Picture yourself seated in the Equestrian La Mancha indoor arena, warm rug over your knees, and a hot, herbal tea cupped in your hands. Looking to your left and right, you see 37 other equine bodyworkers, vets and wellness professionals, some of the best in Australia and beyond.

In front of you stands a highly sensitive, jet black horse; unrestrained by a halter or cavesson, he chooses to let the man with him touch, massage, knead, palpate any part of his body, through an unspoken acceptance of the man’s calm energy. Another man watches on, having experienced the same grateful acceptance by the horse earlier on.

The audience is captivated in the stillness; you could hear a pin drop. Yet, the energy is palpable as this horse is transformed before us.

This is where I found myself on the second frosty afternoon of the highly anticipated Equine Integrative Medicine and Rehabilitation course in Melbourne. Bringing Dr Kerry Ridgway and Manolo Mendez together to work their magic, the limited clinic places had been hotly contested by those wishing to add to their rehab and assessment toolboxes.

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Organiser, Caroline Larrouilh, made the point to me that by selecting some of the best applicants and students from a wide variety of fields, the hope was to share the knowledge of two experts far and wide amongst our colleagues and clients, in order to benefit as many horses as possible.

With only two days to make like sponges and soak up as much as possible from the detailed assessment and treatment of seven horses, our hosts and organisers foresaw the need to sustain our energy and brainpower, and provided a generous, healthy and utterly delicious spread during each break to keep us going.

After the success of Manolo’s in-hand DVD, Katie Barrett was on hand to record every moment of the course (this material is now available for purchase here).

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Quietly ensuring each horse was calmly introduced to the crowd was Manolo’s assistant trainer, Chantelle Matthews. Here, once again, was that still, peaceful presence; each horse reassured by the safe place that was to stand with Chantelle.

When asked how she centres herself in such a way that the horses want to be with her, Chantelle’s answer was simple – to be with the horse, in the present moment, as horses are; to not bury external stresses and worries just beneath the surface, but to leave them at the gate and give your full attention and being to the horse.

This stillness and presence is a quality possessed by every human who understands how to connect with horses; be it a learned skill or innate; trainer, therapist or open-hearted owner.

As author Linda Kohanov states, “Horses live in the moment.” To connect with them, so must we.

And if there is one thing I took home from this clinic, it is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a vet or massage therapist, chiropractor or acupuncturist – to connect with your patient and to provide a safe space for emotional processing and release, is to provide the catalyst for much deeper healing and regeneration, than that which we can achieve when working on a purely physical level.

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This is hardly a new concept to me; it is a phenomenon I have experienced as both patient and practitioner. Yet, whether intentional or not, it is the overriding theme of the bodywork courses I have attended in recent times, and so often my starting point when I am called out to see a horse with unresolved chronic pain.

To see two masters – one from the veterinary fraternity, and one a dressage specialist with a gift for rehabilitation – confirmed something for me. These two men have carved their own pathways in their search for the missing link; one identifying common patterns of dysfunction relating to laterality and crookedness, developing unique treatment protocols utilising his training in Western AND Eastern medicine; the other working intuitively to improve the subtle issues detected by his eyes, hands, and feel as a rider.

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What do the vastly different approaches of Manolo Mendez and Dr Kerry Ridgway have in common?

Fascia.

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Knowledge of the connectedness of the body’s fascial web is only just being unraveled in the research world, but the consensus is clear – as bodyworkers, fascia is the first thing we have to treat.

Neuroscience is beginning to accept that fascia is not merely the connective tissue of all the other connective tissues, but also that of the nervous system, and perhaps our very consciousness.

Dr Ridgway is an expert on fascia; yet Manolo explained that he did not understand what he was working on until this weekend, just whether it was working or not – but now, he realises that fascia as it exists and functions (or fails to) in life correlates very strongly with the imagery he uses to describe what he senses beneath the skin.

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Over the course of the weekend, I watched seven horses transform. Despite their varying problems, some being referred for veterinary diagnosis and treatment, the fascial approach brought about dramatic changes to the demeanour, posture and movement of each horse, whether by Dr Ridgway’s needles, or the touch of Manolo’s hands and guidance of his bamboo.

As an observer, I saw even more change when I returned to La Mancha a few days later and watched Chantelle work one of the horses – the stiffness and flatter trot had become softer; more expressive and fluid.

As a practitioner, I experimented with acupressure to one of the points Dr Ridgway had utilised with needles, to supplement the little hands-on myofascial release a deeply fearful and defensive horse would allow. We found that safe space, and the tide turned. The following session, he melted into my hands. After these two sessions, the owner and I were astounded at the change in his body and mind. All I had done, was find another way to access the entwined emotional and physical pain through the myofascial system, using one of Dr Ridgway’s points.

