Bones, Bones and More Bones!

In this issue of NHM, we present you not with the usual chiropractic article, but with an insightful look at the ysteries that can be unraveled and the information that can be gained from studying bones… from the grave! Beware as Sharon shares her skeletal secrets.

Sharon probing the grave. Using this metal probe, she accurately isolated the most likely place the horse had been laid to rest and began digging.

By Catherine Bird

Most of us love spending time with our horses while they are alive. However Sharon May-Davis’s obsession with equine skeletons has earned her the nickname, “The Bone Lady”.

My day with Sharon was not aesthetically pleasant; there were flies, the smell of rotting flesh, and the hot Australian sun. It was, however, fascinating.

We spent the day on top of a hill in the countryside on the outskirts of Sydney. Buried on this hillside was a miniature horse that had been euthanised two years previously. Normally the decaying process would have finalised. I had romantic visions of dusting away the earth from the bones with a soft brush in a refined fashion. With our unseasonably wet climate, the ground was waterlogged and the flesh on the bones had not fully decayed; my vision of delicacy was not fulfilled.

The top of the grave had been removed by a grader the day before, so Sharon first used a bar to feel down and probe the last couple of feet of clay and soil. She carefully felt down with the bar to assess where to find the body and then began to shovel off the soil. It took a while before there was any sign that we may find this horse, and by the time Sharon was able to access her first bone, she had dug below the water table. To exhume the entire skeleton, Sharon would have her elbows submerged in stinking water for the rest of the day.

The horse Sharon was digging for had been diagnosed with dwarfism before its death. The owner had donated its body to Sharon to be able to continue her private studies into the prevalence of this genetic disorder and to help her recognise its presence while serving in her role as an accredited judge of the breed in the show ring. It was obviously difficult for the owner to observe, but her conviction in raising the standard of the breed in Australia overrode her own personal feelings.

Sharon with her first rib. The excitement on Sharon's face was inspiring as she fished this first rib from the murky smelly water.

The first bone fished out of the murky waters was a rib. The look of delight on Sharon’s face glowed with her passion in her chosen field. This horse was to become the “control” of Sharon’s studies, being watched with interest by universities in both Australia and the United States. 

Dwarfism is a painful manifestation for the miniature horse. It shortens their lives considerably and for the time they are alive, their quality of life is diminished progressively. The animal suffers early arthritic changes and pain from the limbs locking because the growth plates close prematurely.

The human custodians suffer the heartbreak of losing an animal that elicits fondness even more than some other breeds. The owner of this horse was a new breeder and her first two foals out of three had suffered dwarfism. Her grandchildren had requested she not assign them any new foals as they all died too soon.

Sharon and her skull. There was a note of sadness when
Sharon cleaned off the skull revealing the severely domed skull, confirming
that this horse had been diagnosed correctly as suffering dwarfism.

As Sharon felt around the hole she had dug, more ribs appeared, then the radius and ulna of the nearside foreleg. There were already arthritic changes in these bones, which was alarming as the horse had been euthanised at 18 months of age. The shafts of the bones were much smaller than normal. Sharon had expected to see such changes, but was shocked herself to see the extent of them in this skeleton.

The dig, or should I say wallow in the waters, went on all day. With a break at lunchtime Sharon counted the ribs and vertebrae and was satisfied she had collected all of them. Some growth plates had been difficult to recover but miraculously all sesamoid bones had been found. Later in the afternoon Sharon was able to exhume the skull. The horse had fallen into the grave at an unusual angle and when the hole was filled in its lower jaw had been fractured. However the skull was what made me realise the extent of the suffering this pony had been through. When Sharon raised the skull into the sunlight, it looked almost human, the doming of the frontal eminences was so extreme.

By now I was desensitised to the stench of the gravesite and began to query Sharon as to why she enjoyed her work. While answering my questions, she assured me that one did eventually get used to the smell.

Sharon also procures carcasses from her local abattoir and strings them out under ‘chicken fencing wire’ in a paddock so the bones are exposed and ready to work with in about three months. This way of collecting skeletons appeals more to my sensibilities. Her studies have also included a close examination of the thoroughbred and she is beginning to correlate vertebral anomalies that could render a horse unsound if current breeding practices are continued.

Sharon and her bones. Sharon stopped to count how many
bones she had found to make sure she had what was needed to reconstruct the
horse.

I was curious as to why Sharon had become interested in ‘bones’. Sharon said she became frustrated as a mature age university student with the lack of information available in this area. All that was presented to her while studying equine science was ‘normality’. In the field she had difficulty finding a normal horse and since she began working with skeletons she has yet to find a perfect skeleton.

Sharon has always found variations to the taught ‘norm’, these being either something a horse was born with or something induced by man’s use of the horse. The most perfect horse Sharon ever encountered was a 16-year-old Quarter horse stallion. The only thing that was wrong with him was that his teeth were abnormally worn. This horse had become emaciated when being cared for by a friend of the owner and when the owner reclaimed the horse she had tried to feed him but he had died from impaction colic during the process.

 The horse skeletons often leave riddles to be solved by Sharon. She often traces the history of each horse and discovers many stories of successful performance at a high level of competition even with the structural faults. With racehorses that have led memorable lives, a groom or handler will often remember the running action of the horse, which confirms to Sharon what she finds in the horse’s spine.

“Buster” is a favourite demonstration model of Sharon’s and is often found at her lectures. He died at 26 and has a distinctive hole in the side of his jaw from an abscess. He was a thoroughbred who won four races and placed in four others during his ten professional races. At the time, no one would have been aware that he only had five lumbar vertebrae where he should have had six and that his sacrum was fused which is not considered  ‘normal’. Another confusing abnormality was that his eighteenth thoracic vertebra had developed lumbar characteristics in its presentation.

Sharon boarding the train for home after digging up the
miniature. This cargo was too precious to entrust to a railway guard, so Sharon
insisted on her box of still-smelly bones travelling with her in the compartment.
Photo by Dale Hagstrom

The youngest horse in Sharon’s collection was a stillborn miniature. This horse’s bones had not fused so when Sharon went to tally the count of bones she found over 300 instead of the usual 205.

The saddest skeleton for Sharon was one where the horse had been incorrectly euthanised. The skull had four bullet holes, all of which were placed at an angle that would have caused the horse agony and a slow death. Whoever performed this act had no anatomical knowledge and the horse would have died of shock rather than the placement of bullets.

What Sharon is finding with her fascination of bones is an area of the horse that has not been studied extensively and one she now feels committed to explore. Her skill in rearticulating these bones into a skeleton that can be viewed has gained much interest both in Australia and the United States from teaching establishments. Her latest ‘finished’ pile of bones stands proudly in the jockey training facility at the Victorian Racing Club, Melbourne.

Sharon travelled home on the train, determined not to be separated from her valuable bag of bones; they were yet to give up all their secrets to her.

Catherine Bird

PO Box 670, RANDWICK, NSW, 2031. Australia


About the author:

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients have included the NSW Mounted Police, Olympic level competitors, and horses in all disciplines as well as backyard pets. She is the author of Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy, which is one of a series being developed and she offers the Equine Aromatherapy Correspondence Course worldwide.

For more information see http://www.hartingdale.com.au/~happyhorses, and http://communities.msn.com/HealthyHappyHorses, or email Catherine directly at happyhorses@hartingdale.com.au

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