# Introduction Back in April 2013 I wrote an article for “Horse” magazine entitled “Power Source”. It was about taking care of the musculature of the horse and was inspired by a series of visits to the Samsara rehabilitation centre in France. There I met Willy Sidorak and his then apprentice Stephen Goodridge and I learnt that the source of many ongoing lameness problems lay in the muscles. I learned about the process of rehabilitation but was unable to witness it. Earlier this year the opportunity arose for me to observe the process first hand and I jumped at the chance. This article records what I learnt there.
Thin Tamtam before the project. source
# Tamtam The horse I observed undergoing the process is called Tamtam. He is a 15.2hh bay gelding of unknown breeding. He was the property of a friend and she had used him to carry clients in her riding holidays business. Unfortunately Tamtam had been unable to work for over a year due to chronic lameness. My friend’s vet had examined the horse and diagnosed the cause of the lameness to be a clearly visible bony swelling on his right hind pastern. He x rayed the lump and recommended remedial shoeing and a variety of drugs to manage the pain. Faced with business, family and money problems, my friend had decided to remove his shoes and turn him away. He did not improve and I suggested that Willy may be able to help. Willy visited my friend and examined the horse and together we hatched a plan to rehabilitate the horse and share Willy’s knowledge. The horses Willy usually rehabilitates are sports horses with impeccable breeding. Tamtam would help to show that these principles are applicable to all horses no matter how lowly their origins.
# The project begins…diagnosis Tamtam and I arrived at Willy’s stables to start the project in February 2016. Willy emphasised that the rehabilitation process is systematic and disciplined and requires good teamwork. There are no shortcuts. The first member of Willy’s team to see Tamtam was his vet, Yves van Vaeck. Yves explained the importance of considering the whole horse when making a diagnosis. He examined every part of Tamtam’s body and responsiveness. He noted: Tamtam’s low energy levels, his poor coat, his teeth and feet in need of attention and areas of tension in the muscles over his hindquarters. He told me that Tamtam was malnourished and he suspected a heavy internal parasite burden and this was shortly proven following dung sample and blood tests. He concluded that all the horse’s internal bodily systems were stressed and weakened. Tamtam would need a lot of building up before he could undergo Willy’s muscle treatment. Next Yves examined Tamtam moving in walk and trot on a hard surface. He asked me to focus on the horse’s hips as he moved and to say what I could see. I saw that Tamtam’s right hip moved up and down as he trotted but his left hip appeared to be stuck. It didn’t move at all. The problem clearly lay in the left hind-quarters not the right leg as the previous vet had diagnosed!
X ray of the lump. source
I showed Yves the previous vet’s report and x rays. He told me that it is human nature to see the obvious lump and assume that to be the cause of the problem. The bony swelling was likely to have been caused by a strike from a forefoot but the x rays showed that it did not interfere with any of the joints. The only one of the previous vet’s recommendations Yves agreed with was the urgent need for Tamtam’s feet to be rebalanced and well supported with good shoes. The lesson here is that we need to be careful that we have trustworthy experts on our horse support team!
Yves recommended that Tamtam should be seen as soon as possible by two other key members of Willy’s team: his farrier and his dentist. He called them immediately and explained what he had found and discussed with them what could be done. As you would expect all of Willy’s team are experts in their respective fields and very professional. However, what particularly impressed me was the way they worked together, sharing their findings and ensuring the best way forward for Tamtam.
# Nutrition….the best medication Willy and Yves emphasised that the most important medication Tamtam should receive is good nutrition. This would take time to have the desired effect so we humans would need a dose of patience! Tamtam had been used to living out in winter with no rugs and no additional feeding (only winter grazing). At Willy’s he had a spacious stable with a deep straw bed and plenty of fresh air; companions he could see and touch; a rug when it was really cold and lots and lots of good food.
