Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Power of Touch - Equine Massage . . .and Something More . . .

I've always loved grooming horses, and have never really understood how anyone couldn't like it or how anyone could ever have their horse in full service where they don't groom their own horses.  For me, grooming is a wonderful opportunity to interact with my horses on a regular basis, and to assess their physical condition and emotional status.

In the past, I've also done some massage with my horses, especially when I knew they had an injury (Red's left hind leg injury back in 2012) or suspected that there was something that was cramped or sore (like Dawn's neck a while ago).  I've followed suggestions made by my equine vet/chiropractor, and also got a copy of the following book, which I've found extremely useful:

Jack Meagher - Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses.  This book has clear explanations of likely symptoms of problems with particular muscle groups, and also very clear diagrams and explanations.

Lately, I've been deliberately trying to do some massage with my horses.  I do this by running my hands over their bodies and looking for hard, bunched, sore muscles, or areas that seem sensitive to the touch.  Then I use as much pressure as the horse tells me is appropriate, which sometimes can be quite a lot and sometimes much less if an area is sore, although this can change as we work and sore areas begin to release.  I always let the horse tell me what they need and how much they want - I don't restrain my horses when we're doing this so they are free to tell me what they need to.

The effects have been remarkable - licking, chewing, closed eyes, trembling muzzles, yawning, shaking things out - you name it.  They seem to really appreciate it and enjoy it.  Now one caution - none of this is a substitute for appropriate veterinary and chiropractic care for horses with injuries or need of serious work - massage certainly can't fix all problems.

So I've also experimented with massaging other horses that I don't know as well.  Many of them also respond the same way my own horses do.  I've been thinking about doing more massage work with horses, and although so far I've done most of my learning from the horses themselves - and will continue to do so - the horse's responses are a very good guide to whether what I'm doing is useful to the horse or not - there are also some books that have been recommended to my by my vet/chiropractor that I'm getting for more study:

Joyce Harman - The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book

Jim Masterson - Beyond Equine Massage

Doris Kay Halstead - Release the Potential: A Practical Guide to Myofascial Release for Horse and Rider - this one is out of print but I'm borrowing a copy.

This post was originally intended to be about equine massage and my exploration of it, but something else interesting has happened over the past week or two - I've been waiting to see where it would take me.

About 10 days ago, I was doing some massage with Pie, and started to do some work on his sacrum.  The sacroiliac joints are very important structures, connecting the hind legs - the engine of the horse - to the spine and therefore the rest of the body, and problems in that area can cause lots of other issues.  As this excellent article points out, sacroiliac pain is often a source of other major problems for the horse, and soundness issues, due to how important the structure is:

Sacroiliac pain in horses

The article also points out that canter work is much more difficult and physically challenging for horses and that in the wild canter/gallop was saved for emergencies and trot was the gait of choice for travel, and that our modern horse disciplines may over use cantering in a way that stresses the horses' bodies.

Here are some views of the horse's sacrum and how the bones fit together:

The sacrum is the entire structure between the arrows - the sacroiliac joints lie to either side of the spine at the point where the pelvis abuts the spine at the left arrow - this is usually the highest point of the horse's croup and you can usually feel an indentation between the two wings of the pelvis if you feel back along the spine:

Although the sacroiliac joints are inaccessible to direct pressure - being deeper inside the horse - I've noticed that horses often respond favorable to pressure at this point - the highest point on the hindquarters.  With Pie, I was thinking that his usual issue has to do with stiffness in his poll, neck and shoulders - and since the sacroiliac joints are the "transmission" of the horse, it makes sense that releasing some tension there would help tension elsewhere.

So I massaged that area, and Pie seemed to really appreciate it.  Then, for some reason, I thought - sort of a "less is more" thought, I guess - and with Pie I always have to have this in mind - I started to wonder what would happen if I used less pressure - a lot less pressure - maybe no pressure at all except a touch.

So I laid my hands flat on the side of his rump, with my fingertips on the highest point in the "dip".  And I thought about "rocking" the horse from side to side to help him release tension.  And, all of a sudden, with the lightest touch imaginable - no pressure, only contact - Pie was rocking, from head to tail, in a S-shape, weighting alternate diagonal pairs of legs, and with his head and neck getting into the act.  And boy, did he like that - his ears were up and he was keeping an eye on what I was doing instead of being zoned out like he often is.  I was so surprised I stopped for a moment.

Then we tried it again - same thing, and the rocking was very noticeable, not just a little bit of movement but a big sway.  I got pretty excited, and over the next several days tried it on Red and Dawn and also on other horses - some of whom I barely know.  Red and Dawn also had big responses and appreciated it - again to virtually no pressure - and the other horses all had some sort of response.  Some of the horses were "blocked" - they would rock, but the motion was jerky or interrupted - I bet they have some sort of muscular or chiropractic issue going on that's preventing free motion.  Whenever I do it, I do it from both sides to make sure things are even.

So then I thought of trying something else.  What if, instead of massaging with pressure, I simply placed my hands on the horse with a very light touch and "thought" the connection and energy?  What would that do, and how would the horse respond?  Red and Pie and Dawn and I have been trying this out for about a week and we'd have to say the results are pretty extraordinary.

