323: What We Can Learn From Animals

This week’s conversation is with Dr. Laura Stokes-Greene, one of the best equine sports medicine doctors in the world.

Laura is also an avid entrepreneur, focusing on the intersection of medicine, technology, and creativity.

She’s utilizing cutting edge biotech to help competing jumper and dressage horses maximize their performance.

Creating innovative therapeutic programs to optimize strength and mobility, Laura emphasizes regenerative medicine with bio-logics such as PRP and stem cells.

An active lecturer and veterinary mentor, she enjoys educating about the human-animal connection and drawing parallels between horses and ourselves.

So that’s why I wanted to have Laura on the podcast – to better understand the human-animal connection and dive deeper into her innovative medical practices that are relevant for humans as well.

“When you connect with animals, there’s this gentleness and trusting relationship that often takes a lot of time to build. You have to be very calm, approach it very thoughtfully, and be very present.”

In This Episode:

Why did she want to work with animals?

Something that I always hear whenever I tell someone that I’m a veterinarian is, oh, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. Whether male, female, it doesn’t matter. Across the board, people have such an incredible connection with animals that it’s this common thread between us. And that was certainly true for me. I have always loved animals. And something that I love so much about horses specifically is that there’s this freedom, this spirit, this power. And at the same time when you connect with them as a person, there’s this gentleness and trust and relationship that often takes a lot of time to build and you have to yourself be very calm and approach it very thoughtfully, very present. I think that’s something that in terms of human animal behavior and connection is really, really important.

Turn fear into excitement

That primal feeling that you get being in the land, I’m so excited for you to go there and experience it firsthand because it’s life changing. And it absolutely was for me. It was a defining moment for me of being in that environment and also in that unique set of sort of, you’re on your own, but you’re with a team and you feel very vulnerable being in the planes and anything could kill you at that time, right? I mean the rhino could kill you, other animals could come out, you could really get hurt. So there’s this feeling of excitement. And you have to just take all of that in and turn a lot of the fear into excitement.

Reading body language

People are always saying to me, how do you interpret what’s going on with a horse when they can’t talk to you? How do veterinarians fix animals that can’t speak? And I always tell them, well, they do speak. They communicate very clearly through their body language, and that’s part of it… so much about being a doctor or being a therapist of any kind is listening and observing. And so this is a really important part of my physical exam even from the moment I see the horse, because I need to know what kind of state it’s in.

Diagnosing the issues

There are these physical and medical things that I have to uncover and turn over the stones and make sure that that’s not an issue. And then there’s also the more subtle thing of, what is the relationship of the rider with the horse? And that’s not a veterinary diagnosis. So my job as the veterinarian is to come in and almost give the person permission in a sense to work on that relationship, to turn over every stone, make sure that there’s nothing physical.

It takes a village

I always love to draw the parallels between, and you have perfect experience with this, with working with the Seahawks. It takes a village of people, medical professionals, to make each of these athletes the best that they can be. And that doesn’t just mean, oh, eat well and go to the doctor and get the arthritis x-rayed and injected. It also means stretching and physio and band work and maybe acupuncture and all of these sort of adjunctive things, it is exactly the same with this sport horse.

How does she work to be “safe” to a horse?

Breathing. I mean, just a couple of deep breaths really helps. And I lean into them actually, because I’m actually safer being right up next to the horse if the horse jumps quickly, because my body is right there. And so back to your earlier comment about how our primal nervous system can activate a lot faster than the thinking, the conscious thinking, if I’m right up next to them and they move quickly, then I will automatically be able to move faster. And then also creating as much of an environment of safety and security as possible.

How have horses survived so long?

Herds. I mean, it goes back to community. There’s strength in numbers. And I think being in a group and following a leader that they trust helps to make good decisions, and the ones that didn’t have that are not here. And then also the relationship with humans, right? Because like we talked about a little earlier, horses are the only athletes that have this kind of relationship with a person, right. Where the person is the athlete, but the horse is also the athlete.

It comes down to the relationship with the animal

One of the things that I find really incredible about the sports, especially you look at the Olympics of show jumping and dressage, and it doesn’t matter if the person, the rider is male or female and it doesn’t matter whether the rider is older or younger and it doesn’t matter if the rider is tall or short, because it’s all about the relationship and the synergy of that rider with that horse. And I think that’s spectacular.

Who is in charge – the horse or the human?

