I believe body work is a vital part of helping you to maintain your horse at his optimum health and well-being. It should become part of your regular routine and not be reserved for only when you have already had problems or lameness or disease occurred and taken hold. It is another situation where I strongly believe prevention is the key.
Horses are absolute marvels of engineering and connectivity. Being herbivores, they are animals of prey who rely on flight for survival. Just as the song lyrics go, the bones are all connected to each other and to the inner organs of the horse, and they’re all connected for flight, for survival. All of this, then, is connected to and entwined in the mind and spirit. What goes on in one part of the horse’s body affects the rest of the body in some manner.
Discomfort or pain can affect your horse’s performance immensely. Bucking, crow-hopping, refusal to take a lead, rearing, bolting, shying, jigging, prancing, resistance, balking, hollowing the back, throwing the head up, constant tension – not able to ‘round up’ – all of these can very commonly be attributed to muscular stiffness, painful muscle spasms, soft tissue adhesions, or soreness.
Having recently had the privilege to watch Manolo Mendez work I was fascinated to see how he incorporated body work, stretching, massage and with the help of Dr Kerry Ridgeway acupuncture or acupressure into all his sessions. It was the perfect compliment with his in-hand work. When he saw an area of tension he went to “work” straight away, enabling him to help the horse achieve more and “feel better” very quickly.
I would strongly advise that you learn some of the basics for yourself so that you can use this regularly with your horse but also that you find a practitioner who can visit and work with your horse regularly to help you maintain peak performance or indeed pick up any imbalances before any more serious conditions are able to establish.
What do I mean by Body Work?
There are numerous different disciplines that all fall under this rather broad heading. In its simplest incarnation I would mean basic massage and simple stretches, both of which can be performed and offered at home with a little training and guidance to get you started. Further to this there are numerous practitioners you can consult or indeed if you so desired courses you can take to offer more specialized work to your horse. Used effectively Bodywork will increase circulation to the muscles, release tension in the soft tissues supporting the joints and vertebrae, and break up congested areas and spasms, all of which encourage muscle development, relax connective tissue, improve performance with greater range of motion and gaits, and relax the mind for increased learning and willingness. Below I have listed a very short introduction to some of the major body work therapies on offer.
Overview of different therapies:
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but an overview of some of the more common forms of body work available to you and your horse.
Equine Sports Massage:
ESM can be used on every horse, pony and donkey from the companion animal to the happy hacker to the top athlete. The range of techniques used in ESM means that it can be beneficial for any horse including: improving and maintaining suppleness in the sports horse and therefore improve performance and reduce risk of injury; treating conditions from back pain to stiffness; preparing your horse for competition; assisting recovery and relaxation after competition. ESM targets muscular dysfunction and works to improve muscles that have limited range of motion, which after time causes pain and discomfort to the horse. Muscular dysfunction refers to a shortening of muscle fibres which is a reaction caused from illness, injury and metabolic mechanisms. Targeting these areas will reduce the tension and therefore discomfort to the horse.
Uses a range of professional techniques; Swedish massage, muscle energy techniques, active and passive stretches. ESM works on nearly all the muscles and soft tissues, but also affects the skin and many other systems such as the nervous, skeletal, circulatory and lymphatic systems. All the techniques use a hands-on approach allowing the therapist to explore the muscles for areas of tightness, spasm or soreness. ESM is a therapy which covers the whole body relieving muscle tension and compensatory tension, and therefore allows the horse to function at his optimum. ESM is a powerful tool in examining the musculo-skeletal system, and can find and relieve muscle spasms / tension even before the signs become obvious.
Shiatsu can help address stress and tension in horses on both a physical and emotional level. The name ‘Shiatsu’ comes from the Japanese for finger (‘shi’) pressure (‘atsu’). Shiatsu shares a similar theoretical basis as Acupuncture, However, instead of needles fingers and thumbs are used to apply pressure into specific points. In conjunction with massage, stretching and joint manipulation – this is why Shiatsu is often referred to as Japanese Physiotherapy.
One of the many advantages of Shiatsu is that it works on both a physical and emotional level. In itself, Shiatsu can be very relaxing and regular Shiatsu sessions can help to prevent the build up of stress and tension.
Simply put, it is a ‘hands on’ technique with the same theoretical background as acupuncture.