I started with the assumption that horses are extraordinarily sensitive, and that I wanted the same "feel" I want through the reins and my seat and legs when I ride - a live connection with essentially zero pressure.  Add in the concept of bringing up and bringing down the energy, which is a mental thing I do every day when I ride, and that's what I was trying to duplicate with touch.

A side note - I'm a person with a scientific background and very skeptical of high-tech treatments offered by vets these days for lameness that have very little if no scientific trial evidence of effectiveness.  There's also no scientific evidence that anything I'm talking about is proven to work in any way, but none of it can harm the horse, and I also believe that there's a lot that goes on in the world that's real, but not yet covered by current scientific understandings, and that the sensitivity of horses (and humans if they take the time to listen) is orders of magnitude greater than we may suspect.

Here's what I do - sometimes I use one hand but many times two hands work better - there's almost some sort of energy flow going on.  This is one example:  I stand to the left of the horse's shoulder (again, the horse should be unrestrained), with my right hand behind the shoulder below the withers and my left hand placed lightly on the neck at a point where I detect tension.  And the horse and I concentrate together - that's the only way I can describe it - there's a strong connection.  I watch the horse's face and body.  And the horse will often relax, close his eyes, muzzle twitch, there are sometimes small "zings" or starts, and there is sometimes licking and chewing and sometimes the horse makes motions with his head or neck.  And there's a deep relaxation that is transmitted through me as well.  And it keeps cycling back around through us together.  And I move my hands around to find other places where the horse tells me tension exists. Although it's relaxing, it requires intense concentration on my part and also uses my energy and is somewhat tiring.  Afterwards, the horse and I are content and relaxed together.

I don't know if the effects of this will be as direct as those of massage, but it's sure a grand way to build a stronger bond and connection with my horses, and we're really enjoying it.

That's all there is to it - but "all" seems pretty big to me.  I might add that I've recently started a regular meditation practice, which has a spiritual/religious component to it, and the feeling I experience when I'm able to "sink" into it is exactly that feeling of very deep relaxation and connection I get when the horses and I do our touch/energy sessions, and the meditation practice may have had to come first for me to be able to think of and attempt to do this.

I suspect that this work will carry over into our ridden work, but that's yet to see.  So far, the most noticeable effect is that suddenly Pie has gone from being fairly aloof and disinterested to intensely interactive and interested in me, and much more friendly - I guess he approves.


  1. Val also appreciates and (as mentioned in my last comment) directs my efforts to massage him towards the highest need area - most often his croup. He will spin around and back himself up to my hands basically.

    The energy work you describe sounds an awful lot like Reiki. I've had it done to me, and it is very powerful and effective. That's so cool that you're happening on the technique on your own. And the sacrum rocking sounds similar to something I've had done numerous times by massage therapists.

    I agree with your thoughts that the mindfulness you're cultivating for the energy work will have benefits to your relationship under saddle. Looking forward to trying out your techniques, and hearing about how your rides go. :D

  2. Wonderful post Kate. Very insightful and, in my opinion, to the point of our involvement with horses. This connection and transference of energy is everything. Not only does it help in deep tissue issues, but it is at the core of to safely ride and work with horses successfully. Thankfully we humans are finally open enough to understand that communicating in "their language" might be all about energy. My most difficult horse, Sovereign, taught me this and now I ride, groom, and handle him only when we are "connected". This takes time and patience and is awkward when others are around because I can't talk to anyone. He rarely "allows" any other sort of communication. I am successful as a rider, but I need to learn way more about this as a massage technique and your post is going to help me. I am anxious to try some "rocking" as you describe it.

    I had a Masterson expert come and work with all three horses, but she really had little success. I learned so much though that day and I need to practice with them while I'm grooming.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. How wonderful that you are working on this with the horses - I think if you took a formal equine massage course you'd discover that much of what you're doing is very common, ditto the Reiki/energy work. Our equine massage therapist does the same things to amazing effect.

  4. I've been using Masterson's bladder meridian technique with my horses for the past month, took a while to start getting responses because they were so tense but they've really started releasing in the past week. Amazing what you can do with an incredibly light touch.

    If you get the Masterson book try to get the video too, quite helpful to see how he implements the techniques.

  5. Great post Kate! I couldn't read it fast enough, this topic is so interesting to me. I do believe your meditation practice helps. Letting go of the thinking mind, and being open to feeling is key. I need to practice much more...

    You describe the transfer of sensitivity so well. To be able to communicate this way is invaluable. Your horses & barn mates are fortunate to have you in their circle, and us as well in blogland. Thanks for the insight.

  6. Sounds like good work with all the horses. Years ago we had a Reiki practioner give a three day clinic at our barn when we had a business. It was very insightful and helpful to the horses and humans. I still do it on my horses and they love it.

  7. The massage therapist I had out for Dee last year used similar techniques dealing with energy. It's funny because at first I thought, uh oh, here comes the voodoo, but the reactions she got from my horse were nothing you could ignore! I will be having her out again!

  8. What an interesting post! I have a horse friend who does energy work and she has talked about the things your are experiencing with your horses. No doubt about it...there is something to this. I'll bet the meditation opens you up to the success you are having.


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