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Related Terms:
orthopedic , orthopaedic , rehabilitation , physical therapy
FEATURE STORY 09/01/1996
Author: Michael Samsot  
Like Humans, Horses Also Communicate with Their PTs
"If you're treating an animal that is hurting - just like with humans - you should listen to what the patient tells you," says physical therapist Ann Wilkinson, owner and director of Hands on Health, Wilmington, Delaware. In addition to a successful and growing practice with humans, Wilkinson also uses her PT skills to treat animals. "We've treated horses, mules, dogs, cats, sheep, and even a potbellied pig."

Wilkinson started out, as most physical therapists do, with humans. "I knew when I was 15, she says, "that I wanted to treat people." She wanted to do it actively, though, not when people were anesthetized or in a crisis situation, because she wanted them to be able to respond to her, to talk to her, and to give her feedback about what her therapy was doing for them. "I've worked with people since 1980, when I was an athletic trainer and PT student; animals came into my professional life five or six years ago."

Wilkinson received her BS degree from the University of Delaware in 1982 and a Master's degree in Health Administration is pending from the University of Pittsburgh (all work but the thesis is completed). When she first started her own practice, her office was in her home. "Then John Barnes in Paoli (whom she had worked with and views as her mentor) referred a particularly difficult case to me--it was closer for the woman to come to my office than to his Myofascial Center."

The case was a success story on several levels, Wilkinson says. First, the woman was rehabilitated to a degree not thought possible. Second, the woman's primary care physician, who had at first been skeptical of how Wilkinson's therapy could help his patient, "started referring his patients to me like crazy. Within four months of seeing her, I had to move my practice into a larger office," Wilkinson says.

Asked what the case involved, Wilkinson replies, "well, the woman, who was an ER nurse, had five children, and was very active, had fallen at two separate times on the ice. Both times, she just got up and kept right on going." Damage had occurred, however, and "very slowly, over a period of months, she lost much of the function of her arms and legs. She developed weakness, shaking, fatigue, and posture problems, and had to use a wheelchair. Her MRI showed a spinal bulge and she eventually had cervical surgery--not once but twice. It didn't help at all," Wilkinson continues. "She was in agony."

"After John Barnes referred her to me, we worked on her whole fascial system, which was constricted, and we concentrated on lengthening her dural tube. She was very dedicated and worked very hard with the therapy. Within three months, she was walking again. Now she has returned to about 80% of full mobility and function.

Myofascial release is a type of treatment that can be extremely effective with many patients who have tried other forms of therapy without success, Wilkinson says. The fascia, fibrous tissues that serve as coverings and attachments for the muscles and organs, can become tightened throughout the body. Special techniques are needed to relax and loosen them before recovery can begin. "We are finding out so much about the fascia as a conductant of electrical and neurological information," says Wilkinson. "It is an extremely important system concerning human function."

It was Barnes who introduced Wilkinson to treating animal patients. "About five or six years ago, he asked me to go with him to treat a horse." It made sense, she says, that similar types of therapy would work for animals as well as humans. "After that experience, I really felt free to treat animals professionally--and today, my practice includes both."

"Animals love our treatments," Wilkinson says. "Even the most flighty animal will release, let go, unwind. It's always amazing to us and to the owners that even the most high-strung race horses will melt. Cranial work is particularly relaxing for horses."

What exactly is the process that animals or people might go through when they see Wilkinson for treatment? "The same process is followed for both," she says. "First we watch the animal or person in motion and assess the junctions of the spine and limbs. We palpate and assess the response. We feel for the heat and myofascial restrictions. Sometimes, with a horse, we might have to ride it to feel these restrictions. We treat the areas that are hypomobile and strengthen areas that are hypermobile. Then we instruct the person or the animal's owner as to traction, mobility, and exercise to follow on their own."