Willy's feed. source
Willy feeds his horses a complete feed of chaff and cereals which he designed himself and has specially made for him by a French feed company. The feed is effectively fed “ad lib” as Willy explained that the horse regulates his own intake. In addition this feed has many more advantages: - it is mould and dust free so no respiratory problems; - it is consistent in nutritional content so no sudden changes in diet; - the cereals are trickle fed with the forage so less risk of ulcers, colic and other digestive problems associated with feeding hard feed in distinct meals; - the chaff takes a long time to chew and keeps the horses occupied so less risk of stable vices; - feed times are less stressful as there are no separate hard feed meals and less waiting for feed so horses are less stressed (and therefore less stress related problems); - it is labour saving and so releases more time for training (consider all the time spent making and storing hay and stuffing and carrying hay nets!); and - it is less expensive when the total costs of making, buying and storing different forages and feeds are taken into account. I must say it has surprised me that more feed companies do not appear to offer feeds like this one.
Better out than in! source
In order to get the best out of his feeding Tamtam would need good teeth and no parasites. A visit from the dentist and worming with Equest Pramox ensured Tamtam would get maximum benefit from his new feeding regime. Yves had recommended that Tamtam should receive a tonic to strengthen his system prior to worming. The tonic we used, “Colosan”, is one of a handful of products that Willy uses routinely and is supplied by Schaette based in Germany. When I saw the huge quantity of worms Tamtam excreted I realised why Yves had recommended this tonic before administering the wormer. Wormers are a necessary but harsh intervention on already weakened systems.
# Mental problems In common with many horses with persistent lameness (and pain), Tamtam had developed behavioural issues. His owner had warned me that he had become increasingly uncooperative. His bad habits included pulling back and breaking away when tied up in readiness to be tacked up; bucking off his riders; refusing to load and nappiness. He had become a liability to her business which was why she had decided to turn him away.
Willy explained that many previously genuine horses can develop these problems as a result of pain. Unfortunately the more ingrained these bad habits become the more difficult they are to break even after the horse has fully recovered from his physical problems. In this way Willy always expects to have to tackle some of these issues as part of the rehabilitation process. This is important not only for the horse’s future but also because Willy needs the horse to be cooperative and trusting when he treats his physical problems.
So while Tamtam ate and grew stronger, Willy worked on his mind with groundwork exercises. At first Tamtam objected to even the simplest requests. Gradually, with persistence and repetition, Willy broke through Tamtam’s negativity and we were able to load and unload him, tie him up and brush him in the wash box and lead him out alone for walks in the countryside including fording rivers, all of which earned Tamtam much praise. I would love to report it was all plain sailing but it really wasn’t. There were good and bad days and some big setbacks. The trick was to learn from the setbacks and not to give up.
I think it is worth saying a few words here about the mental impact of ongoing lameness on the owner/rider. A lame horse can put a significant financial and emotional strain on the owner’s resources. The cost of keeping the horse can rise due to vet bills whilst the pleasure we receive from riding our horse is non existent. As time goes on we can lose hope and may have to consider an alternative future for our horse. A well bred mare or stallion may have a future in breeding, but what future is there for a lame gelding? Like Tamtam many of these unfortunate horses can be neglected as we owners seek to minimise the cost of keeping them. And then there is the guilt and the heart searching as we wonder whether it would be kinder to put the horse to sleep. I have felt all these emotions and I guess the reader may have too.
# Training routine Whilst Tamtam learned better manners, I was also able to benefit by observing Willy working with other client horses in the later stages of rehabilitation and to assist in the training of his own youngstock.
Each day Willy works upwards of 6 or 7 horses (no mean feat for a 70 year old!). He works instinctively and his keen senses miss nothing. He taught me that the horse is always communicating and that it is up to us to understand and read the signs.
As with his feed, Willy has superb facilities which he designed himself and had purpose built. The indoor stables are large and airy, partitioned with bars instead of walls so the horses can see and touch each other (so important for the horse’s mental well being). He has a large indoor round pen (22 metres diameter) with good natural light and a good well cared for sand surface.
Once groomed and tacked up all the horses have their fore and hind legs stretched before starting a working session. This is a simple and extremely beneficial thing we can all incorporate into our routine to help prevent muscle problems. Also all the horses start by being worked without a rider in the round pen. By observing the horse during these preliminaries Willy would decide what that horse needed to work on that day. In the school Willy used trotting poles and gymnastic jumping exercises as well as flat work. He taught me to use all my senses: to watch the horse’s body language (especially his ears and tail); to listen to his breathing and footfall; to take his pulse rate and temperature and to read the pattern of his sweat. A horse in the final stages of fittening is worked hard typically cantering 50 circuits of the school on each rein (the equivalent of 7 kms). The trick is building up to this gradually and ensuring that the horse has adequate fuel for the work he is doing.