The Bowen Technique is a gentle, non-intrusive hands on therapy which stimulates the body’s inner ability to heal itself to be activated. This re-organisation of the musculature of the body can bring increased energy levels and pain relief.
As a soft tissue therapy, it ‘disturbs’ the fascia or connective tissue, there is no pulling or cracking of joints and no insertion of needles. The therapist uses fingers or thumbs in a rolling action over specific muscles, tendons and ligaments, incorporating resting periods to allow the body to absorb the information and respond accordingly.
The treatment is essentially holistic, treating the whole body and is generally a pleasant and relaxing experience.
The McTimoney technique aligns and balances the animal’s musculoskeletal system. By manipulating any misaligned joints throughout the whole body, with special attention to the spine and pelvis, it helps both to restore and maintain health, soundness and performance. Quick, precise but gentle adjustments are applied to misaligned joints and vertebrae sending a vibration through the bone, relaxing the tight muscles which are restricting the movement in the joint.
Osteopathy is a science and system of healing that uses physical techniques to remove tension and restrictions in the body in order to encourage structural and physiological harmony. From working on joints and muscles to improving blood flow and regulating nerve supply, osteopathy works on many different levels with the aim of rebalancing the body’s structures, aiding its function and improving general well being.
Osteopathy is both a science and system of healing where the initial diagnosis identifies the tensions and restrictions requiring treatment. The healing treatment uses physical techniques to eliminate tension and body restrictions which then encourage both structural and physiological harmony. The improvement of bloodflow and the regulating of nerve supply is a direct result of the osteopaths manual treatment of joints, muscles and ligaments. By working on many different levels Osteopathy can improve general well being, through aiding body functions and in effect re-balancing the whole structure of the body.
Osteopathy is a very simple system of healing by the manipulation of bones especially the spine and also of muscles. It is a gentle manual treatment and the long term benefits mean that tissue that has a sufficient blood supply, nerve supply and lymphatic drainage will be healthy. These are essential elements of your horses well being and performance and without them poor health and disease will occur.
Equine Cranio Sacral Therapy is a holistic healing practice which comprises of light finger pressure to enable the body to move to it’s fullest extent without pain or discomfort. This subtle and gentle method of therapy can be highly effective. Because the treatment concentrates it’s work directly onto the central nervous system or core link, the work, whilst being very gentle and non-invasive, works more deeply in the horses body than any other massage therapies. The therapy was originally called cranial osteopathy and then later craniopathy, cranio sacral work and originated for humans only from the ground breaking work carried out in 1900’s by Osteopath, by Dr. William Sutherland. Dr. Sutherland, who is referred to as the father of osteopathy, was the first to sense the minute movement that is called the cranial ‘wave or rhythm’. This rhythm is different from the heartbeat and the respiratory rate but is still measurable by scientific standards. It can be palpated by a skilled therapist anywhere on the body and moves between eight to fourteen cycles per minute. The work was taken forward and called ‘Cranio Sacral Therapy’ by Dr. John Upledger and ‘Visionary Cranio Sacral Work’ by Dr. Hugh Milne. Then the work was taken forward and into equine care and treatment by the internationally renowned American, Maureen Rogers, who was a pioneer in the field of Equine Cranio Sacral Therapy, assisted Dr. Milne, is the only trainer of this unique therapy worldwide and has passed on her knowledge and passion onto her students, now qualified therapists.
Equine Myofascial release:
Myofascial release (muscle fascia release) provides a non intrusive approach to soft tissue manipulation; gently moving tissue at the surface level, releasing tight fascia and helping to stimulate the body’s ability to re-align itself.
Fascia is the tissue that surrounds and connects all of the structures in the body. This connective tissue can become dehydrated, hardened and stuck.
Restrictions can develop in the fascia from trauma, poor posture and repetitive strain. During a myofascial release session, a low load stretch is put into the tissue for a period of approximately 3 minutes to allow the tissue to rehydrate and release. This is a very relaxing and effective therapy, fascilitating the body’s innate healing mechanisms to realign bony structures and release deep seated tension and trauma.
This technique provides an effective addition / alternative to massage for the more sensitive animals, and sometimes proves to be better than other physical therapies at releasing stubborn areas of tightness, allowing joints to realign.
