His footballing comeback may have taken him only as far as St Albans, in the foothills of Blue Square South, but he’s sound in mind and body these days and relishing the opportunity to extend a lifelong enthusiasm for racing into a mission to offer to rickety horses the same kind of healing that turned his life around.
Where once the much-travelled pro looked to be consigned to a retirement spent in pain and depression, now he can be found in the Epsom yard of the talented trainer Jim Boyle, passing on the benefits of Equine Hanna Somatics to a decent but rather pottery individual named Alfie Tupper. It’s not the kind of therapy that offers an overnight fix, but Alfie is a happier and slightly quicker horse now, a three-times winner since the treatment began, and Boyle, himself a qualified vet and part-owner of the beast, is happy with the progress being made.
All this positive feeling is a far cry from the day when Hunt, in a training session with the Dons, made a tackle that left him with a back and pelvis injury that would end his career. He signed for the Posh but would never play another professional game.
At the age of 29, he was on the football scrapheap. “For about a year I tried to get fit again,” he recalls, “but the pain was just getting worse the harder I tried. It was a daunting thought that I’d have it for the rest of my life. When it was at its worst, I was in agony every day.”
Two years after his retirement, Hunt decided that being depressed and in pain in the sun would be better than doing it in the rain, so he went to stay with friends in Thailand, who recommended a session with a lady called Cynthia, which turned out to be not what you’re thinking it might have been, but rather a first contact with a therapy that relieved his pain completely. Within three months, he was in California learning somatics; within three years, he was treating humans and now he is applying the same techniques to horses.
It’s been a whirlwind conversion to the work and thought of the rather obscure American philosopher and writer Thomas Hanna, whose study of the concept of freedom led him to conclude that people in industrialised nations suffered the kind of postural distortion and resultant pain and misery that deprived them of much of their liberty.
“I was very sceptical,”admits Hunt, “but where all the doctors had told me I would need surgery, somatics wa sthe only approach I found that told me why I was in so much pain and then treated it. I went away with the exercises Cynthia gave me, and there has been no regression at all.”
As a kid, the youngster from Camden in north London was a regular at Newmarket races with his dad. While at Derby, he ran the Rams Racing Club, enticing colleagues into a syndicate that owned four horses, all winners, including Moonlight Song, who scored three times for them.
“The horses fascinated me,” says Hunt, “and I’d always thought I’d like to get involved in the racing industry when I finished playing. The owning and the betting soon took second place to the idea of working with the horses, even though I’d never been around them before. It’s not really about horses, it’s about movement, but the races are the acid test for my work and that makes it exciting.”
HUNT took his ideas to Boyle, who recognised the intelligence, the possibilities and the passion, and let the man loose on Alfie Tupper on a trial basis that has now become a long-term arrangement, despite ignominious beginnings.
“I’d told a few people to watch out for this horse I’d been working with,” says Hunt, “and after the first session, he went to the races and was dripping with sweat, and when he came out of the stalls his saddle slipped and he had to be pulled up. It wasn’t an impressive start, but he’s come a fair way since then.”
That was in July, and since then Alfie Tupper has won three times, most recently at Wolverhampton a fortnight ago off the highest mark he has ever scored from.
The somatics ethos doesn’t involve massage or the crunching and popping of bones and joints. It’s a gradual, continual process that involves a lot of hands-on support from head groom Louisa Allen, but Boyle, with his vet’s hat on, is quietly impressed. “It’s a novel approach that certainly seems to be having a positive effect,” he says. “It’s fairly subtle changes in posture and movement. You’re not going to go in and say ‘wow’, but you can see the method in what he’s doing.
“Alfie lives on his nerves a little bit, but he’s a calmer horse now. A lot of it is down to Louisa’s efforts, but the treatment is a part of the jigsaw and if you can get a small percentage improvement, if something works, then you go with it.”
Jonathan Hunt went with it and the positive effects are lasting.
I’m working with his brain and you can see he starts to do it for himself
As he runs his hand gently down the spine of Alfie Tupper, Jonathan Hunt looks nothing like an ex-footballer. The fingers, long and sensitive, bring to mind a concert pianist rather than a former Barnet and Southend United midfielder. He betrays his roots when he declares that he’s “110 per cent more relaxed” since discovering somatics, but it’s clear that Alfie is feeling very much the same way and is definitely not as sick as a parrot.
The five-year-old gelding stands quietly in his box as Hunt assesses him. Alfie is edgy. He tends to be slightly bent over his off-fore knee, slightly quicker in his movements on the other side, can’t stand square, keeps his legs too tight together and won’t put his off-hind hoof flat on the ground. In a race, he’ll often carry his head high. These may not sound earth-shattering symptoms, but they apparently reflect involuntary muscle responses to daily stresses and strains, that in turn adversely affect his posture, state of mind and wellbeing.
Hunt begins to work on each leg in turn, and quickly Alfie takes the initiative, lifting his feet at the slightest bidding and allowing his limbs to be moved in various arcs and ranges. As the session continues, the movements become smoother and easier and the hooves come down to earth more slowly and with greater control.
Hunt explains: “Muscles become contracted in life because of different stresses arising from our routines. For us, that might be sitting in a chair for hours on end or playing football. For a horse, it might be standing in a box all day. It’s unnatural, it’s stressful, their muscles habituate to that routine and they become good at certain movements but not ones they used to be good at.
“These unconscious movements fix a pattern in our muscles and the muscles become contracted around those movements. Somatics is a process of contracting the muscle more than it is already contracted and then slowly releasing it, that has the effect of softening and lengthening the muscle and teaching the brain to regain control of our movements.
“It’s the constant repetition of the exercises that will give him that understanding. You have to give him a moment to process what’s happening, but you can see he starts to do it for himself. I’m just working with his brain.”
Alfie sighs as if in relief and satisfaction. His posture slightly but surely alters. He intermittently achieves an impressive erection that nobody mentions but that, Hunt assures me later, is a sign of his feeling good about himself. Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon a new-age alternative to Viagra.
Somatics softens and lengthens the muscle and teaches the brain to regain control of our movements
Eventually, Alfie sends out a few restless signals that the session is over. “There’s no point trying to make him do it,” Hunt explains. “Already I can feel him resisting me wanting to be near his neck. That’s where his main issue is and I think the best time to do it would be the morning after he’s run or an afternoon after he’s worked.”
As he walks, Alfie’s muscles ripple with an increased looseness. His stance is slightly wider and squarer, he puts his hooves down flat and lazily chews on his lead rope. Head groom Louisa Allen says he is more relaxed, both at home and at the races. Jim Boyle dreams of the few pounds of improvement that make the difference between winning and losing.