Lessons Learnt From Lives Lost

by | Apr 29, 2021 | Equine Therapy, General Veterinary Rehabilitation, Small Animal Rehabilitation

Today I write to you as myself, Ané Lloyd, and not as Onlinepethealth – mostly because I want to share my personal observations and views when it comes to dissections, and my experiences during a recent dissection I was able to attend and participate in. But also because I have to admit to shortcomings in my memory and knowledge when it comes to anatomy!

Like many of you, it has been years since I attended my last dissection in college. Do you remember that first horse or dog on the table? We were all freaked out by it, not sure if we would be able to stomach it, many of us not able to come close or touch it, Do you remember the peculiar smell? And how stifling the lecture hall suddenly became?

And after the first few … ah, man, were they exciting! In the third and fourth year, I remember walking past the first years doing dissections, and desperately wanting to join them again.

Over the years, that feeling hasn’t left. Every time I hear about a horse that needs to be put down, or when one of my own needed to be put down, the thought crossed my mind to learn from and study their bodies more closely and carefully, layer by layer, connection by connection. But I was never brave enough to take it on alone.

For some time now, I have been following Helen Davies Equine Research Project, and finally had the opportunity to join Helen in a dissection two weeks ago. And truly, the trip down memory lane did not disappoint.

But first, let me tell you a little about Helen Davies Equine Research Project.


Helen Davies Equine Research Project

Helen provides a service borne of love and curiosity, and a need to learn more about the horses who serve us so faithfully and so well. Every horse who passes beneath her knife is honoured and remembered, and makes an invaluable contribution to multiple different research projects.

👉 The dissections are open to attend. If you are in the Gauteng area of South Africa and would like to attend and learn from a dissection, get hold of Helen and try to join in the next one.
👉 Visuals on DJD and cartilage erosion are performed on clinical trials of Equaan 1000 together with Kerry Hadfield and Amanda Schroder.
👉 The lamellar portion of the nuchal ligament is photographed and documented for Sharon May Davies.
👉 The presence or absence of threadwork within the nuchal ligament is examined for Kharon Nakielny (so far, none have been found).
👉 Shoulder cartilage and its adaptations in relation to conformation and movement anomalies are evaluated for Dr David Marlin from the UK.
👉 Ongoing collaborations on hoof conditions are done with Lindsey Field from NZ.
👉 X-ray comparisons are mapped and compared to the limbs, to be created into training material by Mark Caldwell from the UK.
👉 The connections of the first rib, including malalignment, are examined for April Love from Hawaii.
👉 Skeletal changes that affect saddle fit for Jochen Schleese and Lara van den Berge, a South African representative of Saddlefit4life who is working closely with Helen looking at muscle and bone connections to saddle fit.
👉 DNA and bone analysis is done on each horse to identify the presence or absence of cervical vertebral malformation, contributing to an international database together with Pamela Eckelbarger and the Equus-Soma Equine Osteology and Anatomy Learning Centre.
👉 To help cover the costs of these dissections and research projects, regular clinics are run in collaboration with Muldersdrift Animal Clinic and its resident veterinarians.
👉 The sacroilliac motion is studied by resident physiotherapist, Cheryl Danks.
👉 Hopefully, over time, the information gathered can be shared internationally to raise funds to build a museum, allowing horse owners to learn from the findings here and to improve the quality of care for all equines.
👉 Owners of euthanised horses are offered the option of histopathology to give them peace of mind that the right decision was made regarding their horse.
👉 Currently, there are about 170 horses in the collection.

 As you can see, the Helen Davies research project is vast, impacting and contributing to multiple areas of study in the equine field. They are always looking for volunteers to assist in the documentation of findings.

My Dissection Lessons Learnt

  • My anatomy knowledge is not as rusty as I thought it was, but far from where I want it to be!
  • I made a new friend and connection in the equine multidisciplinary team, in a saddle fitter 🙂
  • I got to look through the eyes of a saddle fitter, an owner and a researcher at the body of a horse, and discuss the convergence of our observations.
  • I was able to begin to answer some of the questions I had been accumulating over years of practice and attending CPD webinars!

Here are the areas that I focused on during the dissection, and that I would love to share my thoughts and observations on.

