Imagine, if you will, a job that allows you to spend all day petting horses. For each horse you pet, you receive a minimum of $75. You also get to travel around the country giving clinics… and you have a book deal.
Basically, you are living a life that I didn't know was possible.
If I had known this was a career option when I graduated from high school, things would be different. I would be Mike Watkins.
A couple years ago, Mike gave a presentation to the members of the Blue Mountain Riders, a local club for women of a certain age. I am not of that age, but I was a member of the club at the time. One of the ladies brought her horse for Mike to demonstrate on, and I watched withrapt attention as he took that old, sway-backed paint through a series of moves—applying and releasing pressure, bending and straightening, tensing and relaxing. What impressed me was the way the horse changed shape. By the end of the meeting, ol' paint's sway back was almost level, he was relaxed (in spite of 50-some women poking, prodding and asking questions), and he was a lot more willing to bend than he was at the beginning. I was impressed.
I took Mike's card and filed him away for future reference. Yes, I was impressed, but my horse wasn't showing any signs of pain or difficulty performing. And, let’s face it, I’m not made of money.
Fast forward to April 2010. Otto started the LD at MRRT dead last. The night before, he had seemed a little off. Not lame, but just out of sorts—not himself at all. I should have taken the hint and scratched, but I had my eye on an end-of-year award. So we started last and at a walk. Otto was still out of sorts, but I attributed that to me not letting him have his way and go tearing down the gravel road at a dead run. But then something happened that had never happened before. I asked for a trot and didn't get it. I got perhaps two or three strides, then he completely fell apart—hard pace, singlefoot, back to walk. We did this a couple times, and I though I'd see if he would canter. Again, a couple strides, then a stumble and a wobble. I dismounted and checked his feet. Clean and normal. I got back on and asked again—refusal. By now we were far, far behind the pack. And, since MRRT is an out-and-back ride, the leaders were beginning to pass us going the other way. I got down and walked him the remaining 4 miles into the checkpoint, where we caught a trailer ride back to camp.
|The walk of shame. Photo by Matt Bobbitt.|
Back home after a few days of rest, I free-lunged him in our round pen. Even at liberty he was struggling to maintain ANY gait consistently in either direction. I was simultaneously irritated and worried (my default feelings about a horse that can't perform).
So I dug out the business card and emailed Mike. He came out early on the following Sunday morning. It was clear and cold and very windy, but he worked away at Otto, bending, stretching and pulling. Hepointed out the sore spots to me, made a few suggestions about positioning the saddle and myself, showed me where to pay extra attention during grooming, and went on his way. Otto was a bit better, but not a new horse by any means. We spent several more weeks rehabbing and building him up with lateral work and riding the "bad" diagonal. Eventually, Otto got better. I couldn't say that Mike made THE difference, but I think he made at least SOME difference. I walked away from that whole experience more interested in equine body work. It got me interested in Linda Tellington and April Battles. It got me to pay more attention to warming up and stretching horse AND rider. It wasn't a complete waste of time.
But I filed Mike away again. I am not made of money, after all.
Fast-forward again. Blue just spent three weeks basically immobile and with one leg a good two inches longer than the others. Before that he had world-class dental problems that put a lot of stress on his TMJ, which put a lot of stress on the cervical vertebrae, which… well, you know, it's all connected.
So if ever there were a situation that called for horse massage, this weekend was it. Again, I emailed Mike. And again he was happy to come out and see my sorry excuse for an endurance partner.
Actually, he said only nice things about mustangs in general and Blue in particular. And what did he find? Atlas/axis was a mess. He asked Blue for a stretch upwards and got a lot of tail wringing. Down the neck, nothing major. Surprisingly flexible, even. Withers, perfectly balanced. Perfect. No soreness in the hollows behind them (I credit the Supracor for our MUCH-improved saddle fit). Mid-back, all normal reactions. No rib soreness.
But then came the low-back. EXTREME reaction. As soon as Mike applied pressure above and slightly behind the loin, Blue's front foot on the opposite side shot forward as if to paw the air, his head jerked up and he audibly gasped. Have you ever heard a horse gasp?!
Blue was very bony when I got him, but three weeks of nothing but eating and standing has pretty well filled him in—except for this one spot at the top of his croup. In theory, this point is behind the S-I joint (fused at his age), above maybe the second or third sacral vertebra. Too far back to be a hunter bump, I think. If you want to get crazy technical, this would probably be the point where the gluteal fascia overlap the superficial gluteals. And it is a point in the literal sense—a very obvious high spot along an otherwise smooth expanse of croup.
Mike had noted it when he first arrived, but reserved judgement until he got there in his treatment. This is where things got weird. So there is pain in the muscles in front of the bump. The bump itself is nonreactive. Lateral movement of the hindquarters was the next manipulation. Basically, Mike just gently shoved Blue's hindquarters over. Not enough to make him step, but enough to rock him. Lo and behold, a pop. Both directions, a soft little pop. Repeated movements didn't make the sound stop. And the sound seemed deeper inside him than the vertebrae.
Which makes no sense because the only other bone in that area is the pelvis… and the pelvis is not made up of moving pieces.
So now we have a mystery on our hands. Mike says that structurally he can't think of a reason that you would get that sound in that place repeatedly. He says I should bring it up with the vet next time I'm in.
In the meantime he worked and worked on Blue's hindquarters and showed me a little routine to add to my grooming to continue to work the sore points.
By the time the session was over, Blue was a much rounder horse than we started with. No more slouch—his whole topline was extended, yet he looked relaxed and happy. The tilt of his pelvis changed. The tension in the throatlatch was gone. I'm totally amazed what a difference an hour of bodywork made.
Plus, Mike is coming back in a week to do a quick follow up and check the hindquarters again. In the meantime, I'm supposed to observe the beast closely, looking for unusual behavior. Will he roll more or less? Is his movement different?
The only thing I noticed last night is that he put his entire muzzle into his evening slop. He had senior feed particles literally up to his eyeballs. I will make a note of it. :)
Today the farrier came. I unwrapped the dressing from Blue's foot... and a miracle had occurred. The wound is closed. Not just more closed, but actually completely closed. It is a smooth expanse of thick, pink skin. No proud flesh at all. The tiniest of scabs on one side.
The farrier says, "If he was mine, I'd be riding him."
So that's the plan. Tomorrow after work, we'll try some low-key walk-trot time in the arena. If all is well, we will ramp things up this weekend.
I'm just sitting here grinning like a fool.