Healing Sweet Pea's Suspensory Ligament InjuryAug 11, 2020
The chestnut horse stood before me, her long mane gracing her arched neck.
I watched as the veterinarian and the horse’s person looked at a radiograph of the mare’s left front lower leg, which showed a clearly defined suspensory ligament.
The vet explained to the woman that the horse would not be able to recover from her suspensory ligament injury and would be permanently lame.
The woman was distraught by the news.
Confidently, I strode forward and announced that I could help the horse return to full soundness. I did my signature Debono Moves* work with the horse for five minutes and, magically, the horse healed.
Magically, indeed! Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I recounted my dream.
I laughed at the arrogance of my dream self, but I didn’t dismiss the dream. It felt important. And there had to be a reason why the suspensory ligament was shown in such detail. I wondered what it all meant.
And just who WAS that beautiful horse? 🐴
The dream took place in a hotel room in Berkeley, California, where I was attending the annual Feldenkrais Method® conference. Willing myself back to reality, I remembered that I needed to check my business voicemail before the conference began.
I could muse about my dream later.
As I began to play my messages, the first one stopped me cold. ⛄
The caller, Jan, explained that she had a mare with a chronic suspensory ligament injury. After several months of treatment, the mare’s ligament was still not healing.
Jan explained that an x-ray that had been taken that day showed that parts of her horse's suspensory ligament had calcified.
The veterinarian’s prognosis was grim and suggested that the ten year-old horse be retired. But Jan desperately wanted her horse to heal.
Would I come to her barn in Los Angeles and work with her horse?
Marveling at the prophetic nature of my dream, I returned Jan's call and scheduled a session with her mare.
Hearing the despair in Jan’s voice, I tried to reassure her that I would do everything possible to help her horse.
She wasn’t ready to give up on her horse and—especially after that dream—neither was I!
When the day of the session arrived, I immediately recognized the chestnut mare, named Sweet Pea, from my dream.
A compact, gorgeous horse, she was a beautiful blend of Spanish Mustang and Arabian. She even had the long flowing mane and abundant forelock of the horse in my dream.
I explained to Jan that my work did not involve “fixing” her suspensory problem, but rather I would investigate how Sweet Pea was using her body.
And then, like a detective, I would try to uncover what was interfering with Sweet Pea’s healing.
As I ran my hands over Sweet Pea, I felt how the muscles on the left side of her body were more developed than those on the right side.
Observing closely, you could see the difference too. As I pointed this out to Jan, she noted that the mare sweated more on her left side.
As I began the Debono Moves* session, the mare was standing squarely on all four legs. I stood in front of her head and, with my hands on either side of her face, ever so lightly rocked her side-to-side. The rocking was so light as to be barely perceptible to an observer.
I then went to the horse's right side and gently took hold of her withers. Again, using a very small amount of pressure, I rocked her side-to-side. I repeated this process in several other places, always gently rocking Sweet Pea from some part of her skeleton, such as her point of hip or sacrum.
I repeated the process on Sweet Pea’s left side.
The gentle rocking was helping me discover how Sweet Pea habitually carried her weight.
Did Sweet Pea have a habit of carrying more of her weight on one side of her body? Or did she have a diagonal bias, with one front leg and the opposite rear leg carrying greater weight? In either case, the heavier weight-bearing legs would be forced to work harder than the others, increasing their strain.
In order to accurately learn how Sweet Pea loaded her limbs, my movements had to be very light and precise.
Anyone can shift a horse’s weight from side-to-side by pushing on the horse, but in order to determine which direction was easier for Sweet Pea to shift to, my touch had to be barely perceptible.
Think about it this way. Let’s say you are carrying a heavy box of books. A butterfly lands on the box, but you cannot tell when it flies off. Because you are using a lot of effort to carry the box, your nervous system cannot discriminate when such a small difference—the weight of a butterfly—is added or removed.
Now let’s pretend you are holding a feather lightly between your thumb and forefinger. A butterfly lands on the feather. You can immediately feel the increased weight in your hand. A decrease in weight will tell you that the butterfly has taken flight.
It’s the same when we are touching our horses. When we use a heavy touch, our bodies cannot discriminate between subtle differences in sensation.
But when we use a very small amount of effort, we are able to discern even small differences in ease of movement. These small, but very important differences are what we are looking for.
And it’s true for what the horse feels as well. If you use a small amount of pressure, the horse’s nervous system can discern the ease in which the body shifts to the right, and the ease in which it shifts left.
If you use more force, all the horse feels is that he/she is being pushed to the side. There's no harmony, no cooperation.
To rock Sweet Pea, I moved my whole body slightly forward and backward.
My arm just served as the place to connect Sweet Pea with my movement. This ensured that I used very little muscular effort and that my hand stayed soft, enabling me to feel differences.
It was also a more pleasant sensation for Sweet Pea because she felt neither pushed nor pulled as she would if I used only my arm muscles to do the work.
My actions were inviting the horse to move. Not demanding it.
💥I found that Sweet Pea carried more of her weight on her left legs. And the difference was significant.💥
After I finished my rocking (which had the added benefit of soothing Sweet Pea and acquainting her to my touch), I slowly and lightly ran my hands over her.
