Why did I choose Osteopathy?

I’m often asked why I chose to become an osteopath. Initially I actually wanted to be a chiropractor – neither were exactly a mainstream choice at the time.

It all started with horses

Tilly (on top), Poo Bear (shetland), Julie (Tilly’s Mum) and Luke (Tilly’s brother hiding)

I’ve been lucky enough to have a horse of my own since I was in my Mum’s tummy! However, most of you reading this will know this goes hand in hand with a number a back problems too! As I got bigger, the horses got bigger and the falls got bigger too!

As a result I visited a local Chiropractor, (Debbie), whenever I landed a little too heavy!

I got on well with Debbie, one visit she asked me what I wanted to do when I was older. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck at a desk all day. I liked science, art and anything hands on so she threw in the idea of becoming a Chiropractor – which I loved!

Fixing people seemed like a great idea!

Mum can even recall a time when I charged wedding guests 50p for a shoulder massage aged 7 – so it seemed it was almost in my blood!

Meet Dougal

At around the same time as I began submitting my career choices at school, my horse Dougal, started having problems…

Dougal – Previously named Kermit!

Miss Piggy

You’ll see in the image above, Dougal was previously called Kermit. I mention this because many horse owners will tell you it’s bad luck to re-name a horse. Although I’m not superstitious – I’d tend to agree now!

I also still chuckle, because the thought of a more “chunky” Tilly (chunkier than most of you know now), with bright blond curly hair entering the arena on a horse named Kermit… it had to change!

Anyway, on with the story.

Dougal was a troubled 6 year old 16.3″ Dutch warmblood.

We should have listened to the warning signs – he didn’t want me to get on him for a start! He had a bit of a tiz when I leant forward to open a gate and he carried his head so very low… But inexperience and excitement kidded us into thinking that was nothing a bit of good and careful training and development couldn’t help.

It all started to unravel…

Fast forward a few months and things began to unravel a bit. I will NEVER forget taking him cross country (jump) training at Alconbury. On jumping a jump, a rivet popped out of his saddle causing my stirrup leather to drop off and sparked his first bronk with me. I ended up with a nosebleed – although I remained on board – it was all very odd.

The following week I had a dressage lesson (in his other saddle) and we thought it would be a good idea to try a little jump at the end to see what happened. Well… the same thing happened again – the same rivet, (different saddle), popped out and he commenced his bronking round the arena.

Saddles, teeth, back

Obviously saddles, teeth & back were all checked.

The chiropractor came out to see him and her words were; “you either need to retire this horse or shoot him”. I was 16 at the time and these words weren’t easy to hear. I was desperate to see if I could help him. I can’t tell you why she said this, what she felt or what she diagnosed – I either wasn’t told or I didn’t understand.

Now, this was before the days where conditioning work was mainstream. Generally, I’m ashamed to say, popular opinion at the time was that if your horse bucked it was just naughty.

Fortunately it was clear to us that Dougal wasn’t a happy horse. I won’t list all of the incidents, but in general, they involved him bolting across fields whilst bronking.

I stand strong that you cannot just kick a horse on to stop them bronking! Mum would frequently tell me his feet were level with her head (whilst she was on her horse).


I guess our worst incident was when I was found in the middle of a field half way to Bedford concussed. I had been unconscious and woke up un-aware of how I got where I was. Dougal was seen galloping down a road and fortunately a local saw him and thought to come looking for me!

I fast began to loose confidence and an instructor and friend, (Gill), recommended a clinic in Banbury where Chris Collis (vet) worked alongside Osteopath Anthony Pusey and colleagues. For months we took Dougal for regular treatments.

Dougal enjoyed his trips to Banbury and it was here that my career took a slight change in direction.

Human dissection!?

Anthony used to sedate Dougal to treat him and it was whilst Dougal was under sedation that he asked me what I wanted to do when I left school. I gingerly announced that I wanted to be a chiropractor but that I wasn’t too happy with what the horse chiro had said about Dougal.

Anthony instantly suggested I should be an osteopath. He told me I would get the opportunity to do human dissection and explained the medical depth that osteopathy training goes into. It sounded so incredible!

While we waited for the sedation to wear off, Anthony called the two main Osteopathy colleges in London and booked me in for interviews there and then!

And that ladies and gentlemen is that (with regard to my career anyway!)

Thank you Dougal

I’m going to continue with Dougal’s story, because I learnt so much from him that shaped who I am today.

Dougal’s treatments continued, he even had 2 under general anaesthetic!

