Originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of Northwest Horse Source
As you get up from your desk, you place a hand on your shoulder and rotate it uncomfortably. Really need to get that checked out, you think. As you fight traffic on the drive to the barn, you notice the tension in your back. When you arrive, you pull your horse out – he’s always a little slow when leading on the ground – and you start tacking him up. You thought it was too cold for flies, but he was swishing his tail when you brushed him. He’s always troublesome to saddle but you manage. He’s antsy when you mount up, and will sometimes kick out under saddle, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. You get your ride in, give him a treat and a kiss at the end, and head home. You feel better going home than you did on your way to the barn, and that makes you pause – Does my horse feel sore, too?
There were several signs in the above paragraph indicating discomfort – did you catch them?
Bucking and/or Kicking Out
If your horse is bucking or kicking out under saddle that may be a sign they feel uncomfortable. We’re told to just “work them through it,” but your horse is trying to tell you something in the only way they can. This is especially true if it is a newer behavior, or if it happens at specific moments, such as asking for a gait transition. A horse who is comfortable in their body should rarely kick or buck.
Reluctance to Move
If your horse is consistently a few steps behind you when you’re leading them or you find yourself having to kick them to move forward under saddle, they are probably feeling some discomfort somewhere. When you have a bad stomachache the last thing you want to do is go for a long jog with a big backpack on. The same goes for your horse. When your horse feels good in their body, there will be willingness and ease of movement.
Doesn’t Stand Still for Mounting
If you’re standing on the mounting block while your horse dances around or moves in circles around you, that’s a sign your horse is feeling some discomfort. This is another moment that is often misunderstood to be a training issue rather than one of pain or discomfort. A horse who doesn’t anticipate pain will stand still and balanced as their rider mounts up.
Issues when Saddling and/or Grooming
Just like when mounting, if your horse has trouble standing still when grooming and saddling, that’s a sign they are feeling discomfort somewhere. A comfortable horse should enjoy a good groom session, and should be able to stand still when saddling.
Swishing Tail, Pinned Ears, Nipping
A horse in discomfort will often wring or swish their tail. There will be other signs of discomfort as well, such as tension through the face, pinned ears, and/or nipping. They may toss their head or stomp a front foot. Rather than a ‘training issue,’ think of these signs as your horse trying to communicate in the only way they can. A horse who is comfortable will have a light, balanced tail – even when swishing at flies – and will be relaxed through their face and shoulder.
How to Help Your Horse
So, your horse is showing some of these signs and you’re concerned there is pain or discomfort – but what do you do about it? The first step is to contact your veterinarian. They can perform an exam and prescribe treatment where needed. Once your vet is involved, an equine bodyworker can help your horse find reconnection and ease of movement in areas of discomfort. A professional bodyworker should have hands-on training from a reputable school, be able to speak comfortably about equine anatomy and biomechanics, and be able to provide you with exercises to help your horse between sessions. They may also require a vet referral or licensing by the state, depending on local laws. In addition to finding a bodyworker for your horse, don’t forget to visit a bodyworker yourself – your horse will thank you!
Now as you get up from your desk, you feel an ease of movement. So glad I went to a bodyworker! You think. When you arrive at the barn your horse greets you with ears forward and joyful movement. Grooming and tacking up is a breeze, and you’re mounting up and moving out before you know it. Thanks to addressing your horse’s discomfort, working with your horse is so much more joyful and full of ease.
In this inaugural, three-hour workshop, we will be exploring how awareness can provide greater connection with our horses and ourselves.
Using experiential learning activities and interactive demonstrations on the ground, we will be practicing self-awareness and learning more about the language of the horse.
This clinic is for all experience levels, and there will be a few horses available on-site for those who cannot haul-in. Professionals and non-professionals alike are welcome!
This clinic is a collaboration between Horse by Northwest and Life Lessons with Horses. Combined, they have over 50 years of equine experience, with certifications in Centered Riding, equine bodywork, and equine experiential education.
We stand as a group in the arena after a full day of learning and growth. The gentle warmth of the late spring air fills us. The herd is nearby, peacefully eating hay and grass. Along with the herd's contented munching, we can hear the sounds of birdsong outside. We are surrounded by the herd's earthy hay-and-hide scent and the bright smell of fresh grass. Through our bodies, we can feel the connection to ourselves, each other, and the Earth.
