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Tarcoola's Legacy

November 2017 by Alex Mullarky

The professional development room at Avoca Park is filled with equine industry professionals and interested horse owners. Everyone sits in plastic chairs as the presenters finish their preparations for the next three days’ work. Wheel the Lead – or Wheely – lies on the table, mostly shrouded in shade cloth and towels, a bunch of flowers resting on his ribcage. He is a 16-year-old Thoroughbred ex-racehorse and yesterday he passed away. 

Today, this roomful of people will have the opportunity to learn from Wheely, even after his death. Under the guidance of renowned equine anatomist Sharon May-Davis, assisted by spinal veterinarian Dr Christine Gee, we will learn what was truly going on beneath his skin. 

Sharon May-Davis is a household name among horse owners in Australia, and indeed in many countries. Even within the pages of Horses and People Magazine, it has been abundantly clear she has been a tremendous inspiration - having been counted among the influencers and mentors of many of our previous interviewees. 

Sharon’s work in equine therapy, anatomical research and lecturing has taken her around the world, and her discoveries have shaken the foundations of the equine industry. Yet, this indomitable scientist is “still that person who’ll sit down and have a drink with you,” and as she puts it, “silly as a cut snake round the table.”

The event we are all here at Avoca Park to attend is a three-day equine dissection, performed and facilitated by Sharon May-Davis. These dissections, which she conducts in locations around the country, are open to anyone, from professionals and therapists, to hobby riders – anybody who wants to know more about the animal they’re working with. 

The subjects of study are always horses whose owners have made the decision to put them down, but whose death is given purpose and significance in enabling a roomful of students to learn how they can improve the lives of more horses. “Wheely is here to help teach us,” Sharon tells us, laying a hand gently on the figure on the table.

Sharon’s first impression of horses is of “giants in the mist,” a memory she had almost convinced herself was a dream, until she learned her father had kept trotters until she was four years old. Her love of horses only strengthened as she grew up, while her interest in science and anatomy developed in tandem. As a teenager, she began shooting and dissecting rabbits and, by the age of 17, she had already articulated a complete rabbit skeleton. 

At the same time, Sharon’s obsession with horses got her into all sorts of trouble. At 13, she was caught riding a spelling racehorse in its field and was swiftly reprimanded. It didn’t set her back though. Coming from “a highly competitive family,” Sharon found her own sporting outlet in horse riding and competed successfully for many years. 

At the age of 20, Sharon met Tarcoola – the horse that would change her life. 

“For the two years that I had that horse in my life, the love was just consistently great,” she says. “I don’t want to anthropomorphise, it was just – he was just special.” Here was a horse who would whinny when he saw her approaching, leave his girls to come and play with Sharon, and mutually groom with her. “I was really lucky because some people never get that in their entire life. … Who needs boyfriends when you’ve got that?”

This unique relationship was cut tragically short by Tarcoola’s death only two years later. Sharon couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, but by the time the problem was diagnosed, there was nothing to be done. “Three vets got it wrong; the fourth one got it right. But, it was too late to save his life.” 

“My biggest regret with him was that I didn’t make the decision early enough to put him down. I couldn’t let him go.” She tried to move on quickly with a new horse, but found her heart just wasn’t in it. “I didn’t care and that’s where I had to stop,” Sharon says. “I wasn’t for him. And he wasn’t for me. And I never had [that same connection] again.”

However, the impact Tarcoola had already made on Sharon was not easily shaken. “The greatest gift he gave me was to help all these other horses,” she says. “Had he not left, I wouldn’t be who I am and what I am today.” So, she made a promise to Tarcoola she would dedicate herself to improving the lives of horses.

She has certainly lived up to her promise. Under her belt already is a Bachelor of Applied Science (Equine), a Master’s degree (with four equine theses) and six equine therapy qualifications. She has a Certificate of Honour from Midway College, Kentucky, a level three index in research (the equivalent of Associate Professor or Professor) and will soon have further honours, which are yet to be announced publicly. 

She has performed hundreds of dissections and articulated more than 30 equine skeletons. Informally, her achievements have earned her the memorable nicknames: ‘The Bone Lady’ and ‘Equine CSI’.

Among her most significant achievements are her 15 years of research into the congenital malformation of the cervical vertebrae C6 and C7, which was finally published by the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in 2014. 

