The Lovely Bones
Functional Anatomy with Pamela Eckelbargerby Pam Gleason, Photography by Pam Gleason & Equus-soma
“He loved to jump,” says Pamela. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Petey, properly Hail to Peter, was bred for the racetrack, but never made it there because he bowed a tendon when he was two. Seven years later, when Pamela, then a marine scientist, wanted to get ba
ck into riding, her family, who owned the horse, sent him to her. She evented him for many years, retiring him when he was in his early 20s. When he was 23, he developed tumors in his lungs and had to be put down. He was buried on the Eckelbarger’s farm in Maine, and there he lay for ten quiet years.
Meanwhile, Pamela had gone through some career changes. First, she was a professional horse photographer, running a successful business called Hoofpix. Then, she became interested in helping horses whose performance was limited by physical problems, so she started learning how to do equine bodywork. She soon had a company called Equus Soma, conducting business out of her home base in Aiken during the colder seasons and from her farm in Maine during the summers.
“I took a three-day class in whole horse dissection a few years ago, and it was amazing,” says Pamela. This experience convinced her that it was crucial for people to have a personal acquaintance with equine anatomy. If they could see what was inside their horses and how the bones and the joints fit together, then they would have a far better understanding of how equine movement works. They would also be able to see all the things that can go wrong and why certain training methods and
practices are not a good idea. She started to think that it would be helpful to have her own horse skeleton so that she could take parts of it around with her, to show her clients the anatomical structures where their own horses were having difficulties.
“But to buy a skeleton is very expensive,” she says. “It costs $9,000 to $12,000. I learned this, and then I thought ‘I know where there is a skeleton.’ So I went and broke the news to my husband: we are digging Petey up.”
Last summer when she was back up in Maine, she called the man who had helped her bury her old horse in the first place (ironically, he was also named Peter), and he returned to the farm with his excavator. Petey was buried deep, and he had been laid out flat in his grave. Peter used the excavator to dig down several feet, and then, as soon as they saw the first hint of horse bones, the excavator was sent away and Pamela climbed into the pit to do the rest of the digging and uncovering by hand.
“It was like an archaeological dig,” she says. “It was cool.”
She uncovered Petey as carefully as possible, photographing the process along the way. Then she started removing the bones, studying how they went together, and labeling each one before carrying it out. She let the bones dry in the sun and then assembled them for cleaning with hydrogen peroxide. After a decade underground, almost everything that was not bone was gone. That made the task easier for Pamela, both physically and emotionally. Essentially the only organ that was left was the remains of his brain, which had to be removed from his skull. “That part was hard,” says Pamela. “Because I looked at it and I thought, that was Petey. That was my horse.”
Last fall, when Pamela and her husband came down to Aiken, she brought Petey with her in a set of plastic tubs, then unpacked him and arranged him in her garage where she was able to study all the bones more carefully. She learned a lot.
“First, I learned that he had a fused hock,” she says. Horses have a large joint in their hock, which is what allows their hind leg to bend. Below it, there are three smaller joints that contribute to the leg’s mobility. She holds up Petey’s right hind cannon bone, which has two small, flat tarsal bones firmly attached to it; the two normally moveable joints between them are completely gone. Arthritis in a horse’s hock joints is quite common and is a major cause of hind limb lameness. When the arthritis progresses to a point that the bottom joints fuse together, many horses become sound again. This seems to be what happened to Petey.
Pamela found other places on his skeleton that indicated that he might have been in some kind of pain for at least part of his career.
“There is something called Wolff’s law that says that wherever a bone is stressed, more bone will grow in that place to stabilize the area,” she says. “That’s something that really fascinated me, finding extra bone on his skeleton that shouldn’t have been there.”
One place she found extra bone was on his vertebral column, where he showed symptoms of having “kissing spines” meaning that the top edges of the vertebrae on his back touched and rubbed against one another. Kissing spines are thought to be caused by the weight of the rider pressing down on the back. He also had extra bone at the vertebra where his neck joined his body (T1) and on the right side of his sacroiliac joint, where his vertebral column connected to his pelvis. (Did this have something to do with his fused right hock? Perhaps.)
“Petey’s new job is teaching,” Pamela says. In addition to taking specific bones and joints around to her bodywork clients to help them visualize structures inside their own horses, Pamela has been inviting interested people to come to her garage to see the entire skeleton. “I’ve had about five groups of people so far,” she says, adding that this summer, when Petey goes back to Maine with her, she is taking him to the local Pony Club there where they will have a ‘bone rally’ to help them learn equine anatomy.
Over the winter, Petey was even joined by two more skeletons, an 8-12 year old former polo pony (she is called Jane Doe, because Pamela does not know her name) and a 3-year-old Thoroughbred filly named Winnie, who was put down after suffering multiple problems, including ataxia in her hind legs. Both of these skeletons were given to Pamela here in Aiken, and both have contributed to her understanding of equine anatomy and the way incorrect riding and conditioning might affect a horse’s bones.
“This is my prize,” she says, pointing to the skeleton of the 3-yearold. She holds up one of the filly’s vertebrae, which is not solid like the vertebrae of the older horses. Instead, at its end it has a separation that looks almost like a fracture. It is not a fracture: it is a growth plate.
“I had always heard about growth plates, but I had never seen them. It was just a phrase to me,” she says. “But to see them like this was a real eye opener. Horses’ growth plates fuse down low in the legs first, so that the foal can get up and run. The last place they fuse is in the vertebral column, and that happens when a horse is 6 to 8 years old. This means those vertebrae have not finished turning into bone; they are still partially soft tissue. You have to think about methods of training, how you might take a young horse and put him on the lunge and maybe he acts up a little and you jerk on the rope. That might be enough to cause the growth in his neck to get asymmetrical. Trainers need to be aware of these things with young horses.”
Another training issue that Pamela hopes to raise awareness of is the negative consequences of using tight bridles and drop nosebands. She likes to bring Petey’s skull with her when she travels to the different stables where she works. She puts a bridle with a flash noseband on the skull to demonstrate where the straps put pressure on the horse’s head. “There is a very important facial nerve called the trigeminal nerve that comes out of the skull in three places. One is where the flash noseband goes. If you put pressure there, it can cause a lot of pain and make the horse resist.”
Pamela and her bones have gone back to Maine for the summer, but when they return in the fall, she is hoping to have more people come to see them for themselves so that they can gain a better understanding of equine anatomy. She is also hoping to collect some more skeletons, although she says they have to fit certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be horses that have been buried for long enough that only their bones will be left, since she would not be equipped to handle them otherwise.
“I’d love to have more horses between 3 and 8 years old, to look for growth plates and congenital deformities.” (Although she says she is not a vet and can’t be sure, she may have found a cause for Winnie’s ataxia: an area of extra bone growth on one side of one of her neck vertebrae that may have impinged on her nerves.) “I’d also love to find skeletons of horses that had issues people couldn’t figure out. But I can’t get too many,” she adds with a laugh. “Or my husband will kill me for taking over the garage.”
Pamela lifts the top half of Petey’s skull to show how his jaw hinges onto it at the temporal mandibular joint. Turning it over, she points out the chamber where his brain was and the complicated, fluted hollows of his nasal cavity. Then she puts the skull back down on the jaw and pats it affectionately.
“People ask me if it is upsetting to me that this was my own horse. It really isn’t – maybe it helps that he was buried for ten years,” she says. Does she feel like he is back with her? That they are partners once again, this time working together to educate people rather than to get the best score at the horse trials? She smiles. “No. Maybe. I do talk to him,” she admits. She looks at the skull and pats it one more time.
“Petey, you are such a good boy,” she says.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.