Standing in a circle, we reflect on what we experienced, speaking of transformation, deep insights, and connection. We glow with the day's work and the steps we have taken on our life's journey, knowing we will take these lessons into our relationship with ourselves and the world we live in.
We finish the day by expressing gratitude, to the horses acting as guides, to the beautiful space surrounding us, and to those who joined us with openness and fierce vulnerability.
If this sounds like the end of an ideal day, join us for our Connection Retreat, happening on Monday, May 31, 2021. For more information and to register, please visit the event registration page.
I pulled up, running late from a prior appointment. As I turned toward the barn, I was greeted by the biggest and brightest rainbow I have ever seen. I almost continued on, but at the last minute I stopped to capture a photo. As I parked and rushed to grab my kit out of the car, I noticed the incredible sunset behind me - a glory of cream-and-gold cumulonimbus clouds, lined by the deep grey of rain and the bright blue of the sky behind them.
When I finally made it into the barn, I was greeted by Ben’s big bray. It was dinner time, and the herd hadn’t been fed yet. “Sorry, friend, I don’t have any food to offer, but I do have massage.” Ben seemed to consider, and came to a decision: my terms were acceptable. As I entered his stall and removed his blanket, I apologized for the chill. Although we had officially entered spring, the evening still held onto a bit of winter. I stood with Ben for a heartbeat or two, reminding him that I was sharing his space.
Ben was a fragile old donk who had lived through significant abuse before landing safely at the sanctuary years ago. Because his body was fragile, my touch had to be soft, encouraging small shifts in his posture and soft tissue. Recently, I had started experimenting with small motion, manipulating the skin and surface layers of fascia, a flowy serpentine around his poll and jaw, down his neck, over his shoulder. He soaked it all up, as if his body was a sponge, and my touch the water. Slowly, his fascia and muscles would transform, from being brittle and hard to being soft and yielding. As his tissues softened under my finger tips, the connective tissue slowly melting, I could reach into those deeper aches.
Ben stood there, his lower lip droopy and trembling, his head gently bobbing with relaxation, not quite asleep but not quite awake, either. This time, as I worked on releasing tension and old aches I noticed - really noticed - the signs of old age on his body. Ben’s little weight shifts to try and find a comfortable posture; a tight belly that struggled to absorb nutrition; the loss of muscling, despite large meals and constant roughage. “Oh, buddy,” I thought, “You must be so tired.” As my focus shifted from the skin, fascia, and muscles directly under my fingers to sympathy, I could feel him stir a little. “I’m alive now, dammit. Focus on that. I’ll go when I’m ready, and not a minute sooner.”
Nothing can make you feel chastised quite like donkey wisdom.
The next day, Ben lay down in the warm, dry sand of the arena, his favorite spot. He was ready, and he passed when the moment was right for him, surrounded by his herd and people who loved him. Even after his passing, he continues to provide me with donkey wisdom, lessons to pass along to others.
First, be present in the moment. Anxiety about the future robs us of experiencing any joy in the now.
Second, enthusiastically celebrate the good. How many more opportunities would present themselves if instead of being wrapped in judgement, we accepted the gifts being offered?
Third, trust in yourself. Accept not only the gifts being offered by others; accept the gifts you have to offer. While this last may sound easy, how many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m not good enough” or “If only I were…” There is always room for improvement, of course, but when you accept all you have to offer the world, you reach your fullest potential.
So when you catch yourself in judgement, worried about all that has passed and all that has yet to come, bring yourself back. You’re alive now, dammit; focus on that.
Horse by Northwest has re-opened for business, and I am scheduling sessions! For your safety and mine, I have some new protocols in place. You can find the full list of my updated Terms & Conditions on the contact page; I encourage you to take a look.
How I will be protecting you:
How you will be protecting others:
I travel to a variety of barns, large and small. This increased exposure not only puts me at risk, but also you and anyone who may be caring for your horse. By practicing social distancing and wearing a mask, I am protecting you and your equine's health.
Additionally, please note that because I am limiting the number of facilities I will be visiting in a given week, scheduling may be delayed. I appreciate your patience as we work through this together.
Please do let me know if you have questions/concerns/comments prior to scheduling a session with me. I look forward to hearing from you so that I can provide support for you and your equine on your journey together.
It has been three weeks since I made the decision to temporarily suspend my practice, and what a wild three weeks it has been. I miss visiting my human and equine friends, and helping your horses feel their best. While I hope I will be able to return to your barns soon, it is clear that this is going to be more like a 100-mile endurance race, rather than an afternoon trail ride.
