If there's one thing that I have learned in my years dealing with horses, is that little things make a BIG difference! How many times have you heard the term "less is more"? This really holds true for horses and can even be applied to equine bodywork. When I first entered the world of horse massage, I was under the misconception that I had to do a lot of heavy deep muscle work combined with lots of different stretches in order to make positive changes for my clients. Boy, was that thinking wrong!
One thing that became very clear, very quickly, is that every horse reacts differently to bodywork from both an emotional and physical level. Some horses are very stoic and have a high tolerance for pain. With these horses, they usually appreciate getting in with the elbows and heavy pounding tapotements, and sooner rather than later. On the other hand, because they are so introverted and stoic, it can be difficult to pinpoint where their problems are being driven from. Very emotionally introverted horses need a much gentler touch and by starting out very slow, soft and quiet makes a big difference for these horses. Once they realize you are not going to hurt them, they really start to relax and show a side of themselves that is not often seen.
Then you have the other end of the spectrum, the ultra-sensitive horses. These can be so sensitive that it is very hard to even touch them in their problem areas. They may be so painful that even light massage is not tolerated. So how do you get anywhere? Horses like this require a little slight of hand so to speak. You can usually make more progress by working on a completely different area of the body than where the problem is. When the horse is very painful they are often anticipating that when you touch the problem spot it's going to hurt. By starting the massage in a different area, it allows the horse to relax and not be so focused on their pain. Then the principles of approach and retreat come into play, gradually being able to work your way closer and closer to where you need to be. I've found that most of the time, by the time I get to the problem spot, the area is so relaxed that the horse doesn't mind having it worked on anymore. The mental tension was accentuating the physical tension and increasing the painfulness of the area.
So what can you do if despite your best efforts the horse is still just too painful to get much deeper work done? Surprisingly, I've found that a light touch can actually have a huge affect on relaxation for the target area. Many people are under the impression that because horse muscles are so large that they require significant brute force by the bodyworker to affect the muscle. Horses are extremely sensitive animals. They can feel a fly landing on them. Their muscle physiology is no different than yours or mine. When you are sore and hurting, does it help you to relax more if someone is beating and digging on your sore muscles or if they are using a lighter more relaxing touch. Yes, eventually you do need to get in and work out the knots and release the spasms, but it is much more effective when the pressure is put on gradually and the body and mind are in a relaxed state first.
Some horses require multiple visits before they make enough progress to really be able to work into their problem areas. Every case is different and dependent on the horse's willingness to release the emotional aspect of their problem. But even if the horse only allows you to perform some simple relaxation techniques, the simplest of fascial release techniques can make a profound difference for how a horse feels. It never ceases to amaze me when I think I didn't get anything significant accomplished during a session and the next day the owner e-mails me and tells me how much better their horse is moving and what a difference it made for their horse. Never take for granted the power of the little things. The horses feel it and they appreciate it!
Has your horse ever surprised you and reacted unexpectedly to a therapy you've used? Come over to the Facebook page and tell me how here: http://www.facebook.com/HeavenlyGaitsEquineMassage.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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