I discovered that the muscles on her left side were indeed tenser than the muscles on her right side. It was clear that Sweet Pea used the left side of her body more strongly, and her asymmetrical muscling showed that she had been doing this for some time.
No wonder her left front leg wasn’t healing! She wasn’t giving it a chance to rest.
Keep in mind that Sweet Pea was definitely off on her left front leg. The head bob confirmed that. But when she was at rest, which was most of the day, she carried significantly more weight on her left legs.
Asymmetrical limb loading is not uncommon. We humans do it too! It's usually so habitual, so unconscious, that you may not realize that you're doing it. But over time it can lead to soreness, wear and tear damage and increased risk of injury.
Considering Sweet Pea’s injury, overusing her left side seemed more than a bit unwise.
I knew that there had to have been a good reason for Sweet Pea to have developed this habit in the first place. I wondered aloud what that could be. It was then that Jan spoke up.
Five years before, the mare had injured her right front leg. After appropriate rest and treatment, the injury healed and the mare was sound. It's likely that Sweet Pea learned to use her left side more strongly as she was recovering from that injury. And then it had become a habit.
My job was to convince Sweet Pea that it was time to release that habit and develop a better strategy.
Now you might be tempted to think that all I had to do was shift Sweet Pea’s weight over onto her right side, but that wouldn’t be a good idea!
The horse’s nervous system would resist that direct confrontation, so I had to be more subtle than that. Instead, I used my hands to lift and support the muscles that Sweet Pea was using to keep her weight heavier on her left side.
Doing so helped relieved those overworked muscles, interrupting their habitual contraction.
As I supported her muscles, Sweet Pea relaxed and yawned. Her head began dropping and her eyes were soft.
I worked with Sweet Pea’s rib cage too, since the uneven limb loading caused strain and asymmetry through the horse's ribs, sternum and spine.
I used my hands to help the chestnut feel how she could shift her sternum and recover freedom of movement in her ribs and back.
All of these improvements would help prevent the mare from continuing to strain her injured left front suspensory ligament.
After I made my way over Sweet Pea’s body, I delicately began circling her body from various places.
This gave her different experiences of weighting her limbs non-habitually. I was providing the mare with options, but they would only be adopted if they felt comfortable and safe.
Since I made sure that Sweet Pea’s experiences were pleasant and non-threatening, her nervous system began getting the idea that distributing her weight more evenly was a good choice!
It was incredibly satisfying to see how this lovely mare—who first connected with me in a dream—changed her long-time habit so easily.
Such is the power of a gentle approach that offers the horse well-chosen options to increase ease, efficiency and harmony in movement. And in life.
As I suggested, Jan continued to follow her veterinarian's advice for treating, resting and hand walking her chestnut mare. And since Sweet Pea was no longer stressing her injured leg, it wasn't long before her suspensory ligament healed completely.
Happily, Jan continued to ride and enjoy her beloved girl for many more years. 💗
Mary's note from August 2020: That session with Sweet Pea took place in 1994. Jan Steward and I went on to become very dear friends. In addition to being a horsewoman, Jan was an incredibly gifted and accomplished artist, who co-authored the book, Learning By Heart, with Corita Kent.
I introduced Jan to the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method®. Jan and Moshe Feldenkrais ("M.F.") had very similar thoughts about learning and creativity, and she immediately understood the value of Moshe's teachings.
I spent many delightful hours in Jan's company. She generously invited me to teach Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® group classes and private Functional Integration® sessions to her eclectic group of artist, musician and equestrian friends. She hosted these gatherings in her beautiful, art-filled home in Los Angeles.
And in addition to working with her horse, Sweet Pea, I gave sessions to all of Jan's many dogs over the years.🐶 And Jan, herself, of course.
Because Jan was so generous, encouraging and inclusive, she often invited me to collaborate on her artistic projects. She regularly created works of art for the late George Harrison (Yes, THAT George Harrison!).
I remember the time that George asked Jan to create a birthday card for Ringo Starr (Yes, THAT Ringo Starr!) 😮
Jan kindly asked for my "help" with it. She was looking for a new idea for the theme she had in mind.
I'm happy to say that when I don't have an answer, at least I know who to call. I immediately got in touch with my super-creative sister, Loretta, who came up with a brilliant idea that Jan included in the card. Both George and Ringo loved the card! 😊
As with everything Jan did in life, Ringo's birthday card was a generous, unrestrained work of art.
I'm grateful that Sweet Pea's suspensory ligament injury started the chain of events that caused Jan to call me all those years ago. Our friendship has enriched my life in so many ways.
Sadly, Jan passed away on July 1, 2020. I miss her. And I'm so incredibly glad to have known and loved her all these years. She continues to inspire me to lead a full, generous, creative life.
To my beloved Janma, the amazing Sweet Pea and Jan's wonderful dogs: May you move freely and joyfully above the clouds. May the sun shine on you sweetly! 💗
Jan's obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
*Debono Moves is the approach I created to improve the movement and well-being of horses, dogs, cats and other animals. It's strongly influenced by the teachings of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method®.
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