In the interest of continuing to do my part to limit the spread of the virus, I am suspending all massage sessions indefinitely. This decision is in the interest of your safety, and the safety of those who may help feed and care for your horse. This is also in line with the recommendations of the National Board of Animal Accupressure and Massage, as well as Oregon's "Stay Home, Save Lives" Executive Order 20-12, which ordered the closure of all non-medical massage services.
I am keeping track of all cancelled sessions. Once the quarantine is lifted, I will be rescheduling rehabilitation and regular clients first, followed by any pre-paid sessions, and then any clients who may be remaining.
In the meantime, I am working to put together some resources that will help you and your horse, including some short articles and videos. For those of you who have attended my Intro to Kinesiology Taping clinic, I am happy to provide feedback or recommendations online via photos and/or videos.
The horses and people I work with are not just clients -- it is a high honor to be a part of your and your equine partner's shared journey. I am grateful every day that I get to be a part of that journey, improving your horse's quality of life and ultimately your quality of life as well. I hope you are all able to stay safe and stay healthy during this time of uncertainty. If you have any questions or concerns (or just want to tell me how you and your horse are doing), please feel free to reach out. I look forward to seeing you back at the barn soon.
I have been closely monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic as it has evolved. I am very fortunate in that I have a full-time job that allows me to work from home in addition to my equine massage work. I recognize that many folks, many of you my clients, do not have that privilege. Therefore, in order to do my part to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible, I am making the very difficult decision to temporarily suspend all massage sessions.
Thus far, Oregon has been very fortunate that there have not yet been any deaths due to this virus, but given the global situation it is only a matter of time until that is no longer true. It has also been shown that the best way to prevent further spread and strain on our medical system is to self-quarantine. Therefore, I am going to do my small part to help protect our most vulnerable populations and be one less strain on our already over-loaded medical systems.
For those of my clients who have sessions scheduled between now and March 31, I will be contacting you individually. After March 31, I will reevaluate the situation. I appreciate your understanding and support during this difficult time.
This is a time of high stress and anxiety. In addition to frequent hand-washing, I encourage you to practice self-care, spend some quiet, no-agenda time with your horse, and be kind to each other.
Be healthy, be safe.
When you work with horses, you may come across what I've heard called a 'dragon mare.' Perhaps you know what I'm talking about: a horse who is touchy about their stomach, chest, or legs. A horse who pins their ears, swishes their tail, and perhaps even kicks or tries to bite when you touch their sensitive spot. For years I had been told that this was a behavioral issue that had to be "worked through."
I had not thought to question this mantra until an experience I had while working with an older Kiger mustang mare. This little mare was a classy lady; she was very particular, extremely responsive, and had no trouble expressing what she wanted. I thought I had been treating her with the utmost respect, but I was having trouble performing massage on her legs. I felt she could use some additional joint support, but every time I started to run my hands down her legs, she would pin her ears and take a step away. I kept working through this 'behavioral issue' until she nipped at the air, as if to say, "Enough! Why aren't you listening?" It was then that I realized I was approaching her all wrong. Once I changed my approach (and my attitude), her attitude completely changed, and we were able to finish the massage.
A barefoot trimmer I worked with recently was having some trouble with one of her equine clients. The filly had been problematic in the past, but her attitude and training had significantly improved. On this most recent visit, however, it seemed that the 'dragon' had returned, and the trimmer was unable to make any progress on the first hoof she'd picked up. She started to chalk it up to behavioral issues until she noticed that when she picked up the left fore hoof, the filly would slightly lift her right hind hoof and rest it just above the ground. We realized she was having trouble balancing on that diagonal, and after a bit of experimentation, determined that she had some soreness in her sacrum. Once we realized the filly was experiencing pain, I performed a few minutes of massage on the area. After a brief massage, the symptoms of pain dissipated, and the farrier was able to complete the trim on all four hooves.
In humans, the effects of pain are well-documented. Think back to the last time you had a headache; you were probably a bit lethargic, less productive, and irritable. Pain significantly affects quality of life in both humans and animals. In humans, it decreases productivity (1), can prolong or complicate healing from injury (2), and can significantly impact mental health (3). Our horses are no different. According to veterinarian Dr. Muir, "...chronic pain can modify the nervous system, can become an actual disease, and cause distress" (4). Research out of the University of Florida has shown strong correlation between the effect of pain and reproduction (5).
