Among the lovely bones

Dr. Stephen Schwartz is Israel’s only equine osteopath.

By
March 5, 2010 21:13
Dr. Stephen Schwartz treats a patient.

man and horse 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel is a writer’s paradise. One can write about virtually anything here – history, geography, politics, religion, science, technology or anything one can imagine – and never exhaust the subject. It is this country’s people, however, that insure a never-ending supply of material. Behind every face is a story and, more often than not, a good one.

At first glance, one might not expect a particularly unusual story behind the face of Stephen Schwartz, 61. Slender, soft-spoken and speaking English with an accent that suggests London with faint traces of later residence in New Zealand and Australia, Schwartz easily blends into the general atmosphere of  pleasant, suburban, “Anglo-Saxon” Ra’anana. Married, with three grown children and four grandchildren, Schwartz is a doctor of osteopathy, with a flourishing practice catering largely to an English-speaking clientele.

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Osteopathy, a branch of mainstream medicine in the United States and a recognized form of alternative or complementary therapy in much of the rest of the world, including Israel, is a “hands-on” approach to the treatment of pain. It revolves around the theory that most pain, and even some diseases, are due to structural misalignments in the body’s skeletal and muscular systems. By manipulating the misalignments back into place, the osteopathic therapist is able to get blocked fluids in the body to flow properly, relieve pain-causing pressure on nerves, and allow the body’s natural recuperative abilities to start working. 

Schwartz says that with osteopathy, he is able to treat such acute and chronic disorders as arthritis, frozen shoulder, disk and knee pain, back pain, jaw pain, sports injuries, whiplash and headaches – even migraine headaches – without drugs or other medications. Many people have come to Schwartz after conventional medicine has failed to relieve problems like migraines, which Schwartz says are often due to misalignments of the neck and jaw. Schwartz takes a holistic approach to diagnosis and treatment, considering factors like nutritional deficiencies and food allergies as other triggers for pain. At present, Schwartz is one of 14 qualified osteopaths in Israel.

There is another side of Dr. Stephen Schwartz of which few people are aware, however. In addition to his flourishing osteopathic practice for human beings, Schwartz is also, roughly one day per week, an osteopath for horses – the only “equine osteopath” in all of Israel. Why horses?

“Why not horses,” Schwartz replied in his soft voice when Metro caught up with him recently at a riding school and stable in Givat Chen, a moshav south of Ra’anana. “They have bones and muscles just like humans have, only longer spines and more vertebrae.”

Why does a horse need osteopathy? 



“A horse, originally, was not meant to be ridden,” Schwartz explains. “After they were domesticated, people began to work them and ride them. And many people sit and ride in ways that cause problems for the horse.” 

These include a rider’s sitting slightly to one side, or improperly distributing his or her weight. The effects on the horse, says Schwartz, can include problems like imbalances in standing and movement; restrictions and frozen muscles; as well as muscular, joint and even facial tensions and pain.  As he does with his human patients, Schwartz uses hands-on manipulation to improve blood flow, reduce pain, and improve movement. This, says Schwartz, is particularly important for older horses which, like older humans, tend to suffer from disorders like arthritis. The overall goal of osteopathy for horses is the same as that for people – to restore the body’s proper alignments and enable it to get down to the business of healing itself.

The usual treatment for a horse is around a half hour. Schwartz selects a 14-year-old horse from the stable and describes the drill.

“The first thing I do is watch carefully as the horse is walked around a bit,” he explains. “The horse is then trotted around in a tight circle, forced to turn sharply to the left and then to the right. From watching the horse in movement, I am able to determine whatever problems it might have, and then begin treatment.”

How does a doctor approach a “patient” that is large, strong, unpredictable and potentially dangerous?  At the very moment the question is posed to Dr. Schwartz, a black stallion begins to kick at his stall and tries to bite a female stable-hand as she hurries by him. Schwartz smiles and says, “I have treated that horse in the past.”

Turning back to the more placid 14 year-old, Schwartz demonstrates the proper technique.

“Before I begin to do anything, it’s necessary to calm the horse,” he says. “I put one hand at the center of the spine and the other at the top of the tail. With my body leaning against the horse, we go into a gentle rocking motion. The horse becomes quite relaxed, like a baby, and then I can work on him without any problem.” 

Seeing obvious trouble, most likely arthritis, in the old horse’s left foreleg, Schwartz first raises the leg and checks the hoof, and then begins to gently rotate the leg at the knee to check for mobility. He then presses his thumbs into the joints of the leg – both above and at the knee – and begins one or two minutes of rotating massage, to move blocked fluid and loosen calcification.

A very large, somewhat sleepy-looking dog strolls languidly over to watch the horse’s treatment. Looking at the canine, Schwartz says, “I used to do greyhounds in Australia, but there are no greyhounds here in Israel. Occasionally I’m asked to go to a house and look at someone’s dog, but not on a regular basis.” 