In the same year, her discovery of the misrepresentation of the nuchal lamellae in equine anatomical drawings proved modern domesticated horses had previously unrecognised anatomical variations. Horses and People Magazine has reported on this research and the article is available in our archives; both studies are available to read online.

The latter study prompted Sharon to investigate primitive breeds, which she believed may hold the key to the “mystery of the missing lamellae”. “I always had a view that going primitive was going to be useful for domesticated horses, but I had no proof until I started dissecting primitive horses,” Sharon explains. She saw what she describes as “perfection on the table.”

“There was one thing that consistently happened throughout what I was looking at: the symmetry left and right was nearly 100% perfect. I’d never encountered that before.” The wild horses’ lifestyles were creating well-developed, symmetrical muscles, the likes of which she had never seen in domesticated horse dissections. 

Supplementing her dissections with observations in the wild, Sharon developed a theory of horse management which emphasises browsing – eating from heights above the knee, as well as grazing. This method has revolutionised horse-keeping as a means of improving strength, fitness and symmetry. 

“At this point in time I’m working to preserve the Konik,” Sharon tells me, referring to the primitive breed she primarily works with. Culling is currently necessary to manage the horses’ numbers in their environment in the Netherlands, which is what gave Sharon the opportunity to dissect them. However, now she has seen what exceptional animals they are beneath the skin, she’s working to prevent further culls in the region. 

It’s not just horses whose lives have been changed by Sharon’s work: owners and riders all over the world have been deeply affected by what they have learnt under her guidance. During the day, I have the opportunity to speak with Leanne Williams, who owns and runs Avoca Park with her husband, John. Leanne attended her first dissection years ago, before offering her venue to Sharon to expand her work into Melbourne and the wider Victorian region. 

“The moment we stop learning, we stop developing,” says Leanne. It’s the reason she’s so committed to hosting continuing education events at Avoca Park. “Sharon will be the first one to say that every horse she dissects, she learns something else. Every horse we train, we learn something else. 

“Every horse we breed, we learn something else. Every horse we break in, we learn something else. Every rider I teach, I learn something else - a) about humans and b) about horses.”

As a horse trainer and competitor, Leanne confesses she sometimes finds it hard to enter the dissection room. “Maybe it’s a bit confronting, because I do work horses and – let me remove the word ‘maybe’ – it is confronting to go in there and realise I am also doing it to my horses.” 

“It’s not their choice to be on that arena. It’s our choice, it’s our leisure activity, it’s not theirs. So, if we can make that as enjoyable for them as possible and then give them longevity within our sport – not theirs – then that’s fantastic… That’s why I do what I can do. The more people that understand that, the easier the horse’s life is.”

The beautiful paddocks and facilities at Avoca Park are the result of decades of work by John and Leanne, who built it up themselves from scratch. The strength of that partnership is mirrored in Sharon’s relationship with her husband, Lindsay. 

“He supports me,” Sharon says simply. “He said ‘there would be a lynch mob if I tried to pull you away [from your work], and that would change you, and I love you the way you are.” As a retired engineer, Lindsay can offer a fresh take on Sharon’s work. “He looks at it in water flow… From an engineer’s perspective.”

He knows much more now about the equine cervical vertebrae than he ever expected to, of course. “He said in all honesty it’s not his cup of tea, but he’s there to support,” Sharon laughs.

Ultimately, behind the impressive and intimidating wall of qualifications, research and international reputation, it’s clear Sharon has touched the lives of so many people who care about horses in the same way she does. As she strokes Wheely and thanks him for helping us to learn, her humbleness is truly surprising. “The horses change me, and they’re always teaching me,” she says. “I’m always the student.”

When I mention how often she has been named as a mentor or inspiration by others in the equine industry, Sharon’s mind goes immediately to Tarcoola and she smiles. “I didn’t realise he’d made such a big impression.”

The dissection is a bittersweet experience, with the confronting sadness of Wheely’s death, mingled with feelings of hope and excitement springing from the possibilities – what may be learned from him that can help other horses.

“It’s not the ones that are there on the table, it’s the ones I’ve saved - pure and simple,” says Sharon. “Every time one of these babies is on the table, I know of at least 10 that we’ve learnt from that we can save. If I can give them longevity and quality of life, then my job has been well done and I’ve honoured my horse.”