Studies have shown that massage therapy can significantly reduce physical pain in human patients (6). Although research is forthcoming on our equine partners, there is some scientific support showing that manual therapies (which includes massage and chiropractic) can have a significant impact on managing and alleviating pain (7). Given the similar characteristics of our musculo-skeletal systems, it is no surprise that massage in horses would have similar effects to those seen in humans.
If your horse is acting lethargic, 'nippy', bucking under saddle (particularly during transitions), or exhibiting other 'behavioral' issues, it could be due to pain or discomfort. This is especially true if the issues have started recently. Scheduling time for a massage may significantly improve both causes and symptoms of pain in your equine partner.
(1) The cost of pain to business and society due to ineffective pain care. American Academy of Pain Medicine. http://www.painmed.org/patientcenter/cost-of-pain-to-businesses
(2) Jess, P., Jess, T., Beck, H., Bech, P. Neuroticism in relation to recovery and persisting pain after laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. DOI: 10.1080/00365529850172151 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00365529850172151
(3) Fishbain, D. A., Cole, B., Cutler, R. B., Lewis, J., Rosomoff, H. L., Rosomoff, R. S. Chronic pain and the measurement of personality: Do states influence traits? Pain Medicine. DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2006.00239.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2006.00239.x/abstract-jsessionid=E8E54A3899501B97693BEA4C93AB84D5.f03t03
(4) Oke, S. Understanding chronic pain. theHorse.com 01Dec2011 http://www.thehorse.com/articles/28233/understanding-chronic-pain
(5) Sanchez, C. ACT 2013: How pain impacts equine reproduction. 09Aug2013. http://www.thehorse.com/videos/32364/act-2013-how-pain-impacts-equine-reproduction
(6) See: Adams, R., White, B., and Beckette, C. The effect of massage therapy on pain management in the acute care setting. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2010; 3(1): 4-11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091428
Field, T., Diego, M., Cullen, C., Hernandez-Reif, M., Sunshine, W., Douglas, S. Fibromyalgia pain and substance P decrease and sleep improves after massage therapy. J Clin Rheumatol. 2002 Apr; 8(2): 72-76. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17041326
Field, T., Peck, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Krugman, S., Burman, I., Ozment-Schenck, L. Postburn itching, pain, and psychological symptoms are reduced with massage therapy. J Burn Care Rehabil. 2000 May-Jun; 21(3): 189-193. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10850898
Cutshall, S. M., Wentworth, L. J., Engen, D., Sundt, T. M., Kelly, R. F., Bauer, B. A. Effect of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, and tension in cardiac surgical patients: A pilot study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2010 May; 16(2): 92-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20347840
(7) Sullivan, K. A., Hill, A. E., Haussler, K. K. The effects of chiropractic, massage, and phenylbutazone on spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds in horses without clinical signs. Equine Vet J 2008 Jan; 40(1): 14-20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18083655
I have found that massage can be a wonderful meditation. It allows a connection with equines that I haven't found with other techniques or methods of work. It can also soothe and calm the nerves of the people performing the massage. Passive touch is a wonderful technique that can be used to build the bond between you and your equine and soothe your own stress when the world around you is angry and experiencing unease.
Stand near your horse. Breathe slowly in. Then breathe slowly out. If it helps, close your eyes, and allow your other senses to take over. Notice the smell of fresh hay, leather, and horse hide. Listen to the twitch of a tail, the soft inhale of breath as your equine stands next to you. Focus on how the air feels on your skin. Slow your breath. Feel how the small of your back softly expands with each inhale. Breathe in. . .2, 3, 4. Breathe out. . .2, 3, 4. Now take another breath. In through your nose, 2, 3, 4. Out softly through your mouth, 2, 3, 4. Those who spew hate and fear depend on those of us who preach love and tolerance becoming overwhelmed and losing our perseverance. These quiet moments spent with your horse, these moments of calm and stillness, will recharge you for the fight to come. Remember that self-care is an act of radical resistance. Allow your shoulders to relax. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Allow your feet to sink into the ground. Breath out, 2, 3, 4. Step up to your horse, so that you are facing their side. In a smooth, deliberate motion, place one hand on their withers, and the other at the top of the croup with a light pressure. Or, place one hand on their chest, and another at the withers. Feel the texture of the hair, the skin, muscle, and bone under your fingertips. Breath softly in, 2, 3, 4, and back out, 2, 3, 4. As your breath slows, and you allow peace to enter, notice how your horse's breathing may change to match yours. They may release a soft sigh, or lick their lips, or yawn. Allow your horse to process. Allow yourself to process. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out, 2, 3, 4. Feel the warmth of your horse's body, and allow that warmth to enter yours. Horses by their nature are 'in the moment.' Allow this moment to stretch and last. Let the peace wrap around you and your horse. You may notice a change in the temperature of your horse's skin under your hands, or the muscles may become less resistant to the light pressure. Allow yourself to acknowledge these changes. Your feet may sink deeper into the ground, your back may softly round, your chest may open up. Allow your body to accept these changes in posture. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out, 2, 3, 4. Focus on the contact where your hands are placed on your horse, and feel the connection build between you. When you are ready, you may want to slowly stroke your horse with a soft, light pressure, and thank them for sharing their calm with you. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. Breath out, 2, 3, 4. Take this peace with you, allow it to bolster your determination, and share it with others.
