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Emptying the ocean with a thimble: The world of equine rehabilitation

Updated: May 11, 2018

The title might sound a little odd from someone who calls herself an equine rehabilitation trainer. And yet, I often see/ feel that rehabilitation processes are NOT functional for the horse. When people contact me, I am usually not the first person they reach out to. Often, the owner has already spent a lot of money and resources on different professionals for all kinds of treatments, training programs and management changes (which are all good), but none of them proved to endorse a lasting result, leaving both horse and owner frustrated and despaired.

In blog I’d like to argue what I believe are key factors to consider rehabilitation effective. This might be a bit different than the more informative blogs about Anatomy & Biomechanics that you’re used too so I want to stress out that this blog contains my PERSONAL OPINION based upon my knowledge and experiences world wide.

- Terminology ‘Rehabilitation’ seems to have become a popular specialisation for many equine professionals. But what actually is rehabilitation?

Looking at the definition, rehabilitation means the action of healing or restoring an entity to its normal or near normal functional capabilities. There are many situations where rehabilitation might be needed like after the occurrence of a disabling event such as healing after an injury or surgery. However, less considered is that rehabilitation is also useful in (future) prevention and/ or restoring balance. For example, every horse has natural asymmetries which need to be addressed before/ during riding because a crooked horse that has to carry a (crooked) rider will very likely develop injuries in the future. And every horse will have periods of disbalance either mentally or physically, often due to our own ignorance. Rehabilitation can help balancing both horse and human.

As a rehabilitation trainer, I can’t ‘fix’ horses but I can help by guiding and assisting the process to optimize the conditions for horses in such a way they can heal through a powerful self-healing capacity of body and mind to achieve the highest level of function, independence and quality of life possible. All these terms are relative (which I will discuss later) but in reality this means that I spend 90% of my time in educating humans in how they can be of use for their horse.

- Anatomical & Biomechanical knowledge

I often see that this is a sensitive point as many people believe horse training is about ‘feel’. And while I 100% agree that feeling is VERY important, it is not enough when you want to give rehabilitation a fair shot. Decent knowledge about Anatomy & Biomechanics is absolutely necessary for the simple reason that you need to KNOW what you’re working on and HOW it affects the other parts of body and mind.

As our horses are evolving, so should our knowledge. Because the horses we are working with today are NOT the same horses we had 20 years ago. (Cross) breeding, circumstances and different ways of training lead to a variety of new (conformational) issues. So you HAVE to keep updated. Too often I still hear people teaching false/ outdated biomechanics.

Statements that are simply not true. And this is not always to blame as many books on the topics are not even correct or outdated. For me, participating in Whole Horse Dissections changed my world as it’s ‘real’. Seeing and feeling all structures helped me to read the horse inside-out and to translate my knowledge into feel as well. When I train a horse, I can now visualize how everything on the inside is working and I truly feel the mechanisms.

I am not saying that everyone involved with rehabilitation should do dissections (while I HIGHLY recommend it), but at least stay updated with its forthcoming research. We owe it to our horses.

- Mind over body The mind is VERY powerful. Muscles are controlled by motor neurons. Furthermore, stress will affect the entire body making any form of training ineffective. It is also therefore that my training often is centred around ‘re-wiring muscle memory’ to create postural changes rather than focusing on all technical elements.

When the horse has a positive mind-set, it is much easier to overcome its physical limitations, but when the mind-set is off, rehabilitation often proves ineffective. I have seen horses with such a strong will to fight that even when they were extremely lame, they still thought of life worthy. These horses need our protection from themselves as the body often goes earlier than the mind. On the other hand, I have seen horses who only had minor issues, but just gave up in their mind.

- Didactic Skills

Besides knowledge, you also need to have some didactic skills. Because being a good rider or trainer yourself is NOT the same as being a good teacher. I have seen great riders in total harmony with students that didn’t reach this due to the lack of didactic skills. On the other hand, I have also seen great teachers that aren’t natural talents, but are really great in guiding others and how to get the best out of each combination.

- Recognizing interconnection Often people call me for help with a specific issue such as ‘my horse has a tendon injury / hip problem / jaw problem / neck problem etc. However, I have NEVER encountered a horse with a single isolated issue. Everything is interconnected through for example fascia or muscles acting conjunction with other muscles. So although something might have started off at a single point (for example a hard impact caused a jaw fracture) it will ALWAYS affect surrounding structures. The tricky thing about tipping points is you can only define them in retrospect. Therefore, time is key as over time it becomes harder to determine which caused what (chicken and the egg). The sooner small changes are recognized, the sooner we can try to jump in and prevent the water bucket from flowing over. So if you want to rehabilitate, thinking in the CHAIN is ESSENTIAL.

- Holistic approach and Cooperation of professionals

Because of interconnection, a rehabilitation process depends upon multiple professionals such as a veterinarian, trimmer, body worker etc. involved rather than a single specialist. This requires a lot of cooperation and they all need to adopt a holistic approach because their work influences the area of the other as well. If the trimmer changes something in the foot balance, this will affect the shoulder region up higher as well. So the farrier needs to be 1) aware of this in the first place to decide with the owner whether these changes are desired 2) communicate this properly so the owner can in turn enlighten the body worker that is seeing the horse.