You can’t have one without the other. You really can’t… Because the rider is showing the horse where to go, but the horse has to carry the rider. The horse has to make the decision, yes, I’m going to jump this enormous thing that you put in front of me. Sometimes I look at these jumps and I’m like, oh my God, I’m astounded at their athleticism and their excitement to do it. And this is the other thing that sometimes people ask me, oh, is it cruel to jump horses? I don’t think so at all. Because they would not do it if they didn’t want to, or if they couldn’t do it. And I’ve also seen that, where the horse gets to a point where physically it can’t do it, or mentally happens. The horse doesn’t want to do it anymore. Fine, that’s the exception to the rule. But the vast majority of these horses that you see that are successful are looking for the next jump, just like the athlete is.

The ethics of euthanasia 

I find that the veterinarian often has a really specific perspective on it, which is obviously I was born to help animals. That’s my passion. That’s my purpose. So the idea of having to euthanize a horse because it’s gotten hurt or broken a leg is horrifying, right? What that comes down to often, and let’s take the example of a horse breaking it’s leg, which thankfully in this show jumping world is a rarity. Depending on where it has broken the leg, you cannot, because they’re prey animals you can’t tell them, hey, if you just stand quietly in this stall for three months and stay on bedrest, you’ll heal and you’ll be perfect, which is the case. If you could get them like a person, like your son or your daughter or your friend or whatever, and you can say, hey, just do what the doctor says. Don’t go out, run around, rear up, jump on things, just chill for three months, there’s no way to communicate that, right? And yes, we try. There are levels of sedation that we try to get them to stay calm, but horses are used to being out and they’re used to being mobile and they’re used to being free. And so there’s only so far that you can push their personality outside of their base nature, and that’s where a lot of this comes from.

Scientific advancements in animal care that humans could benefit from

The number one thing that we’ve seen that I love to utilize for our patients is biologics.. And what does that mean? So that means something that is coming from preferably your own body, so something that’s coming from the horse’s body, and that would be for me mostly PRP, which is platelet-rich plasma and stem cells. And these are being used. If you ever had a friend or an athlete that had really bad arthritis, it’s likely that they had their knee injected with PRP or stem cells. And so that is awesome to be able to use in the horse because there’s no drug in it, right. There’s no steroid in it. There’s no created drug.

The importance of pliability

If you don’t address a severe injury in a certain way, you’re much more prone to have scar tissue develop as essentially like a callous or a bandaid on a tendon. And so you then have a much higher chance of re-injury because scar tissue, while it’s very strong in certain ways, it also is brittle. And so it stretches and snaps a lot easier than normal tendon fibers. So our rehab protocols now and our physio protocols are much more geared towards, how do you increase that pliability, that range of motion, and especially in an older athlete, right? Like horses that I’m working on are 12, 13, 14 years old. This is the equivalent of Tom Brady, right? This is, how did Tom Brady have such a successful career being one of the oldest football player that I know? And I think his physio regimen, and he talks a lot about pliability as well, but it’s not just that it’s the whole, I almost said it’s the whole horse perspective because it is. And these horses it’s adding in everything from nutrition and antioxidants and making sure that you’re feeding really high quality grains and not feeding it, the horse, the equivalent of like Cracker Jacks.

What are humans getting wrong? What can we learn?

I think we’re inside too much. People are inside too much. And something that I love about this job. And when I was thinking about how to talk about this with you and what are some of the defining reasons that I love what I do, it is super physical. I am essentially working out with the horse and through all of the movements and the stretching and everything. It’s a very physical job. I’m outside a lot, which I love and I think is really, really helpful. And people love animals, right? That feeling that you get and that endorphin kick that you get when you snuggle your dog or your cat comes up to you and it’s the same with the horse. Like every time I’ll be working, to give you an example, I’ll be working on the foot of the horse and the horse will turn its head around and bend down and sniff me and kind of like rub its nose on my back, right. And that fills me with the most joy. It’s like an explosion. And I literally in the middle of a very stressful day will say, this is why I do this because that feeling and that connection is so magical. And I think in terms of humanity, right, more outside, more animals, more compassion with animals, kind of taking those lessons of what it feels like when you’re loved unconditionally by an animal and hopefully turning towards your fellow man.

Pay it forward

Paying it forward, I would say, is huge for me. I gained so much from mentorship and I am where I am because of my mentors, both in conservation medicine and then in the horse world. And I love mentoring people, mostly pre-veterinary or veterinary students. I have a lot of veterinarians that come that want to learn our techniques. And when you watch someone and their eyes light up and they get it and they learn something new, that’s fantastic.

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