A helping hand: Equine osteopath works to mobilize horses and improve overall well-being
Equine Osteopath Sonja Sobetsky helps horses restore their vitality and mobility through her business, Living Water Bodywork LLC., located in the Big Horn Basin of north central Wyoming.
Sobetsky has a passion for the hands-on therapy approach she utilizes while working on a horse to help mobilize their body and improve their health.
Where her passion began
Sonja’s passion for horses started at the age of 11 in Anchorage, Alaska, when she got her first horse. The horse eventually developed unknown pain, and veterinarians couldn’t diagnose the problem.
This is when Sonja and her family searched for an alternative route to heal her horse.
“We did some bodywork on her and some acupuncture, and she was a completely different horse after this work,” Sonja says. “This put me on the path I’m on now. It really made the path clear at a young age. I wanted to help horses feel the best they can in their body.”
After graduating high school, Sonja attended Colorado State University, graduating with a major in equine science and a minor in biomedical science. After graduation, Sonja became certified in equine massage therapy and kinesiology taping.
Sonja was offered a job in Wyoming shortly after graduation, and she worked as a horse manager for about four and a half years.
“During this time, I wanted to get back to my roots of learning more about bodywork, so this is when I found the Vluggen Institute for Equine Osteopathy and Education and started my classes,” she says.
What is equine osteopathy?
Sonja says equine osteopathy is “essentially mobilizing the whole horse and establishing better mobility and a new equilibrium or balance within the horse’s body.”
This mobilizing process includes three main systems within the horse’s body: the parietal system (musculo-skeletal system); the cranial-sacral system (cranium, sacrum and the flow of fluid between the two); and the visceral system (organs and surrounding structures), she says.
“Often there is an immobility within these three systems,” Sonja notes. “This can cause pain and discomfort for the horse, sometimes causing the horse to become behavioral.”
Sonja says the first time she examines a horse she feels the horse’s body to get a sense of what moves and what doesn’t.
“There are different biomechanical patterns within the horse’s body, so I determine if the pattern makes sense or if it’s a pattern we call ‘decompensation,’ which is a pattern you don’t expect to see,” she says. “These patterns represent painful restrictions for horses. They will typically have a lot of behavioral issues if this happens. Sometimes, depending on what I feel, I may have to refer the horse to a vet to get some better imaging to see what’s going on there.”
Sonja notes she typically sees a lot of “cinchy” horses when there is immobility in the withers. She also says horses with lower back pain often have lower back immobility, which may lead to bucking.
“There’re a lot of different reasons for these types of problems, including the saddle and the rider,” she adds.
When it comes to identifying problems, Sonja mentions every horse is different.
“It depends on the horse and if they’ve had previous traumas, how they’re handled, if the saddle fits, etc. All of these things and more come into play when I’m working on a horse,” she says.
If a horse is chronically lame, Sonja will ask the owners to visit a vet to identify if there is something more significant going on.
“If there’s a significant injury, I will refer the horse to a vet if they haven’t been already just to make sure there isn’t a bigger problem occurring.”
Veterinarians will also refer horses to Sonja if they can’t diagnose a problem.
“I have vets refer horses to me when they’ve already looked at the horse and they can’t find out what’s going on with X-rays and other measures,” she says. “I go back and forth and work together with veterinarians.”
Sonja mentions the certification process to become an osteopath isn’t required to practice.
“Anyone can technically call themselves an osteopath, but to hold the title of Equine Diplomate of Osteopathy (EDO) you must pass a two-day intensive exam meeting international standards put on by the International Registry of Equine Osteopaths (IREO). The IREO and the Worldwide Alliance of Equine Osteopaths are trying to set a higher standard for osteopaths to meet professional standards and regulations,” she says. “This is beneficial to the horse and owner who is seeking an equine osteopath, allowing them to find one in their area meeting the higher level of education and training.”
IREO registers equine osteopaths worldwide. The main headquarters are located in Europe.
Sonja received her EDO after graduating from the Vluggen Institute for Equine Osteopathy and Education and after passing her examination process. She was certified through the IREO in 2021, and was required to fly down to Garwood, Texas four times per year, one week at a time, for three and a half years to complete this schooling.
“Half of the instruction was focused towards book work and the other half was hands-on work on the horse,” she says. “We focused a lot on anatomy and neurology, learning the whole blood vessel circulatory system, what we mobilize on a horse and how the whole body is connected.”
Osteopathy offers a multitude of benefits for horses, Sonja notes.
“Osteopathy can reduce a lot of pain for horses,” she says. “If things are immobile, it’s usually pretty uncomfortable for the horse. It’s sort of like when we have a kink in our neck.”
Osteopathy mobilizes the whole body so the horse performs better overall, she says. It helps fluids flow better within the horse’s system and can increase overall immunity and vitality.
“Everyone wants their horse as limber as possible,” she says. “Not only can osteopathy help with this, but it can also help with the other side of things, where we can’t see what’s going on, such as fluidal flow or fascia tensions within the body. Osteopathy helps improve the horse’s overall well-being.”
“Working in osteopathy gives me energy,” Sonja says. “I really enjoy working with all the horses and helping them the best I can.”
“When I work on a horse, it’s almost like I’m dancing with them,” she says. “It’s sort of like a puzzle – figuring out what’s going on and finding the primary cause of what’s causing their problems. It’s almost just like a dance while mobilizing them and being with them.”
Sonja notes every horse is different, they all have their own quirks and personalities which need to be put into the overall equation when evaluating them.
“My favorite part of my work is helping the horses feel better to the best of my ability and giving them a little relief if I can,” Sonja says.
Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.