- Awareness and Involvement of the owner Although all specialists have their value, its not going to matter when the owner is

NOT closely involved or dedicated for the simple fact that every specialist only sees the horses so many times while the owner usually sees the horse EVERY DAY. This is a very powerful position as it allows you to keep track of all small habits and changes in your horse. It often is a frustration for body workers or trainers to keep treating the same thing over and over again. What is the point of treating when the training doesn’t follow up correctly? Then the issues will keep returning and the body worker will keep on getting rid of them again without any lasting result. It is like emptying the ocean with a thimble.

So while putting a horse into rehabilitation training might often seem the best solution it can only work on the absolute CONDITION that owner stays involved as ultimately, the owner has to be able to take over. This means that 1) The owner needs to be prepared to learn 2) The trainer and surrounding professionals must allow the owner to visit & learn.

The point of no return Once you give the horse a voice, you can NEVER take it back again or you risk losing its soul. There is no point for rehabilitation when you KNOW that after the process it will return to a bad environment (which is relative to each individual horse). Through trial and error, I have experienced this a lot myself. Let me give you an example:

I was asked to help rehabilitating horses that couldn’t perform anymore at a race track. The horses improved immensely and so it was decided they had to race again while I knew that would bring all problems back. And it did. The moment ‘my horse’ was being led to the race track again he looked at me and I’ll never forget the eyes. It broke my heart. Because it felt like I broke his soul. He knew there was a better way.

The moral of this story is not that racing is bad. A bad environment is always relative. This horse would have been a beautiful superstar for example in long reigning. But in this case, his body and mind didn’t allow racing anymore. So the moral here is: sometimes it’s better to leave them be when you can’t change a desired environment because at least they don’t know better. If they don’t know what they’re missing, they’ll cope. But once you give them back a voice, there is no way back otherwise you’re emptying the ocean with a thimble.

The risk of ‘over’

It’s my passion to give second chances. But in that passion lies the risk of ‘over’ training or ‘over’ treating which can also create something called learned self helplessness. The body and mind need time to adjust. Treating or training too much too soon can leave the the horse in weakened state rather than a more empowered state. For example, when a horse has adopted a lot of compensating mechanisms to try to cope in the best and most efficient way possible, trying to break through all these compensating mechanics might actually weaken the horse more as it will feel like it has lost all its support. So sometimes we have to leave some of its compensation mechanisms to prevent it from falling all apart and really work layer by layer.

Also, with training we have to be careful. Training can’t fix everything. So if it’s not working, be careful to just keep trying harder because then you risk losing the horse’s mind as well. I used to train my horses 5-6 days a week very focused on correct posture all the time. They became dull ‘bike with hairs’. They lost character in training. I cut back to just 3-4 times a week and they improved immensely.

Acknowledgement of limitations

The more I learn, the more I have to acknowledge that there is still so much that I don’t know yet. That’s not a weakness because nobody can know it all and keeps me even more motivated to keep developing myself. But it’s also therefore that no one can help all horses that come across one’s path. Sometimes I just seem unable to help the horse and I have no idea why. In that situation, it’s better to acknowledge my limitations and be honest to the owner so they at least know where they stand instead of keep promising it will all get better. In some situations, my ‘colleagues’ might be able to help the horse where I am not and vice versa. Doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, just means that every horse and situation is different and benefits from different approaches. In the hardest of cases this also means to acknowledge that not every horse can be saved. No matter how hard I try.

- Patience

Rehabilitation specialists are NOT miracle workers. The process takes time and as stated before, I can guide the process but ultimately it’s the horse’s self healing capacity of body and mind that are in control. Sometimes its months, sometimes its years and sometimes, very sadly, it just won’t happen. Patience is key.

- Ethics

Because getting a horse mechanically ‘sound’ is NOT the same as getting the horse PAINFREE and HAPPY. Where do we draw a line? With what aims are treatments justified? For winning more ribbons, giving more foals or to give the horse a longer or happier life? There isn’t one right answer. Everybody has to decide for themselves, but it’s important to closely review the ethics at all times.

I have worked with horses which I knew would never get fully sound, but found a way to live with that in such a way that they were still happy with an owner flexible to adjust any training goals if needed. On the other hand, I have declined horses which I knew could reach full soundness again but I felt wouldn’t make them happier and the aims for treatment not justified in my opinion.

Again, ultimately, we can only consider the ethics from our human perspective. Maybe the horse would disagree with us, maybe not. So it will always be a tough judgement call. But with a little more awareness we might be able to better recognize signs to take into account.

- Emotional control and balancing energy I so often get calls from people offering me their horse for free as a last resort. Although my heart goes out to them, I simply can’t take in all horses. Rehabilitation is a very intensive process that requires all my energy and dedication. Being human, I can only handle so much and my first and foremost task is to take the utmost care of my own horses. It is not uncommon for any horse professional (including myself) that they give so much to their clients and their horses that they don’t have enough time and energy anymore for their own. This is continuing learning curve for me where I need to balance my emotions and energy because if I get lost in them it would break me and then I’m no good to the horses anymore. There is a very fine line between guiding rehabilitation processes of others and needing rehabilitation yourself for giving so much energy.

And finally, remember: the horse is the biggest teacher. So listen to your horse. We owe it to them!

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