After hearing about the benefits of equine massage, you have decided to set up an appointment for your equine partner. That is wonderful! If this is your equine's first-ever massage, you may not know what to expect; to help, I've written down a few guidelines for how things tend to go on my new client visits.
For the first few appointments, I will request that the owner meet me at the barn prior to working with their horse. Not only does this give me a chance to chat with you about how your equine is doing, I also like to have the guardian fill out a brief summary on the SOAP chart prior to beginning the session. The SOAP chart provides a record of the appointment. The top half provides me with the basics: your name and the name of your equine, date of service, vet information, and your equine's breed, age, and health history. Information that is helpful in the health history would include any issues you may have noticed recently and any past lameness or health problems (regardless of whether or not the issue(s) were diagnosed by a vet). For instance, you might put that your horse's gait has been unusually short-strided, or felt "off" recently. The second half of the chart is a record of the things I notice while performing body work, the actions I perform during our session, and any future recommendations and/or "homework" I may suggest for you and your equine. At the end of the session, you will receive a copy of the SOAP chart for your records.
It is appreciated if your equine is haltered and ready for their appointment when I arrive, and not out in the 'back forty.' While I do enjoy hiking, I would prefer to spend our session performing bodywork instead of working on my cardio. However, it is usually better if your horse is not groomed before I get there, as there may be signs or signals that may inform my work that are literally brushed away during a grooming session. That said, if your horse is very muddy, it is not a bad idea to knock off some of the excess dirt. In addition, if it's fly season, you may want to apply a bit of fly spray before I arrive. I want your horse to be able to focus on the massage and their body, not on obnoxious flies.
A clean, dry, and level place to work is also appreciated. A level place will allow a more accurate assessment of posture, stance, and any lameness or conformational faults far better than an unlevel surface would. And anyone who spends winter in Western Oregon can understand why a dry place to work is necessary! It is also preferable to have the session somewhere quiet. If your equine is at a busy boarding facility, this may just mean working in your horse's stall. I prefer not to work in the middle of a busy barn aisle for a number of reasons; the first of which is your horse and I will both be distracted if there is a lot of activity going on -- it is for this reason that I also prefer to avoid performing bodywork during mealtime, as your equine will have their attention on dinner arriving, rather than on their body. In addition, I hate to be rude, and I do not want to be in someone's way while they are trying to clean stalls or feed and water their own equine.
Depending on your equine's demeanor prior to starting a session, I may or may not ask you to hold your horse. For the first session, my equine clients are typically kept haltered, with a loose lead draped over my arm for safety. However, there are times I may want to remove the halter (such as to see them move out in an arena), or I may want to tie them if they are especially distracted or agitated. I do not prefer to cross-tie during a session, as it restricts their movement, and may hide something I would notice more readily if the horse is free to move. If you are holding your horse during our session, I do request that you pay close attention to their behavior, and try to block them if they attempt to nip or bite at me; often, the work I perform is necessarily in 'squeamish' areas, because those are typically spots where your horse is feeling discomfort. Strong correction is not necessarily needed here, just a quick bump on the lead rope or halter to keep their head straight.
If you have any questions during or after a session, please feel free to ask them! I love engaged owners, and I am happy to explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. I am also happy to show you some stretches or massage strokes that you can do between sessions to keep your equine healthy and happy. Additionally, I encourage collaboration between professionals; if your vet or farrier has any questions for me (or if I have questions for them), I would love to chat with them, as well.
This blog will serve as a source of information for equine owners and enthusiasts.