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In beginning to understand some of the common patterns and restrictions of the horse’s fascia, we can improve laterality and crookedness, tension and breath, as well as the emotional scars that have manifested themselves physically.

To see seven horses treated via the fascia from two different, yet synergistic perspectives, is to know that if we expand upon our knowledge of the horse’s fascial system and our means of accessing it, we can achieve the best clinical outcomes.

To find the stillness that allows the horse to go deeper and heal on an emotional level, is to offer them an even higher standard of well-being.

Dr Ridgway and Manolo have been at this for a while now, as have other world leaders in this field. They have set the scene for a new breed of equine wellness and integrative medicine professionals to change horses’ lives for the better.

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It is often the physical results of my work that keeps clients calling back; the tangible change in movement, or the softness under saddle.

But it is the emotional changes I see in the horses that make me bounce out of bed with a smile on my face, ready for another day at the job I love.

The first step toward both? The fascia.

All images © Dr Ridgway & Manolo Mendez
All text © Cat Walker

 

Vale Dr. Kerry J Ridgway

January 3, 2016

Since waking to the news of Dr Kerry Ridgway’s passing, I have been searching for the words to express all that is in my heart and my mind.

When you meet someone you admire and get to see them up close, you realise that beyond the bubble of their reputation is their humanity.

Dr Ridgway’s name has been a familiar one since long before I journeyed into the world of horse rehabilitation, and the man behind the name was an exceptional human being of the rarest kind. He welcomed his students into the warm embrace of that bubble, and for the love of the horses he served, never stopped giving of himself and his knowledge freely.

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Back in 2014, I had the privilege of hosting Dr Ridgway’s evening seminar, Breaking The Soundness Barrier. With 100 people packed into a small church in Melbourne’s east, Dr Ridgway quipped that his sermon would be about the salvation of horses.

And a saviour to horses he was.

 

Many who have studied under Dr Ridgway will have heard him speak of the branch and the root; of having to distinguish flow-on symptoms from primary injuries and inciting factors. In order to treat the branches of the problem, we often have to go digging below the surface to find the root cause.

An integrative approach to horse rehabilitation is a bit like nurturing a garden or a field. You figure out what you’ve got to start with and plan ahead. You prepare the soil, plant the seeds and carefully nurture your crop through the winter. Sometimes you’ll have to weather setbacks, and at other times you need to add a little more of this or that to help your seeds grow.

In the wise words of Jim Rohn, you work with the sun and the soil and the seasons — all the things you cannot change — and do your best to help your crop thrive through the winter into the spring. And if you play it right and adapt when things don’t go quite to plan, come harvest time, you get to reap the rewards.

This is something many therapists will appreciate, and something that every equine professional needs to understand. You start with the diagnosis and follow all the branches to their roots. You add the right mix of ingredients to the management team and the rehab toolbox. And if you continue to look at the horse holistically and let the plan evolve along the way, there is the chance of salvation for that horse’s body and mind.

I’ve seen this time and time again in my work, but never more so than in the intense journey I set out on with my own horse, Oliver, after Dr Ridgway and his wife Christine helped strip back the branches to see what was lurking under the surface. By treating the root Dr Ridgway identified, along with all the branches, tendrils and opportunistic weeds that had grown around Oliver’s body and mind, he defied a damning prognosis and bloomed. And resurrected with his body was a part of his soul he had locked away long ago.

We are but two of the lives Dr Ridgway left indelible marks on. Throughout a lifetime as a passionate educator and pioneer of groundbreaking work, Dr Ridgway has planted seeds in the hearts and minds of horse lovers worldwide.

Let us hope that those seeds grow to be a forest, rooted securely in all he has shared with the world as each tree reaches for the sky: each one of us a branch, twig or seedling that can touch a neighbour; each blossom, a breakthrough he has helped pave the way for; each deep, green leaf, a horse nurtured to wellness by the wisdom held in those roots.

Every moment I was honoured to spend with Kerry was characterised by warmth: the warmth of his smile, his hugs, and the ever-present twinkle in his eye; the love and affection he and his dear wife, Christine, always showed one another; the approachability and humility he welcomed his students with, no matter their background; the presence and touch that showed his four-legged patients they could feel safe standing there next to him.

May the same warmth surround Christine and the Ridgway family in their loss, as we remember an incredible man who truly changed his world — and that of our horses — for the better.

 

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.