By law, acupuncture can only be performed by a vet. This is because it is an invasive procedure that requires a thorough knowledge of veterinary anatomy and physiology. Acupuncture is a treatment that involves inserting fine, sterile, stainless steel needles into specific points of the body to prevent and treat disease. The treatment evolved over 3000 years ago in China and it is now being used in veterinary and medical practices throughout the world. In veterinary medicine, acupuncture is increasingly being recognised as a useful treatment for a wide range of conditions.
The Equine Touch is gentle, body-based modality, non-invasively addressing the connective tissue such as fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The tissue is mobilized and “stimulated” by using a specific move, or series of moves, over precise points of the horse’s body. These could be acupuncture points, trigger points or sites of common injuries.
By addressing the meridian pathways, together with muscles and fascia, The Equine Touch crosses the line between physical bodywork and an energy modality. It can have the effect of inducing deep relaxation, releasing hypertonic and traumatized muscles, improving muscle tone, encouraging recovery from injury and muscle atrophy, reducing the pain spiral and assisting in detoxification and lymphatic drainage by increasing circulation. The horse’s awareness is changed and it is encouraged to rebalance not only physically, but emotionally for deep relaxation also encourages the autonomic nervous system to drop toward repair and renewal. Energy blockages and unwanted structures appear to dissolve as the flow of Ki is stimulated through the meridians. This allows the equine to tap into its own innate healing ability and to allow it to work to its maximum potential.
The Equine Touch is a technique that invites changes rather than forcing them to happen.
What are the advantages:
Feeling well is about the body working the best it can be – and that includes the muscles, joints, tendons, digestion, breathing, nervous system, immune system and hormone systems all being in balance and optimized.
Rehabilitation after injuries (with full veterinary guidance and consultation) working with muscle release, massage and stretching can help a horse to return to full performance more quickly, when used in conjunction with an holistic approach and coupled with correct nutrition, exercise and management.
In addition it can also minimise the risk of injury, as well as improve overall health and vitality. It is good for both the body, mind and spirit.
We all know that when we have sore muscles there’s nothing nicer then someone working loose those knots, likewise I have found it also improves my relationship with my own horses, being able to offer them massage, acupressure and stretches when they are feeling tension has deepened our connection. They now often come and show/ask me what they want and where they want it, they know I listen and thats really the key.
What can you do at home on a weekly/daily basis to help?
Leg stretches, neck stretches, belly lifts, pelvic tucks – these simple exercises can easily and safely be executed by any horse caregiver with a little training and knowledge. Ask your vet or therapist to show you how to do some safely.
They all complement acupressure, massage, and other therapies that are used in the complete bodywork session.
Just simply getting a stiff brush (as long as your horse is not sensitive) and vigorously brushing your horse can provide a degree of “massage” and stimulation for them. In fact historically horses used to be “strapped” as part of their daily routine, which was a very vigorous brushing with a “whisp” with the intention to increase circulation and muscle tone.
Learning some basic acupressure points can help you release areas of tension or offer comfort in times of stress.
Use your intuition and “touch” your horse, learn how a muscle should feel and if it feels tight or tense massage it gently (or however your horse will tolerate). Discolouration or bleaching of the horses coat can often be an indication the muscles in that area are “dry” and not functioning optimally, so working in these areas can help increase circulation and get things moving again (be gentle as the muscles may be tender with the build up of metabolic waste).
I hope to put up some further information in the future with exercises you can do at home, so please check the blog for more information.
We often forget ourselves in this relationship with our horses, but in this area in particular it can be particularly beneficial to seek out treatments and assistance for ourselves as well as our horses. Our horses are so often a mirror of ourselves and will often have to find ways to compensate for our own problems. So if you have any muscle tension or soreness over any period of time it is highly likely if you are exercising your horse that a degree of this will be reflected in his own muscular-skeletal system too.
All of us and all our horses are individuals, I do not necessarily favour one therapy over another it will be more a case of the people available in your area and how you and your horse respond to them. Over time and with different problems you may have to seek the expertise of other practitioners if needed, but I would highly recommend having one you work with on a very regular basis.
Don’t wait for illness or injury to occur to either you or your horse, deal with any tension at an early enough stage and your can reduce the risks of having to deal with serious lameness or injury.
To read more articles and blog posts on Body-work on this website, please click on the picture below.