Healing Is Possible: Shifting the Narrative Around Horses
By Christina Manian
A little over a year ago, I journeyed nearly four hours into the mountains of Colorado to meet a wide-eyed, towering black horse with four white socks and a white blaze, named Every Wish Granted. He was curious, slightly aloof, but extremely sweet and cuddly. Despite not even considering owning a horse 4 days prior to this, I took the plunge and decided to rescue him.
Wish, as I call him, is a former high-level dressage horse. Dressage is an athletic form of horse training where the horses seem to be dancing. Purchased for the price of a modest new car, Wish moved to the Aspen area one year prior to our meeting where his new owner looked to compete and improve her riding skills through him. Fast forward six months later, he bucked and she fell. She wanted nothing to do with him after that moment. Because she painted his picture so horribly, she couldn’t resell him and was considering euthanizing him before I came along.
While procrastinating school work one night aimlessly searching the internet, I found him and reached out to his owner as my interests were starting to shift towards horse rehabilitation, though I knew very little. I expected absolutely nothing to come of the message I sent. Well, in a universal turn of events, a few days later she essentially gave Wish to me, and thus, started me on a journey of exploration into the world of horse healing.
Wish is not an anomaly, horses who behave undesirably or experience injury are disposed of constantly. “Unwanted horses” as termed by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), are domesticated horses that are no longer needed or useful, or whose owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for them physically or financially. These horses can range on all levels: perfectly healthy or laden with health problems; well trained or practically feral; “unattractive” breeds or former flashy athletes; perfectly safe or scared and dangerous. On average there are nearly 200,000 unwanted horses in the US at any given time.
The fate of these horses vary greatly. Many will suffer in environments where they face starvation, others will be euthanized as desired by their owner. And some, between 75,000 and 150,000 horses per year, will move through auctions and feedlots to be sent to slaughter. 74% of the horses processed for meat in the United States were once riding horses.
Horse rescues across the country are bursting at the seams as a result of this issue. In 2009, the Unwanted Horse Coalition conducted a survey that found 39% of horse rescues were at maximum capacity and another 30% were near capacity. Most rescues relayed that they were turning away approximately 38% of the horses brought to them and only 26.2% of the horses at these rescues were ever rehomed.
Unbeknownst to me, Wish came to me with quite a few physical, mental, and spiritual pains having had at least five owners prior to me in his 11 years of life. Retrospectively, I’m sure that one of those pains incited the buck that caused his previous owner to no longer want him. Lauren Harmon, creator of Instill Harmony, equine Rolfer, body worker, and energy worker trained in acupressure and craniosacral therapy, bolsters this argument, “If there's a behavior piece going on, usually it's rooted in some type of pain.” Despite being an experienced rider of over 20 years, I had no idea the kind or amount of support Wish would need.
His hooves were the first concern brought to my attention. Three abscesses and a round of x-rays showing thin soles and ringbone (new bone growth between either of the last two joints of the hoof, caused by unnatural pressure) later, I got a crash course on barefoot hoof care and rehabilitation. While I utilized veterinary advice for much of this management, Wish’s hooves opened the world of herbal medicine to me. Though skeptical to try initially, the state of his hoof health pushed me to experiment with herbs at the counsel of my farrier to bolster the immune response and help build healthy hooves.
While anecdotally, the healing power of herbs in horses makes sense given their foraging nature, research is building to prove its efficacy. One study looking at Standardbred racing horses found that herbal supplementation had a positive effect on modulating the immune response to disorders including pulmonary disease, allergy-associated dermatitis, and joint inflammation. Another found that in a study group of 164 horses, those that did not receive herbal treatments were more likely to present with gastrointestinal complaints.
From here, I went on to start learning about equine body work to help address the tension Wish was carrying in his head, sacroiliac joint, pelvis, and shoulders...just to name a few. Our amazing trainer, Gray Kyle-Graves of Whole Heart Horsemanship, introduced us to the Masterson Method, a type of equine body work, to start integrating into Wish’s routine.