In addition to physical fitness, Willy believes that it is equally important for the horse to be mentally fit, so many of the work sessions focus on educating the horse and broadening his experience. The young horses were taught to be tacked up in a number of locations including their own stable. They learned to be mounted from either side and dismounted from both sides and the rear! All the horses were hacked out on the bridleways alone and in company. We forded rivers and regularly made a diversion to pass through a farmyard where the horses were exposed to pigs, cows, goats and sheep in close proximity. The horses are pretty much bombproof as Willy exposes them to barking dogs, squealing pigs and road rage, drivers honking their horn while passing at breakneck speed. All Willy’s horses have been there, seen it, done it and got the t shirt!
# Confrontation Willy showed me that by avoiding or ignoring small problems I created much bigger problems in future. If Willy even suspects there may be a problem he engineers a situation where it will arise. He provokes and confronts problems so that he can deal with them while they are small. I saw that this makes sense. Why do I avoid problems? I guess it is fear. Fear of being unable to deal with the consequences I provoke. But the truth is that unless I do so I will never learn the skills to deal with problems. Willy gave me the confidence to confront my problems.
Avoiding and Ignoring. source
A big fear I have is fear of failure. Willy showed my how the experience of failing creates lasting learning when the causes of failure are examined. Simply avoiding any situations where I could fail just restricts my life and exacerbates my fear.
He also showed me how over helping and protecting weaker riders can exacerbate their weakness. The key is encouraging others to give them the confidence to do it for themselves. I learned that even when we are at our weakest there are reserves of energy we can conjure through controlled anger. We are taught to avoid anger but there are situations when it can help our confidence and give us temporary superhuman energy to do something we thought impossible.
I watched Willy working with a beginner rider on a novice horse. The rider fell and I immediately wanted to comfort her and help her back on. Willy made me leave the arena. There was an interchange between the fallen rider and Willy and eventually she stopped crying and started shouting back at Willy. Then the miracle happened. She got back on a horse that must have been 17hh tall from the ground unassisted. Afterwards when we had our end of day discussion on learning points Willy told me that people like me make people like the beginner weak. I see it is so. The truth hurts.
He also showed me how a spark can create an inferno where horses in full energy are concerned. So we humans try to have no sparks. Willy asked me if I was ready to ride and work with a horse in full energy. I said I was ready to try. All Willy’s horses are entire and huge. A little different to my small lusitano gelding, Eric! With Willy’s support I learned to ride all of them; 12 stallions and several mares. He showed me the truth that we use castration, harsh equipment and low energy feeds and tranquillizers because we are afraid of energy. Willy is not afraid of energy. His goal is to maximise it in every horse and every human and channel that energy to achieve full potential.
He also showed me how to use my energy (my aura) to influence the horse. Good horsemanship requires us to be closely in touch with our own feelings. The horse requires us to be committed. Not just to think we can do it but to know we can do it in every fibre of our body. Achieving this is a lifetime’s practice and discipline.
Willy expects his horses to have complete trust in him and to accept him as their leader. Willy explained that this training starts at birth and has to be consistent and exact. This is especially important as all of Willy’s horses are entire and on top form. Willy is a fan of Robert Miller’s training techniques and especially his Imprint Training for foals.
Leather pelham bit. source
Many of the sports horses who come for rehabilitation have problem mouths. It is often the case that the horse that runs away due to muscular pain then gets fitted with stronger and stronger bits. This makes the horse more frightened and he continues to bolt. It is not long before the horse who repeats this behaviour is labelled unrideable! Willy has found that consistent reschooling in a leather Pelham bit and a rider with good hands can help to restore the horse’s confidence and remake the horse’s mouth. I must emphasise that as with all equipment it is not the bit alone that makes the difference, it is the way that it is used. Willy emphasised this point very strongly.
Power washing! source
At the end of each work session they were untacked and pressure washed with water heated to body temperature. This not only removes sweat and massages the muscles but also makes the horse feel good (like us taking a power shower after a work out). Finally the horse’s sensitive head and ears were dried with a towel and excess water scraped off. Any blemishes found during this process would be attended to with Schaette wound cream. Finally, when safely back in his stable, each horse would receive a carrot or a piece of apple to say “thank you horse”.