As to differences between treating animals and humans, Wilkinson says, "the concept is the same, but with people, it is easier to be distracted by their daily drama. Horses and other animals seem to be able to reflect healing directly back to the therapist; they're often easier to treat because they relax more quickly."

"One of the reasons I like myofascial PT so much is because it's a field that requires that you use both heart and hands in treating the patient," says Wilkinson. "Your heart has to be there, actually your heart and soul, so that you care about the message the patient is giving you, and so you'll be open to receiving that message." There are many ways of communicating, Wilkinson says--human patients can talk to you, tell you what hurts, what seems to help, and what they think might help; but both human and animal patients tell you things with their bodies. It's in how they react to massage, how they move, what feels loose or tight to the therapist's hands--and communication between patient and therapist is key to any treatment, she says.

"One of my most interesting animal patients was a former police horse," Wilkinson says. It was in pretty bad shape, and had been rescued by a woman who then called Wilkinson in to help. She was told that the horse, weighing 1500 pounds, kept going down in the field and couldn't get up--and when he walked, he was in obvious pain. Others had said nothing could be done to help. As Wilkinson prepared to treat the horse, though, an animal communicator was called in. Many people, she says, may be skeptical of claims of communication between animals and humans, but Wilkinson asserts that if you're open to the possibility, it can happen.

"You just remain receptive and sometimes ideas come to you--ideas that the animal wants you to know. This animal communicator told us some stories about the horse, things she couldn't possibly have known. We checked two of them out," Wilkinson says, "and these were things that had actually happened." So, as she worked on the horse, Wilkinson was more aware of its background, and used all information to help in her therapy.

"Previously, the horse had fallen down only in the field, but while we were treating him, he fell down in the barn," Wilkinson says, "which allowed us to see exactly what was happening. We worked on this horse, and we unwound his leg." (This involves taking a joint or limb out of gravity and its usual limited position, she explains, and letting it move on its own. At times, the injured body part will take the position, she explains, and letting it move on its own. At times, the injured body part will take the position it was in when the original injury occurred.) "After treatment, the horse walked through the barn door without pain, for the first time in months."

"Animal communication is really amazing," Wilkinson says. "Since that incident, I've experienced it four times with my own horse. A lot of it involves just letting go and giving yourself permission to be receptive to these kinds of ideas."

Working with Wilkinson is Kathy Fillman, whom she met through Barnes. Fillman is a massage therapist with 20 years of hands-on experience.

Wilkinson says that she focuses on being alert to emotional issues that can keep a patient tense and work against recovery. "The kind of therapy I practice involves listening to the patient, listening to your heart, and working with your hands. It is a holistic approach. Some patients will have paid thousands of dollars for high tech treatment that makes use of expensive equipment, electrical stimulation, ultrasound - and they still show no definite improvement. But when we use things like cranio-sacral therapy and basic manipulation, and listen to what the patients tell us, they nearly always progress toward rehabilitation," she says. Other therapies Wilkinson uses include yoga, dance, and horseback riding (hippotherapy) which is occasionally used in the treatment both person and horse.

"European therapists have been doing this kind of thing for years," Wilkinson continues. "I began to be committed to it after attending some conferences with them, hearing about their successes, and realizing how much time and money was wasted on high tech things when a back-to-basics approach was often best. It was actually embarrassing, sometimes, because we'd be discussing a particular problem and the Europeans would say, ÔOh, you guys would ultra-sound this,' or Ôyou'd probably give this your glow-in-the-dark treatment.'" Then they'd explain the simpler, basic, effective treatment they'd use. After all this, I decided to explore beyond the 200 years of American knowledge, and discover effective therapies that have been around for centuries."

Asked if many techniques and applications of physical therapy are similar for humans and animals, Wilkinson replies that among other things, "they both involve manual therapy, myofascial release, and joint mobilization. The biggest thing is that physical therapy should involve touching. There are a lot of warm bodies, qualified as PTs, who are not touching anyone. They have lost sight of their most sophisticated piece of equipment--their hands."
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