🚩 The Cutaneous Trunci Muscle

After attending the webinar series with Tuulia Luomala (Everything Fascia, in the Equine Members Portal), I became really interested in her observations about this muscle. Since the webinar, I have been observing this muscle in my own horses, and here is what I have seen:

🤨 Bateleur, my gelding, has a very strange movement presentation. I have wondered if he has a presentation of Shivers affecting his forelimbs instead of the back limbs, and more recently I have wondered about the possibility of CVM. Needless to say, there are neurological deficits of the forelimbs, and of course he has a hard time shifting his weight back, and doing a few other things that ‘normal’ horses have no problems with. 

🧐  Bateleur has a very prominent cutaneous trunci muscle. Always present, but more defined when he is going through a ‘bad’ spell.🧐  In chatting to some trainers, I learned that they have noticed a sharp definition of the cutaneous trunci muscle in horses that are on the forehand and struggle to find balance. I have observed the same thing in some young horses who are more on the forehand. 
🤨  The saddle fitter I met at the dissection actually referred to the definition of the cutaneous trunci muscle along the abdominal wall as a ‘holding line’. When it is defined over the scapula as well, this is a definite sign of pain in the horse! My mind was blown.

It seems that the cutaneous trunci is way more than just a muscle in the skin that chases flies, and that perhaps it plays a role in compensatory movement patterns or adaptations in the event of chronic pain or dysfunction, just like Tuulia suggested!

As Tuulia said: Muscles will activate in the way that they can, not in the way that they should.  

🔁 The Thoracolumbar Fascia

It has been a long time since I looked at this area under the skin. Looking at the fascia from the fresh perspective of just having completed the fascia series, I was blown away. The thoracolumbar fascia has connections and fibres going off in every direction, in layer upon layer – it is quite beautiful.

🤚 I could put my hand in and gently separate many of the layers, following a strong fascial connection from the DSPs to the tuber coxae, to the abdominals in two or three different layers, cranially to the longissimus, cranio-distally into the latissimus dorsi. Just … wow.
🤚 Not only is this area primarily fascial in the superficial layers, palpating more firmly and with less ‘give’ than the more muscular sections cranially and caudally, it also connects strongly in almost every direction, to a multitude of different muscles! No wonder we see signs of pain and hypertrophy in the lumbar region first when there is a dysfunction anywhere!
🤚 Apparently, I scratch and stroke dissections just like I do live animals after a particularly ‘invasive’ palpation. I was thoroughly made fun of. 🤣

🚩The Iliopsoas Complex

Well, here I was put to shame, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I can’t believe how rusty I have become at identifying the separate pieces of this puzzle and putting them together in the horse.

Here are some of my eye-openers from this dissection and some recent webinars:

🥸  The iliopsoas complex is huge; very strong, and in terms of fiber type, very muscular throughout its length (as opposed to being more tendinous).
🥸  Nicole Rombach showed a very interesting image in her latest webinar of the muscular support that the equine spine has. Along the whole top length, there is muscle. Along the bottom? There is muscular support along the cranial aspect, and along the caudal aspect, but where we sit on the horse there is only muscle on the dorsal aspect of the spine. Of course, I knew this, but I had never seen it illustrated in quite this way.
🥸  While the iliopsoas is indeed a big muscle, it doesn’t compare in size to the bulk of muscle on the dorsal aspect of the spine. Of course, the actual skeleton does provide a great deal of stability in this region, but it is still worth thinking about and considering the why, how, and what does it mean of this. I regret now not spending a little more time looking at the abdominal muscles! 

🔁 The Omentum

What did I know about the omentum? Nothing. But from this experience, one does not walk away from a dissection with Helen Davies without examining and appreciating this incredibly beautiful and striking structure. So here is what I know now:

👩‍🏫  In each horse, the omentum is in a slightly different place and has a different size. Rarely can they pull out such an incredibly large and intact omentum as they did in the dissection I attended.
👩‍🏫  Apparently, the omentum will wrap around an organ where there is a dysfunction.
👩‍🏫  It is, without a doubt, absolutely beautiful.


To the lives lost… 

And with that, I think my biggest revelations are shared, and I hope that what I have done today is to inspire you to attend dissections regularly. If there is one thing that was repeated over and over again on that day, it is that every horse is different, and that with each dissection, something new comes to light. So I will be doing my utmost to attend as many as I can, to stimulate my thinking and my learning, to expand my network of colleagues and, at the end of the day, the team that I work with.

And hopefully, from the loss of beautiful souls that walked this earth with us, we will improve the lives of those that stay behind.


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