Jim Masterson created the Masterson Method and describes it as “a method of equine bodywork, where we learn to read and follow responses of the horse to our touch as we work on it to help them release tension in key junctions of the body that most affect performance.” Masterson goes on to explain that as you’re responding to the horse’s subtle cues during the work, he or she begins to trust humans more. “It turned into improving the relationship with the horse, because [the human is] paying attention.” He found that if you went about body work based on the horse’s response, the horse participated in the healing and yielded more effective outcomes.
Masterson receives frequent feedback about how his Method has helped horses heal beyond their owner’s expectations: “I do some demonstrations and teaching so I'll spend a long time doing various techniques [on a horse] and then the class will move on to the next horse...” He continues, “we’ll then look back over and the horse is laid out completely with his eyes open and tongue hanging out for like an hour and the owner says ‘my horse has never laid down to sleep as long as I've had it!’ That happens quite a bit.”
Soon I was thrown even further into the deep end. Wish’s pre-existing problems were compounded with a serious injury he sustained only two and a half months after I got him. A massive wound on his back right leg near his hock, a major joint in the hind leg, following a run-in with a feeding trough was the beginning of an over 8 month healing journey. I thought the hooves and physical pains were overwhelming at the time so this left me devastated as I didn’t know what it meant for our future, given the location of the injury.
The process turned out to be more intense than I could have imagined. Previous trauma left Wish dangerously reactive to veterinary care, prompting weekly sedation for months just to change his bandaging. At this point, my stress levels and credit card bills were skyrocketing, as I was in graduate school. Likely out of pity, a friend at the ranch generously gifted Wish and I a handful of sessions with Lauren Harmon. I thought this was just a generous gesture at the time. Little did I know, this gift would be a pivotal point in not only Wish’s healing journey but in our relational journey as well.
I was aware of how well known and in-demand Harmon was in my local horse community. However, I had no idea what she did and when observing her, with her hands held on the horse quietly, one may not grasp a full understanding either. When asked to describe her work, she explains, “I feel where I really am instrumental in helping horses is seeing where the lights are out in their body and helping to bring them back to life.” She expands, “That could be through touch, that could be through working with our energy fields, that could be through how I'm showing up in relationship to them. All of these things are these beautiful mediums for us to connect with the horse to help them come back to themselves.”
One of her chosen mediums, RolfingⓇ Structural Integration, was created in the 1930s by Dr. Ida Rolf. RolfingⓇ, Harmon explains, is “a theory of understanding of how the body relates to gravity, and how our body is in relationship to one another. The medium [Dr. Rolf] worked with to help the body was fascia.” Fascia is a body-wide network of connective tissue surrounding and supporting every bone, organ, muscle, nerve fiber, and blood vessel without beginning or end. In fact, if you took every structure out of the body except for the fascia, you’d still have an outline of every physiological component because it is encompassed by fascia. Rolf was one of the first pioneers in fascia research and the Rolf Research Foundation paved the way for groups like the Fascia Research Society to thrive and continue to learn about fascia. Current research on RolfingⓇ Structural Integration shows its efficacy in alleviating symptoms related to cervical spine dysfunction, chronic low back pain, and cerebral palsy, among other ailments.
While this body of evidence has been conducted on humans, Harmon has found it to work just as well in horses. “It doesn't matter if it's a horse or a human, the principles are the same. And that's what’s great about this understanding, it doesn't matter what type of being you're working with. It still applies because we're all in gravity, we're all having this similar experience of gravity.” Research shows the fascia is capable of changing its biomechanical properties, challenging the historical belief that muscles are independent actuators. Lauren operates out of this knowledge and further explains, “the fascial system responds faster than our nervous system. So they inform each other, they are in relationship with one another.”
Because of this, Lauren will sometimes work with the nervous system through acupressure, energy work, and other modalities to access the fascia and help the body return to homeostasis, enabling optimal biomechanics. She explains, “...the body will move towards health and order. What I feel all of these modalities are doing is just giving the body a leg up so that it has the support that it needs to heal.” Plus, given that the fascia has no start or end, positively influencing one aspect of the body will positively affect the whole.