As he applies the final touches of soft-tissue massage, Schwartz explains, “I am the only human osteopath in Israel who is qualified as an animal osteopath as well. I studied in England at the British Naturopathic and Osteopathic College. It is a five-year, full-time course for human osteopathy, and then two years extra for animal osteopathy.”

Schwartz finishes his soft tissue manipulation and lifts the leg to rotate it again, a bit more forcefully this time, to enhance the flexibility of the joints and muscles. As he does this, he says, “I take the same holistic approach in my treatment of horses as I do with humans. For example, horses like this one, with arthritis. I tell the stables to put celery in the horses’ diet. Celery is a diuretic, and it’s good for arthritis. Or if I see that a horse’s problem is due to the way its owner is riding it, I’ll have a look at the rider as well. The horse might have a problem with its spine because the rider has a problem with his spine. So when I fix the horse I try to fix the rider as well.”

The doctor now checks for problems in the horse’s neck by moving its head slowly towards and away from him, observing the neck’s rotation and flexibility. A moment or two of this, and he moves toward the rear of the horse, always keeping his hands on the animal and maintaining contact. Positioning himself safely forward of potential side or back kicks, Schwartz rotates a rear leg. He says offhandedly, “I’ve been told that there are about 45,000 horses in Israel. The majority are in the center, not north as one would imagine.”

By the time he has finished, Schwartz has checked and rotated all four legs – “Even if the problem is only on one side, I have to work on both sides or the horse will be unbalanced” – applied special massage to a couple of arthritic joints, manipulated away a kink in the neck, and checked for problems along the entire spine. As he gives the horse one last friendly stroke of the neck, Schwartz says, “I like to see these horses at their stables on a monthly basis, so I can keep them all up to the mark.”

WHO IN the world wouldn’t like a job like this, and how does someone find himself blessed with so enjoyable a career? The road that led Stephen Schwartz from  early life in England to equine osteopathy in Israel has been long and winding.

“I’ve always liked unusual things,” he recalls. “When I was 12 years old, I went into a hospital for about 12 weeks with a rheumatic problem. It was very nice – I was spoiled. The nurses came around to look in on me, and everyone spoiled me. And then I thought, ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up!’”

“Then, to get out of the really cold winters, I used to go into the school library and help the librarian put books away,” Schwartz continues. “One day, I was asked to put a ‘careers’ book away. It fell on the floor and opened onto ‘herbal medicine.’ I read it and thought, ‘Wow, this is interesting!’”

“Then I looked in the Yellow Pages in England, found a few herbalists in London, rang up one in north London, and told him I was 14 years old and looking for a Saturday job,” he says. “He had a place with a health food shop in front and a herbal healing center in the back. He was a medical herbalist and an osteopath.” After working for a while in the shop, Schwartz was invited by the osteopath to watch him give someone a treatment. Schwartz watched and was fascinated.

“One day, a little old lady, about 80 years old, came in like she did every week,” Schwartz recalls. “The osteopath said, ‘Hold her hand. She’s not going to bite you.’ He started to give her a treatment on one hand and said to me, ‘Just follow me.’ And I did. And I decided that I really wanted to be an osteopath when I grew up.”

After graduating osteopathic college as the youngest qualified osteopath at age 21, Schwartz soon decided to devote another two years to qualify in animal osteopathy as well. After building a mostly human practice in England, Schwartz emigrated to New Zealand, where horses soon became roughly 20 percent of his practice. Another move four years later, this time to Australia, had Schwartz living near a race track and starting a practice in which many of his patients were jockeys and stable hands. A parallel practice for race horses soon followed, for which Schwartz became well-known.

Strong feelings of Zionism beckoned, however, bringing the doctor to Israel after 14 years in Australia.

“I opened a practice for humans. Animals never came into the equation, because I was concentrating on building a practice in osteopathy. I started with Maccabi, moved to Clalit, was working crazy hours – 14 hours a week. I’d had enough of this after five years, and went into private practice. With a lot of recommendations and good word-of-mouth, I was building the practice and doing well.”

Then, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.  Schwartz was “pulled back” into animal osteopathy when the Wingate Institute approached him to give a series of lectures on the subject to veterinarians. The lectures reignited his interest in osteopathy for animals, to the point where horses now constitute roughly 30% of his practice. Schwartz devotes one day a week to equine osteopathy, making a regular circuit of six stables and riding schools in Ra’anana, Batzra and Bnei Zion.

With calls for horse treatment coming in from as far afield as Beersheba and the northern Galilee, along with an ever-growing human practice in Ra’anana, it’s a good bet that between horses and humans, Stephen Schwartz is likely to continue being one more surprisingly interesting story behind one of more than 7 million Israeli faces in the crowd.


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