His diagnosis at the time was that he had likely had a fall as a foal – landed on his chin and compressed his upper vertebrae in his neck. This had gone on to cause problems further down his spine.

I suspect this was just 1 piece of a very complicated jigsaw.

Learnt behaviour

Dougal certainly improved, he seemed much happier and I became able to hack him out without fearing for my life!

But there was still something, something that wasn’t right. It was suggested that much of his behaviour could have been learnt – he was still expecting the pain.

Thank you Kevin

The legend that is Kevin Donaghy was recommended to us.

Kevin helped us to essentially re-back (re-train) Dougal and de-sensitise him. Helping him to stop expecting pain.

The years spent with Dougal and Kevin were our best years. I learnt so much from Kevin and trusted him implicitly. We worked not only on mine and Dougal’s confidence but also lots of conditioning and strength work for Dougal – Rehab!

The techniques I learnt with Kevin were invaluable and I still love doing this work with my current horse.

The bond created between Dougal and myself was just incredible, by the end of it Dougal would have done absolutely anything for me. Mum joked that he would jump off of Beachy Head for me if I asked him.

I think self preservation may have taken over….!

Just a little bit more…

We’d go through spells of thinking we’d cracked it and I’d work my way up to doing a little dressage test or clear round, but something would always go wrong before we could get there.

We could still see there was something wrong with Dougal on occasion – his eyes used to glaze over, but rather than bolt and bronk he learnt to stop, wait and get reassurance from me.

This coupled with me commuting 5 days a week to London for 4 years to study Osteopathy meant that Dougal settled into the life of a happy hacker.

The osteopath

As I finished university and began treating increasing numbers of horse riders – I started wishing that I could go out and compete and jump again. I thought with my new knowledge and my fabulous friend Claire Short (incredible animal osteopath), I might be able to pick up Dougal’s work load and see where we could get.

A long story short is that Dougal wanted to remain a happy hacker.

He loved his treatments with Claire and they certainly helped him to move more freely, but as I tried to pick the work load up it became increasingly obvious that he still wasn’t right.

As time went by it became more obvious. The 6 year old I bought that just needed a bit of “training” had fast turned into an 18 year old warmblood that had never been quite right.


We decided it was time to investigate further to hopefully find out what was underlying all of this. I desperately hoped there would be some miracle treatment that could fix him.

Everyone agreed something wasn’t right, but no-one could really pin point what that was.

X-rays demonstrated what is now a very common diagnosis; kissing spine. This alongside severe arthritis in his neck gave good reason for his behaviour. I could have investigated further, or gone down the surgical route – but to me it wasn’t necessary. It was clear Dougal needed to retire.

Why bother?

Most simply couldn’t understand why I persevered so long with Dougal. Even into his retirement he lived a further 6 years as a rather large field ornament.

He was such a lovely and kind giant. The peace-keeper in the field. All of our horses loved and respected him and he bought a sense of calm amongst the herd. Well, when he wasn’t destroying electric fencing and refusing to be caught….

gentle giant

Hind sight

Truth is, I like to fix people (and horses!) – I’ll do whatever I can to help. But like I said, there are lessons to be learnt from this incredible experience;

  • If I’d have listened to the signs when I tried him, I’d have known something wasn’t right – I just didn’t want to
  • If I’d have listened to the Chiropractor I’d have fallen off a lot less and Dougal could have retired 10 years earlier.
  • If I’d sent him for x-rays sooner I might have been able to do more to help him

The right path for me

Who knows what was right and what was wrong – in fact, I doubt that any 1 option was truly “the right” one.

If I hadn’t have bought him, who would have? What would have happened to him?

If I’d have retired him as the chiropractor had suggested, yes my spine would be happier, but I would probably be half the osteopath I am today. I can’t imagine giving up without even trying.

If I’d have investigated further he may have gone in for surgery. For Dougal – who knows what the result of this would have been back then (17 years ago) but I probably wouldn’t be an osteopath today.

I like to think I still would have found Kevin.

Would I do it differently?

With the knowledge I now have, I might have played it differently, but somehow – I doubt it. But the bottom line is – I owe an awful lot to Dougal.

I joke that he shaped my spine and he shaped my career. But he also did so much more.

The lessons I learnt from Dougal and Kevin have not only helped me with other horses but have also given me greater empathy and understanding for those in chronic pain in the clinic.

He was just incredible to be so kind and so gentle given the pain he was in and for that I am in awe.

Thank you Dougal, you gentle giant x

Dougal, Show name: Point Break 1997-2020

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