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Mystery Lameness or Lack of In-Sight: Caroline Larrouilh on balancing Feel + Knowledge + Technology in equine rehabilitation

This piece by Caroline Larrouilh of Proud Horse Connections was originally published in 2014 and is shared here with permission. Thank you to Caroline for so beautifully articulating these thoughts and encouraging others to look deeper when something is amiss.


Mystery Lameness or Lack of In-Sight?

As imaging technology improves, we are able to detect problems that were simply not identifiable in the past with what tools existed. Unless a horse was autopsied and dissected, some of these pathologies remained unknown and behavior and performance deficits remained attributed to the horse’s character rather then his anatomy or fell into the mystery lameness category.

Cat Walker’s work (see link below) for her Master of Animal Science degree and the work of other Equine Scientists like her is important because it sheds light on what some of these mysteries really are about. Instead of some “missing piece” or mystical trauma, there are bones and vertebrae that are deformed, squashed, fused, abnormally shaped through genetics or acute injury, there are jaws with teeth that should not be, and joints that have fused, pelvis and sacrum locked in a bone brace, scars that reach deep into the body… In a word, the internal picture does not match the external one.

Cat’s post which inspired Caroline’s piece:


“Much of the time, I can resolve or greatly reduce tension and dysfunction in the neck, but sometimes I’m not happy with the progress, or feel bodywork is contraindicated until I know for sure why I’m seeing and feeling a problem area. These are some of the situations in which I would refer to a vet for cervical radiographs. Other situations might include observing coordination or body awareness problems that are outside of the scope of my practice, but a concern and contraindication regardless.

So, when horses like these come back from vets with no radiographs, and a ‘she’ll be right’ report, or when owners choose not to pursue the vet referral, it puts me in a bind. It’s not my job or my legal right to diagnose, but I do have a duty of care to report such concerns, or to have possible contraindications to bodywork cleared by the vet before continuing – especially when it comes to potential fractures, neurological problems or severe bony changes. This is also why in such cases, I refer to a vet before a chiropractor if I have any concerns over the safety of manipulating the area.

Some feel that this is going overboard, however the reality is that it’s a small percentage of horses that fall into this category – but when I refer to a vet, it’s for a reason, and when I request radiographs, I expect to see them if owners wish for me to continue working with the horse.

For us, it’s as simple as getting a referral to a bulk-billed radiology clinic. Last time I had radiographs taken, there was an incidental finding that led both the specialist AND radiologist to warn against manipulating the area due to the potential for severe neurological damage.

When it comes to horses, it can be an expensive exercise, but so are repeated bodywork sessions and a potentially greater injury to the horse. As a professional, I would rather know what I have my hands on when I can’t build a clear enough picture from the outside, and I say this not just with my own interests at heart, but also my responsibility to you and your horse.”

This horse which cannot flex even though his neck looks like a swan, this horse who cannot collect even though he cost six figures and is bred like a Collection God… This horse who has a hard mouth which no bit, dentist or change of training method can help…

Sometimes, sumptuous coats and muscles are draped over skeletons that have gone terribly wrong. While muscles dictate to bones and joints what they can do, muscles cannot action bones that are frozen and stuck. Nerves that have been impinged cannot convey messages properly or at all from brain to body and back.

Spines with extra vertebral processes, missing ones, broken ones; the list goes on and on.

Traumatized bone, soft tissue and fascia reacts, shrink-wrapping blood vessels and nerves, creating protective shells by overlaying bone, scarring, adhering and altogether impairing the whole horse in an effort to protect individual trauma sites.

There is a whole cascade of biological sequences happening constantly which we are mostly blissfully ignorant of.

We think more outside rein will fix this, or more inside leg a change of saddle, bit, trainer, vet, shoes, supplements, footing, barn will fix this. We learn that none of it does. As long as we only consider the outside of the horse, we can only fumble around.

Unfortunately for the horse and for us.

