creature?  Am I a certifiable wacko? 

But before these misgivings drove me back into the barn (maybe 6 seconds), I felt something brush up against my side.  Sydney had come over to me as I asked.  But he didn’t just stand there.  He buried his head under my arm like a sinewy cat requesting a scratch.  This very specific action left no doubt in my mind as to what this horse was expressing: his very own version of equine gratitude.

This simple gesture filled me with human gratitude.  I gave him a big pat to thank him for letting me know how he felt, and then, as instructed, I went back to work on his other side.  

SYDNEY and his goat buddy... 

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Pumpkin oil turns Cinderella Horse into Prince

It's October and pumpkins are trending, so we want to share what pumpkins did for a special equine Cinderella story of our own. 

One of our favorite clients, a bluegrass pasture pony, started battling tricky fungal issues in the mid-August months.  These stubborn organisms were more ruthless than any evil stepmother!  They would not go away no matter what we tried.  After 3 weeks of daily antimicrobial baths and popular topicals, our sweet boy still suffered.  

Enter our fairy godmother: Enviro Equine. 

They recommended a plant based Omega 3 oil to support a healthy inflammatory and immune response.  Equine Omegabalance contains camelina oil varietals & pumpkin seed oil to enhance skin, joints and movement.  The label lists these benefits:

+ Gastrointestinal Support
+ Inflammatory Support
+ Seasonal Allergy Support
+ Omega 3, 6, and 9 Fatty Acids
+ Natural Vitamins

We thought, why not?  We knew that pumpkin seed oil was a natural anti-parasitic.  We suspected that this horse had special nutritional needs because his pasture mates remained fungus-free. 
 
We noticed changes after only 5 days.  His hair was regrowing and he had decreased skin inflammation!  After 2 weeks many fungal scars had cleared up.  His tail was thicker and his coat had changed into a shiny dark copper.  He proved to be significantly healthier after only three weeks. See some before and after pictures below.
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Pumpkin seed oil contains carotenoids, which support skin health.  It is also a noted antioxidant.  Camelina oil has been gaining popularity over the past few years.  Although fish oil is superior in providing omega fatty acids, horses may prefer the flavors of pumpkin and camelina.  Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) states: "With the average equine diet tending to be higher in omega-6s, finding ways to balance out the omegas by adding some omega-3s has spurred the special interest in camelina oil”.    
 
We have heard many riders, trainers, and horse owners rave about this product, and now we know why.  We plan to continue feeding him 2 ounces of oil every day over the winter.  We have also started feeding the oil to his pasture buddies to help bolster their immune systems for the tough weather challenges ahead. 

The goal here was to rid our client of fungal outbreaks, but the BONUS was watching him transform into a gorgeous creature straight out of a fairytale. 

WHAT IS EQUINE THERAPY

What is Equine Therapy?
By Matt Hunter | August 18, 2018

Just like human athletes, thoroughbreds’ bodies experience wear and tear when they train and compete every day. Matt Hunter has more from the Saratoga Race Course with a closer look at some of the different therapies used to keep racehorses sound and fit.

ACCESS VIDEO: MATT HUNTER REPORT