# Treatment After 8 weeks of his new regime Tamtam was looking and behaving like a different animal, but he was still lame. Willy announced that, subject to the vet’s agreement, he felt Tamtam was ready to start his physical treatment. This was the bit I had been waiting for.
Willy uses a powerful muscle oil treatment. The treatment is ayurvedic in origin and can stimulate big reactions depending on the scale of the muscular problem. The reaction can be severe if the horse’s problems are severe so Willy ensures the horse is sufficiently strong and only treats a quarter of the horse at a time. In Tamtam’s case we started with the left hind as this was the leg you will remember Yves detected was the source of his lameness.
Willy always treats the horses in the round pen as he has found that their immediate desire is to move. He put about 4 litres of oil on Tamtam’s left hind quarters. The smell was intoxicating and I coughed and sneezed. I touched the oil but it had no effect on my hands. Tamtam walked and trotted around the school for about 40 minutes. He was sweating, breathing heavily and generally looking uncomfortable. I noticed that the skin around his stifle appeared creased and the muscles over his loins were hard. Willy said we would monitor him closely in his box.
Each day Tamtam was closely monitored including his temperature, pulse, respiration (TPR) and other signs. Tamtam coped well with the treatment and so the oil was reactivated by showering with warm water. Willy told me it could take up to 10 days of reactivation for each quarter of the horse, so potentially another 6 weeks. Once again we would need to be patient.
Instead we were very lucky. After 10 days Tamtam was sound! He did not need to undergo any further oil treatment. Willy told me that he had expected to need to treat Tamtam’s diagonal foreleg (due to likely compensation issues) but Tamtam was spared even that. This meant that Tamtam was now ready to start the final stage of rehabilitation; his ridden training and fitness work.
# Ridden training and fittening Prior to starting work Tamtam’s tack was checked by the final member of Willy’s team; his saddler. With a sound body, good fuel and comfy tack Tamtam was all set and ready to go. Or he should have been. However, the objections we had overcome handling on the ground surfaced again when Tamtam started his ridden rehabilitation! Once again Willy explained this was not unusual. Willy confronted and resolved each objection as they arose. More than this where he suspected there may be an issue he engineered the circumstances so the question could be addressed. Willy is continually asking questions and pushing to understand the limits. His question? How far does the horse currently trust and accept him as leader.
My first hack out on TamTam
Finally the day arrived when Willy said I could take Tamtam out for a ride. Words cannot express the joy I felt. He didn’t feel like he felt when I had ridden him before his lameness issues, he felt 100 times better! Working with gusto and in a good outline, he was cooperative and a pleasure to ride. Our project was complete.
# Reflections What Willy did for Tamtam sounds miraculous but it really isn’t. During the course of his career Willy has treated hundreds of horses. And during my time at Willy’s I was to meet numerous clients all of whom have used Willy’s services over many years and who unreservedly endorse his work. But ultimately it is the horses themselves who speak volumes for Willy’s work, many of whom would now be dead or worse.
Like the lump on Tamtam’s leg, it is easy for us to focus on the oil when we think of the rehabilitation process. It is something different and it provokes our curiosity. I am a scientist and naturally sceptical so I particularly wanted to understand this. What I discovered is that Willy himself can not explain how it works; he only knows that it does when used in the right way on the right problem. And it certainly worked for Tamtam as it has worked for countless horses before him.
What I have realised is that the oil is a very small part of what is involved. What does work is what Willy demonstrated every day: That good nutrition, patient training of the horse’s body and mind and luck are the key ingredients for success. And in keeping a horse sound there are no substitutes for hard work and attention to detail.
I went to Willy’s to save Tamtam but with Tamtam sound another question remained: When is a horse truly saved? I think the answer is that this work is never completed. We save our horse each day in the many decisions we make for him, combined of course with a healthy dose of good old fashioned luck!
Thank you for reading.
This article is a summary of 3 months of constant stimulation and learning at Willy’s stables. For those of you who would like to know more I suggest you consult my blog here .
You can read more about Willy Sidorak here: Sur La Mare .
YOUTUBE YGyn1FdQWc4 Willy's place