Sunday, February 22, 2009

To see a lady about a horse

Last Friday afternoon, I took a field trip out to far west Houston, near Bear Creek Park, to visit a new client. I was grateful for the timing of my trip, since at 2:30 p.m., the Friday rush hour traffic had not yet begun. The last time I had driven on the Katy Freeway, it was fraught with delays and detours because of construction. Now, it was smooth sailing, as I practically zoomed along the monstrous expressway. I was distracted and nervous, however. I needed to see a lady about a horse.

Remembering the phone call from earlier in the week, I wondered what I was getting myself into. What was I thinking, agreeing to give a Feldenkrais lesson to a horse? Yet Courtney, the animal communicator who called to enlist my help, had been very persuasive. Baron, a resident of the Remington Acres Equine Refuge, had apparently slipped in a muddy patch somewhere on their 64 acres, and had come hobbling home. His left hind leg was sore, his knee was swollen, and he was in pain. He was checked out by veterinarians and other animal specialists who said that nothing was broken, thankfully. And yet, the horse was having trouble walking, and seemed not to be able to feel his leg very well, except for pain. Could I help?

Some Feldenkrais teachers work regularly with animals. I don't -- or haven't. There's an off-shoot of the Feldenkrais Method, developed by Linda Tellington-Jones (one of Moshe Feldenkrais' original US students), that has animals as the focus. T-Touch, as it's called, is used to help animals learn better patterns of movement and behavior that can facilitate in the healing of injuries, relieve pain, and calm anxiety. Since we're a few months away from having our first T-Touch practitioner in Houston, Courtney called me as the next best bet. I told her I would try my best, and see what I could do. She was fine with that. "So far, our alternatives have been to take him to [Texas] A & M for surgery, or put him down. We want to try everything possible before we go that way."

I pulled off of Eldridge Parkway and into the driveway for Remington Acres. As I walked up to the ranch gate for Courtney to let me in, I saw my client standing in the paddock. Baron, as I had been told, is 1/2 Clydesdale. He is the most enormous horse I have ever seen. A big, cranky, hurting horse, waiting for me. Oh boy!

Courtney introduced me to Baron, and to Rose Westover, one of the founders of Remington Acres. The refuge cares for abused and neglected horses, and horses whose owners can't take care of them anymore. They are expanding their abilities to provide equine therapy for humans with emotional or physical difficulties. Today, it was Baron who needed help. He and I needed to get to know each other.

Needless to say, working with a gigantic animal outdoors is very different from working with a class in a dance studio, or a person on my table. Baron was a bit impatient and agitated, so Rose and other volunteers made sure to bring plenty of hay and treats to keep him pacified. He stood 16 hands at his shoulders. His hip was way above my head, and his hoofs were huge. I spoke gently to him, moved slowly as I stroked him, and tried to stay out of the way of the hoofs. He only stepped on me once.

Baron could tell that I was uncomfortable -- we both were. As I quieted my mind, the nagging inner voice saying "What will you do? What will you do?" was replaced with another voice. My major mentor, Paul Rubin, often said, "Just do the Feldenkrais Method. Work the Method." That became my mantra as I began.

I watched him stand, and walk. Baron clearly favored his left hind leg. His left knee there was swollen, and his left hip looked strange somehow. But what aroused my curiosity was his hoof and ankle. He would bend his ankle and drag the hoof sometimes. The ankle was not coordinated with the rest of his leg. This was particularly pronounced when he was following Rose, in pursuit of hay. I stroked him and told him I was there to help him, and that he was a very big horsie. Then I started talking to him in a higher, softer voice, telling him that he was such a pretty little pony. His ears perked up and his eyes twinkled. Flattery will get you everywhere. He was somewhat skittish, but gradually calmed down enough that I felt like I was safe to touch his hip and his knee. I did not try to manipulate or correct anything, or force anything to move that didn't want to move. I simply touched to bring his awareness to those parts of his body. I touched his ankle, and the bones of his lower leg. Gradually, he came to rest his left hoof completely on the ground. Something shifted.

We worked for about 40 minutes, taking frequent pauses so that he could nibble on some hay, or have a little walk. I traced his spine, from his shoulders down to his sacrum. Since he was sort of dragging his leg, I was curious about whether he was stiffening in his lower back, as people often do when they limp. I felt for his vertebrae just above his sacrum, trying to form some kind of mental map of equine anatomy, for myself and for him. As I touched his spine, I felt gently for his ribs with my other hand. His huge, broad flank seemed to soften as I found ribs and traced them up to his spine. I was without agenda, simply exploring, questioning: "Can you move here? How about here? Can you breathe here?" I did all of this on his unaffected side, then returned to the injured side to touch his left hip, knee, and lower leg again. His hoof seemed more firmly on the ground.

With each walk around the paddock, Baron moved more easily. His ankle "fired" at the right time, and he no longer dragged his foot. His hoof was taking his weight, and his body seemed straighter, closer to vertical, as he walked. Since he was tired, we let him out into the pasture and watched him. He loped along, with only slight evidence of a little stiffness. "Will you look at that! He looks almost normal again!" Rose and Courtney were thrilled.

So, how did I work the Method? It certainly wasn't in my technique. There was no magic in the touch or in the moves. I made sure to make my client my focus, paying attention both to his body, and the way he moved in his environment. I got curious. I considered the prior diagnosis, but didn't allow my thinking to be limited by it. I brought his attention to himself, inviting him to include his spine, his ribs, and his leg in his self image of "a whole horse." As a sentient being with a brain and a nervous system, eager to learn, he had a good lesson.

I am always impressed by the power and the beauty of this work. It is entirely terrestrial, no mysterious energies, spirits, to contend with, no belief system to install or dismantle. Communication between two brains, two nervous systems, communication through touch and voice, are the main ingredients. When the student and teacher are both aware and willing to learn and change, amazing things can happen!

Learn more about Remington Acres here. They welcome volunteers, and donations of services, time, items, and money.

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

What a wonderful blog. It is amazing to read this as you apply Feldenkrais methods to a horse. And what comfort you imparted to this lovely animal as he began to relax and go with the flow. This might be the beginning of new adventures in your practice, Mary Beth. Thanks again for the descriptive piece you shared with all of us. Barbara

Karen Toth said...

I was so lucky to have a client with a horse that I worked on as well. The results were instant and very rewarding.
I noticed the the horses mouth was very tense from all the pain he had been in. By the end of the lesson his mouth was soft!
This stuff really works!
Karen Toth

Anonymous said...

Great story, Mary Beth, thanks for sharing it with us. When Barbara
suggested that I read it, I did so thinking of another friend who in
recent years has applied his psychiatry discipline to helping
Bonobos. Cross species communication through touch. Facinating.
Getting to the connecting points. We so often focus on the hurt and
forget where the connections are lost. you helped the horse find the
connections... again. or just provided a permissive mode to allow him
to explore... again.....
Montague Brown

Unknown said...

Mary Beth,

What a wonderful experience you have shared with Baron and with us. Thanks & keep up the good work.

Ophelia Pujol

kmc said...

Thanks, MB. This brings tears to my eyes. What could humans do if we could drop our agendas and notice?

You really got at the real thing here, not the trappings We so frequently want to shout our truth from the rooftops, but have to learn to wait for it to sink in. When we can't communicate everything we want to, we are forced to focus on what is necessary. Sometimes descriptive language is the barrier.

Thanks again. Really beautiful.