Q&A With Sharon May-Davis, Equine Anatomist

We caught up with Sharon May-Davis to discuss what’s in a day’s work as a world-renowned equine anatomist.

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“Equine anatomist” is a dry-sounding term: I picture professorly-types standing around a skeletal model or a life-size poster of the muscular system. In reality, Australian-based Sharon May-Davis has made the job much more dynamic: yes, she publishes scientific papers and lectures all around the world about anatomy, but she also performs dissections, examines archaeological specimens and works with live equine patients. For fans of the TV crime/comedy/drama Bones, Sharon May-Davis is the real-life equine practicioner equivalent of Dr. Brennan.

Sharon May-Davis is in high demand as a lecturer all over the world: her students (professionals in many equine fields, including masseurs, chiropractors, professional riders and interested owners) follow her all over Australia like disciples. One of those students, Ang Lea along with her partner Darren Street, filmed Sharon explaining the equine muscular system. This video is now available on-demand through Vimeo: watch the trailer below, which also provides a link to purchase the full video.

We caught up with Sharon on a rare one-day break between a busy lecturing schedule and an equine dissection, and she kindly answered our questions about her life’s work:

Tell us more about your equine background and your educational career.

I was found riding horses (not ours) when I was four years old: I would climb up their legs and sit on top in a dress or leggings with no saddle or bridle. I continued to ride other people’s horses until I was caught at 13 riding a racehorse spelling [resting on layup] — still with no saddle or bridle.

At fourteen, I met the couple who I ended up calling Mum and Dad. They wanted someone to ride their horses for exercise and I badgered them daily until they said “yes” and gave me the job. Mum managed a thoroughbred stud and spelling farm and she taught me the ropes about handling horses and later, how to rehab racehorses. I learned methods the old-fashioned way, which seemed to provide an intimacy with horses that intrigued, beguiled and enthralled me. I could suddenly feel those nooks and crannies that belonged to muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and whatever structures horses allowed me to explore without offending one’s sensibilities.

Many years later after a successful riding career (thanks to Mum and Dad) and children (Katie and Matt,) I no longer desired to competitively ride these amazing athletes, but instead I wished to provide a pathway to enhance quality of life, longevity and soundness. I was now in my early thirties and a brush with a pre-cancerous condition drove my desire even further. I now needed to acquire an education to understand the science behind the structures: my first step was an Advanced Certification in Horse Management and the school was full time. I relished every day I could explore the library and it was here that I came across books written by Mary Bromiley. These books were like magic to me and I read them knowing now what I had to do and how to achieve my goal to become an equine therapist.

The 90’s was the decade of awakening for me, because though I revered many of the books in the equine section at University, they were not, according to my hands, accurate. So by the mid 90’s I went to the Australian Museum to study skeleton building as a “layperson” and so began another aspect of this fascinating journey. I started digging up horses and finding horse bones to build skeletons to understand and to provide educational aids to lecture by. Unfortunately, all I discovered was variation and it was this that provided the light bulb as to what my hands were telling me — horses did not adhere to anatomic text; they were in fact extremely variable.

By the mid 90’s my equine therapy practice began, but it wasn’t until the late 90’s that it blossomed with knowledge, understanding and confidence. By 2000, I had my first equine science degree and began writing scientific literature. My therapy practice was exhilarating with horses blossoming and clients acknowledging new methods of rehabilitation that I had devised either through dissections I had self studied at abattoirs and via the range of motion that I could achieve from the mobile skeletons that I had built.

I then studied a number of beneficial equine therapy courses through Equinology USA and this helped to connect the dots further. By the early part of this century, I had accrued so much data that I began my masters degree in 2004 and wrote four equine theses in two years. My first scientific paper appeared in the Australian Veterinary Journal in 2005. I now am lucky to have had five published papers either as a co-author, lead author or sole author published in scientific journals.

How did you get interested in your specific facet of the horse industry?

You could say that the initial jolt occurred on a cold Winter’s evening in July 1981, when my best riding horse, an eight year old Thoroughbred off the racetrack, died in my arms from a bowel tumour that was close to thirty kilograms in weight. He was like a soulmate to me: we played, ran together, he called for attention, scratches, massages, we just had this unexplainable bond. Two months before he died, he won a major event in Sydney and as he died, I promised him that I would make a difference and empower myself and others (if possible) with knowledge. Three months before he died, the third veterinarian that I had out to see him because again, “he just wasn’t right” told me that I was pandering to a sook — not a good feeling still when I think back on those words.

I always had a fascination for equine anatomy, because I kept shooting rabbits and dissecting them for a better understanding of horses. I even built the skeleton of a rabbit’s hind limb for my Year 11 Biology assignment — I was seventeen. So dissections, anatomy and rehabilitation were to me all part and parcel of understanding the horse better and making that informed decision for the betterment of life.

What is a “normal” day like for you?

What I do is never normal in the scheme of things. It may be a day of dissection, lecturing or assessing horses. However, it does always start with the computer. So many people contact me with queries and ask a number of interesting questions, but the theme is virtually the same — what is wrong with my horse? Sometimes anatomy just rules out a complete rehab or the discipline is just too difficult for what the conformation can sustain, or maybe the history of the horse’s previous discipline cannot maintain a feasible transition into a new one. The thought processes are neverending, but one thing I have learned which this applies to everything I do is that the more I know, the more I don’t know. Horses are still a fascinating enigma that still seem to carry a magical place in my heart. This may not sound scientific, but at age fifty-six they have been a strong influence in my life for fifty-two years and I still feel a strong and sincere passion to make a difference.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Dissections. I learn so much from these wonderful beings and every time it’s like I’m the student who just got his or her favourite lecturer and is all inspired. I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I learn so much from them that I can teach the differences that make a difference and in this, I can help students understand that we have to think beyond the textbook and look at horses as individuals. The horses teach me and I am always amazed at what they endured in life and from this we can relate that knowledge back to the living: this is where the big differences can be made.

What kinds of horsemen or horsewomen are you working with when you teach?

I am seriously fortunate — I lecture right across the board from the owner who just wants to know a little more to Olympic riders wanting to know how to best manage their horses. I suppose this is because I have worked with or managed or selected horses that have gone No. 1 in Australia in 8 different disciplines, which gives me a unique understanding of what is physically endured. Plus I have dissected so many horses from so many varying breeds and disciplines that I can discuss a variety of questions with a unique knowledge. However, I lecture extensively around the world and Australia to veterinarians, osteopathic therapists, chiropractors, masseurs, farriers, barefoot trimmers, trainers and so on.

If there was one thing you wish you could make sure all horse owners knew, what would you teach them?

It’s vital signs: sounds simple but in fact it’s a generic term encompassing a number of important health parameters.

  • Heart rate
  • Respiratory rate
  • Gut sounds
  • Hydration status
  • Mucosa membranes
  • Defecation and urination
  • Gait analysis and lameness

Two-sided benefit: people become empowered with the knowledge of health parameters while ascertaining with their hands a part of the body that has either a variable abnormal gait or lameness. It would be a lot easier if I just had a magic wand that I could lend out to fix all horses, but we all in fact can get one of these — it comes under the banner of knowledge.

Understanding the horse from a biomechanical perspective allows us as horsemen and horsewomen to understand so much more: how and why a horse may behave or move the way he does. To learn more about Sharon May-Davis and her work, “like” her page on Facebook.

Go riding!

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