Where to begin… This week has been amazing. 

By Day Three of the equine dissection (Friday) I was feeling much less shy, but also feeling sad. It was over already! I don’t even know where to begin writing about the experience since so much knowledge and thoughtfulness has been shared over the past few days. Everyone had something to contribute and the pooling of resources was incredible. But of course Sharon’s research, insight, and determination was why we were all there. She has this impressive drive to search out the truth of things, to question received wisdom, to look at things laterally. The consequence of which being that she’s revealing and sharing knowledge that will ultimately be to the benefit of the horse. 

The way I came to Sharon’s work was through curiosity. Why is it so easy for horse’s to shorten up their necks even while looking “round”, overbending at the top and dropping at the base? How can our management of horses affect their ability to work? How do the structures intersect and influence one another? 

We were given so many answers and so many further questions. But the basics, the stuff that can filter back into everyday horsemanship, is all simple stuff that makes perfect sense. 

But oh, after the dissection I also went along to the evening lecture last night. Took a horsey friend. It wasn’t super-cheap, but having done the dissection I knew it would be worth its weight in gold. Sharon discussed three topics that she’s done extensive research on (the papers are out there, if you google her name and “pdf” they tend to pop up). Congenital malformations of C6/C7 in Thoroughbreds (and uh oh, it’s starting to show up hugely in breeds influenced by TB blood too). Problems of the elbow (shocker alert: 100% of ridden horses show painful wear and tear of the elbows under dissection… but how often are elbows even thought about?). And, the topic that first led me to Sharon, the missing lamellae to C6/C7 of the nuchal ligament. 

We’d touched on a lot of this during the dissection, but in the lecture we got much more detail. Absolutely fascinating. And it was brilliant being able to put together all the bits of information as she took us on this educational journey. For example, the NL…

The sheet-like lamallar part of the NL is shown in all anatomy books as running into the back of each vertebra from C2 to C7. But it doesn’t. It stops at C5, and often the connections there are very thin and sparse too. This is something that has been lost in domestication as we’ve prioritised horses that can be easily disengaged at the wither (for control and safety, breaking that smooth line from head through wither to hind). So we’ve essentially bred the lower lamellae out of our domestic horses, made them too flexible in that region, and they’re placed at a disadvantage because of it. It’s like a suspension bridge with a few broken cords. Clear, simple, information which highlights the importance of training with length in the neck. But, it carries on, and this is the part that was really made clear by attending the actual dissection. At C6/C7 (the base of the neck) spinalis dorsi, which has run along each side of the spine, attaches to the vertebrae. But in primitive equidae (zebra, donkeys, koniks, etc.), who have the extra lamellar NL, it also intersects with the NL fibres. They mesh together, which connects left and right sides of the horse’s base-of-neck and provides even further support for the structure. Domestic horses don’t have the NL in that area and so the spinalis dorsi is also destablised. So now we’ve got two layers of destabilisation happening and the need to keep that spine/neck long and the withers up is even more important. Since spinalis dorsi is extra-important due to the lacking lamellar NL, anything that impinges on it and causes it to hypertrophy (such as narrow saddle fit) destabilises the base of neck further. That’s potentially three layers of destabilisation. Longus colli, a cybernetic aerobic muscle running along the underside of the cervical vertebrae also has to help pick up the slack (literally!) but, in many domestic situations, this muscle isn’t given the kind of slow distance work that it needs to maintain tone (ie: constantly moving, grazing 80% of the time and browsing for the other 20% from variable heights in a way which encourages the horse to stand square, engage its core, reach with the neck, and slightly take its weight back onto its hind). Scalenus too. So that’s potentially four ways in which domestication has destabilised the base of the horse’s neck. And then we want them to be round. The anatomy suggests that the only way to have roundness that functions is for it to come from lifting the wither (engaging the thoracic sling), which is something the classical people have always known, they just didn’t perhaps know why they knew it. But the easiest things we can do is to provide the right balance of grazing to browsing, with varied terrain, and strengthen animals in straight lines and with groundwork before getting on their backs. 

Absolutely fascinating stuff. I mean, there was just so much of it, I could go on and on and on. I’ll have to write up my own notes soon too, perhaps tomorrow, else I’ll forget some of the most interesting details. Oh lord… how the hyoid connects to the hind (tongue pressure limits hind leg engagement, we all felt it with our own two hands during the dissection)… how, with most muscles removed, you can place your fingers against the dura mater between C1 and C2 and feel it be compressed when you overflex the poll (worrying times for the spinal cord)… how a longer lateral foreleg splint is related to aerobic capability (in humans too) and so is more common in thoroughbreds/racers, whilst a longer medial splint is related to endurance capability and so is more common in arabians…  how colour does matter (homozygous grey leads to aggressive melanomas which you may never see but which are inside potentially causing havoc with the animal’s body and ability to do its job). There was just so much to learn, so much to listen to and appreciate. And I think, for a few days at least, my curiosity has been satisfied. 

In other news, I accidentally ended up at a student party last night! Wasn’t the only “older” person there, so I managed to sneak by mostly unnoticed as an interloper, haha. Got home around 4.30am and was so tempted to stay up for the sunrise, but after four days of brain engagement and many gins it just wasn’t possible. 

Earlier in the week, I repaired my broken china pony using the kintsugi kit I ordered a while ago. It’s done the job and he’s got golden fissures to tell a story now. They rather suit him. It was messy work though! I should have set out my workspace better and been more patient, but you live and learn. I’ve got a liquid gold corset to finish for a lovely client this year and we’ve been considering ways of getting a drippy gold effect to the bust of the corset. I’ve been emailing a few electro-platers and such to see what the possibilities are, but it was quite nice to also realise that this kintsugi technique (our rather, our western approximation of it) would be another option. Always good to have multiple possibilities in the toolbox. 

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