The last few months have been spent largely trying to decipher why Sundance is so reluctant to have his feet handled. With everything that happened in May and June I had very little time to spend with him. When I did handle him it was most often to see if he’d let me pick up his feet. He has been lame for some time, and there is visible evidence he’s developed ringbone in both front feet, worse in the right. So of course my thoughts go to the possibility that his aching joints make him reluctant to stand on three legs.
But, he was also moving really oddly behind. I knew he had a history of hind end lameness. When he came to me the working theory was that he had fractured his pelvis pulling back and falling down. I never saw evidence of any significant lameness but he was always super reluctant to pick up hind feet. I don’t know what shifted in the last 6 months. One theory is that he has finally become comfortable enough after 5 years here, to let me see what’s going on. Another theory is that he re-injured himself - which is highly likely given how hard he likes to play with the other horses.
Whatever the case, the hind end lameness that was clearly there but not obvious before is now obvious.
Of course it’s been driving me crazy not being able to trim his feet. I kept trying to explain to him that I thought I could help. Over time he started to allow me to pick up a foot here and there and I could maybe nip a few of the worst spots before he’d insist on having his foot back. Each time I worked with him on this I paid very close attention, hoping to discover the source of his reluctance to hold his feet up.
Right around this time Joyce and I started doing some trades where she did craniosacral sessions on Sunny in exchange for me working with Merlin. Maybe Joyce will chime in at some point and talk about some of the things she found when she worked with him - but suffice to say there were many layers of trauma - both physical and emotional that she worked to release. After a month or so of BCST I wasn’t seeing much improvement in his movement. And ultimately noticed that he seemed to be having trouble stabilizing his pelvis when a front leg was held up. He just couldn’t hold his balance for any length of time at all. I can kind of relate, having had issues in my own pelvis and low back where things would ‘destabilize’ and I could easily throw my back out and really seize everything up. What I felt when I ‘tuned in’ reminded me of that.
With that crucial piece of information it was clear what had to happen. I had to find a way to build functional strength so that he could hold himself up. We pulled the plug on the BCST because the other thing I realized in observing both Sunny and Merlin is that they were not benefiting from the bodywork like I felt they should. In fact, they both seemed almost more prone to injury. Merlin sprained his ankle right in this time period as well. Understand that it’s not that Joyce’s work was not valuable - I believe it did a lot of good, especially on the emotional front and in terms of releasing patterns that were held from past injuries. But, I realized that unless a horse has a certain level of fitness, and is in some kind of work, body work that relaxes them is somewhat counter productive. All of a sudden I got the message really clearly why I had shifted away from doing primarily body work with a little bit of movement to doing primarily movement with a little bit of bodywork. You can see an example of that in the session I did with Gin July 6th in Unit 7 on the Facebook page for the group.
Anyway, with this idea in mind we quit doing CST on it’s own and I embarked on some experimentation to discover how I could help a horse that is quite impulsive and refuses a bit find their balance. That meant that I’d be working with a halter and lead. I decided to try carrying a dressage whip with me so that I could try using that as a way to touch different body parts I wanted him to pay attention to that might be out reach. I knew it would be really important for me to have super clear body language and intention so the whip allows me to reach without losing my own structural integrity.
Sundance has developed a movement pattern wherein he shuffles along on his front and hind legs - very short, quick strides. He locks his back down and does not articulate through his back - effectively not using his core at all.
There is no point just asking him to follow me around and go for walks to build strength because his walk pattern is so poor - it’s not something I want to reinforce and it only makes him hurt more to walk like that. I can’t lunge him or ask him to work hard because again, it’s too hard on him given the degree of lameness. So how do you get a really lame horse back in shape, and help them become sound in the process?
By changing the movement pattern and getting them to walk in the good pattern as often as possible.
I’ll post video of Sundance in the next day or so, but what I was able to do was a modified kind of work in hand. It’s a bit of my work with postural reflexes as well as the reflex to stand, walk and turn combined with some of Jean Luc’s ideas about work in hand. Some of you have heard me mention something called conscious inhibition. It’s an idea put for in the Alexander technique - this idea that you pause for a moment and think before you execute a movement (like standing up, for example) that moment to pause and think allows you to consciously inhibit the habitual pathways you use to stand up and replace them with healthier patterns. Horses tend not to be so great at thinking before they move. Especially horses that are trained to hurry up and respond in order to avoid escalating pressure. Like Sunny.
So the work in hand is focused on getting him to stop, follow my body lead to shift his weight off his left front leg (if I’m standing on his left he’d lean to the left front) so that leg becomes unweighted. This is where the whip came in handy because I could stay in position and gently touch that shoulder. I had to be super specific and tactful with the whip so as not to scare him with it. He had to know that it wasn’t being used to hurry him along or punish him - only to bring awareness to a part he might not be feeling. In that way I could also use the whip to touch his opposite shoulder while in motion to help him notice how he was falling to the right, or in front of his chest to help him feel that he was falling forward too fast and losing his balance.
My ultimate goal was for him to be able to pause long enough to feel what I was doing with my body and respond to it consciously - research in his own body - how does this feel if I lift too? How do I take a step off in balance? How do I engage my core? So he slows way down, takes slightly longer, softer, lighter steps and stops the hurried, tense shuffle. This is a walk that is like a Tai Chi walk - literally one step at a time. One. Two. Three. Four. My job is to literally choreograph each and every step. I have to go slowly enough to find a way to create a space for him to move into that invites him to move forward in balance.
Sometimes I’d have to decisively step across in front of him so that I was walking in front, facing him, creating a full body barrier for him to play off of or he’d scoot to the right, dropping his shoulder and doing hurried, tense, very incorrect and unproductive lateral work. It truly is a dance. Most often with horses that are heavy on the forehand, tense and hurried, I find it works best to attempt to get just a few steps before stopping and asking them to rebalance in the halt. If they get up any kind of head of steam they just plow through me and lean. So the more frequently we stop the better.
This proved the case with Sunny and before long he figured out how to do one step at a time. Once he was committed to working this way everything started to change. In the beginning he’d see me coming with the halter and leave. Each day he’d spend a little less time leaving, or leave with a little less commitment. After about a week he would meet me and ask for the halter. Joyce and Karin have been coming and practicing with him as well which I think is great. He’s learning to relate to multiple people with all our small variations in how we ask for things - effectively learning to engage in a conversation that is a thinking/feeling dialogue with anyone.
I should also mention that we did start him on herbs and things to manage pain and inflammation several months ago. He’s been rotating turmeric paste and devil’s claw/yucca - and then if I knew I wanted to work on his feet in earnest I’d give a day or two of equioxx. A few weeks ago my neighbor came and did a test run. She was able to get a bit of work done on both front feet and he was better, but not good enough yet to handle all four feet.
This last week he’s been doing so well in hand that I decided to have the regular farrier give it a go. I gave equioxx the day before and day of just to make sure pain wasn’t a factor. He had really consistent work the week prior. On July 1st the farrier came and we just did it. He quietly held up all four feet and even rested them on hoof stands. Nippers, rasping, the whole nine yards with no fuss at all. i could clearly see that he was able to stabilize himself and keep his balance.
I think the work in hand accomplished two things - one - of course - building some functional strength, but the second thing is that he learned that he was allowed to pause, to think, and to respond instead of reacting. He also learned he could have a conversation with any human, not just me. So much good stuff! I’ll post video in the next few days so you can see the work in hand in action.