In some cases, riding this disastrous cascade of events can lead to permanent crippling of your horse, it can cause permanent and painful damage.

It may also kill or injure you, the rider, when the instability becomes a break and your horse falls into a heap in the middle of a canter or over a jump. When he is ravaged by a neurological storm and he can no longer control his limbs while you are riding or by his side and he falls. When he is in such pain, he bucks, rears, and bolts to escape it and takes you with him until he unseats you.

Those who have experienced it will tell you their terror and then their guilt over not knowing sooner, not figuring it out, missing clues and punishing a horse whose body was betraying him. And his rider too.

There is another way to become aware of these issues besides advanced imaging. And that is palpation and observation. Two skills that are rapidly being challenged in a losing battle by advancing technology which can look into the body and even analyze gaits to find lameness but cannot know the horse as a sentient being can. Technology which does work that veterinarians a few decades ago, a century and more ago would do in great part by ear, sight, touch.

I think new technologies are a blessing upon horses because they can take up where our abilities to feel and see come short and allow us to test our hypotheses and form new ones.

I think they are a curse, if it means that the old ways of assessing, measuring and identifying issues using our hands, eyes, ears and brain first are dismissed in favor of software, scanners and micro cameras as a substitute for feel. This happens when humans function under the illusion that modern technology can connect the same dots, have the same spark of insights that a person has.

It reminds me of young people who can no longer write in cursive because they use texting and computers only. Research shows that in forming letters, our brain also learns to form thoughts in ways appliances do not encourage.  This impacts our critical thinking abilities and it changes how we learn, question, and create — and not for the better. See Neil Postman’s work on this subject, it is illuminating.

Thus to be of service to horses and their owners, equine health professionals must nurture their ability to feel, observe and think. They must study and educate themselves. They must look for patterns from horse to horse, compare notes and grow their inner data base. It sounds simple enough. It is not.

In teaching his acupuncture course, Dr. Ridgway can point to the whisper of an indentation on a horse’s skin that signals the pool of energy where points reside but he cannot make someone feel it. Feel is not petting, rubbing, poking mechanically.

Feel is the ability to read a horse’s anatomy like braille.

Add knowledge and an equine health pro can help point the way to what is wrong, which technology can investigate and confirm. Feel + Knowledge + Technology can save your horse and you time and suffering — and costly bills.

So, when you have selected a qualified equine health pro to help with your horse’s issue and these trained hands, eyes, ears and brain detect a problem through feel and experience. When they recommend exams, do not dismiss them lightly or let anyone on your horse’s health team wave suggestions away because of territoriality.

Find out why your horse cannot work, look beneath the skin, be aware of all the myriads of issues that can live there without any external clues and are too often interpreted as behavioral and training issues by trainers and health pros that instead of admitting their lack of knowledge prefer to blame the horse.

To avoid this requires working with properly trained professionals.

First, picking trainers, massage therapists and body workers who are qualified for the work they do. Audit, audit, audit. Ask for references. Trust your eyes rather then your ears. Then pick a veterinarian that does not just have a lot of expensive equipment, though we do want the best equipment,  but the ability to also see your horse without it and enough experience to connect the dots, ask questions, and create a map that will lead to some answers, maybe THE answer.

Look at the images Cat shared. Your horse is a Stradivarius. He is a complex, delicate collection of systems, as you are. Do not over simplify. Do not look away because you are overwhelmed and feel inadequate when faced with bones, sinew, fascia, ligaments, nerves and pain. Learn, educate yourself, take a course, read.

Ask Questions.

Look at these images. Let them motivate you to train carefully with an understanding of how you can damage your horse’s skeleton through force and misalignment.

Look at these images and think long and hard about what your breeding practices are.

In a word, see your horse, inside out.

Cat is a Melbourne-based equine therapist and anatomist, led down the rehabilitation path by some special horses of her own. She is currently studying a Master of Animal Science, investigating vertebral, postural and sensory dynamics in horses expressing congenital malformations of the 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae.

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