Lauren also explained to me that the fascia informs a horse’s energy as well. Energy work is a modality of healing in and of itself. As we know from the laws of physics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be shifted and changed. Though still developing, research on mirror neurons and cellular entrainment give us a glimpse into the vast reality science has yet to fully understand about the inner workings of energy healing. These concepts start to paint the picture of cells being able to mimic each other and be influenced by their respective energy fields as well as outside fields.
Through this knowledge, Lauren helps horses make shifts to return to baseline through feeling where energy isn’t flowing and asking questions on how energy can be brought back into that area. One way she does this is by focusing on what parts of the body are already doing really well and using those areas to help positively inform the areas that are needing assistance.
While this is just a taste of the different healing modalities Lauren offers to horses, she believes the modality is not what’s most important. “As long as your intention is pure and holding the animal, or being, in their highest good, you're going to get to a really fabulous place.” Through Lauren, I have learned some healing practices to work on with Wish. Even with my marked lack of experience, I do notice it helps him relax though responses like yawns, eyes lowered to half-mast, and lower lip drooping. Regardless of whether I’m inciting any healing change or not, the work has helped us develop a strong bond that I hold extremely dear.
Acupuncture and chiropractic, or spinal manipulation as it’s called when done on horses in the state of Colorado, are also important healing modalities in the equine world. Because Wish is still learning to trust the vet, these options are ones that we look forward to utilizing in the future. No matter, I spoke with Wish’s veterinarian, Dr. Sarah Appleby, DVM of Comfort Equine, who practices acupuncture and spinal manipulation, to learn more. Sarah explains that these two modalities, while different, have the same goal: targeting the nervous system and helping to align different parts of the body.
“It's really easy for small misalignments to happen during routine life activities. And spinal manipulation helps reset a lot of those.” She goes on to discuss the multitude of nerves coming out of the spine and that compression in certain areas can affect other organ systems, like the gastrointestinal tract. One review done by Veterinary Clinics of North America found spinal manipulation to be a critical component in the treatment of the muscular, joint, and neurologic aspects of injury in sport horses as well as a modality that should be called upon when a horse is not responding to conventional veterinary care.
Acupuncture is the practice of using small needles along different parts of the body to access different organ systems, muscle groups, and nerves. Another review done by Veterinary Clinics of North America found that acupuncture in horses is an incredible asset to a rehabilitation plan, “promoting analgesia, tissue healing, and muscle strength” while having minimal negative side effects.
When looking at overall take homes, Jim, Lauren, and Dr. Appleby all cite the importance of listening to the horse for best results. Dr. Appleby also echoed Lauren with the significance of intention, explaining, “Half of it with any of these modalities is having the correct intention when you're doing it. Knowing what your goal is and what you're trying to affect.” She continues, “Horses, in particular, are so sensitive to your energy that just by giving them positive energy and being supportive, the body will respond really well.”
What are the limitations to horse healing modalities? Lauren Harmon feels there aren’t any. “I think anything can change, I’ve seen it happen.” She expands that mindset is also key, “Pressure is put on the animal like, ‘if you don't get to a certain point, you don't have value anymore.’ So it's important to redefine: what's considered healed? What's considered better?”
While Wish is certainly still on the journey of healing, I’ve been surprised and impressed by his ability to heal thus far. He is able to move freely without boots protecting his hooves and happily lives with his herd mates again. We’ve even had our first rides together in the last month, far ahead of when I thought that would happen. If I’m lucky, I’ll even get a whinny when he spots me approaching. I owe this progress to the various forms of healing that we engage in but also to the trust that we’ve been “forced” to build in our first year of spending nearly everyday together on the ground with no intention of riding, just healing.
These amazing creatures are resilient, and just like humans can heal from a smattering of injuries and traumatic events, so can horses. With these healing methods, as well as others not mentioned here, as part of a healthcare plan, horses who have experienced physical, emotional, and mental injury can live happy, healthy lives -- and maybe even reach the potential projected onto them in the first place. With understanding the capabilities horses have to heal themselves, I believe that there can be a shift in the paradigm of horse disposal in this country.