I love talking about my work with horses and dogs and how I can help them through sports massage. But my favorite responses are when I tell them what I do for a living. It varies of course, but almost always has some surprised face and follow-up questions.
The most common question I receive from equestrians and non-equestrians alike is, “How often do you get kicked or bitten?” The answer, I haven’t yet. There are many reasons that horses are not defensive while I work on them. My methods work with equine massage, but also for anyone working with equines.
Communication is the most important tool at my disposal. Any time I introduce myself to a new horse I do so slowly but firmly. Trust must begin somewhere. I’m asking this horse to let me work with them on areas often untouched by the owners or trainers. More, many times these are the most sensitive spots. Initial evaluations usually take a little longer. I take the opportunity to spend the time to communicate with my client and let them know what they can expect. Slow and steady, but clear signals from me.
Horses, especially lesson horses, are used to being handled by humans. However, every time a new person works with a horse, they should give respect and understand that you are a stranger to them.
I volunteer my time regularly at a therapeutic riding facility that has meant a lot to my family for the last six years. When I began working with an Appendix gelding, it was clear that he had trust issues. He is head shy, prone to startling, and defensive of his hindquarters on the ground. Under saddle with children, he is a perfect gentleman. So I spent a lot of time building trust with him and learning to communicate clearly what I was doing and what he could expect from me. It took several sessions, and within a few months, we had a completely different relationship. I had earned his trust. He no longer evades my hands at his poll and relaxes within moments of starting a session. I cannot tell you how much this means to me. As an anxious horse, I earned his trust over time and consistent communication, and now we make a difference in tension when working together and building this trust.
Horses are stoic animals. By the time they are acting out under saddle or in hand, there is often severe pain involved. The pain may not be muscular, there can be many causes, and if you are concerned about your animal’s behavior, a veterinarian should be your first call. Horses experience chronic tension no matter their activity level. As prey animals, they are reactive and often in training they are desensitized to many situations. However, just because they do not react does not mean they are not mentally experiencing fear or agitation. They are only taught not to show it. As a result, this training causes internalization, which results in muscle tension.
An equine that internalizes will often be a horse that experiences severe tension in front of the wither; from the neck, crest, and up to the poll. This causes headaches and can radiate down the spine creating back tension and tightness in the hamstrings resulting in lameness.
Regular massage is highly recommended to not only relieve the tension involved but helps the horse to release that tension in a healthy way, rather than spooking at “nothing” or bolting. This explosion of movement allows equines to release some of the pent-up stress and feelings they are experiencing, but that isn’t ideal.
Horses in my regular program not only have the trust built up with me but also allow me to see their reactions more easily. I look for responses which are often quite small. More than once I’ve been asked if I need more light in a stall or barn, and the answer is “not usually.” I’m so attuned to my clients that I “feel” their reaction before I can see it. Now I don’t profess to be a healer or a psychic by any means. I open myself up to let all my senses “listen” to their sounds which can include sighs, nickers, licking and chewing (yes I listen for this). I also use my sight to look for pinned ears, dropped heads, yawning, shifting stance, pressing into my touch, and moving away from my contact. Lastly, I feel which is the most subtle and includes: detecting tight muscle bands underneath skin, tremors, knots, and shivers.
I use all my senses, and my familiarity with horses (and the individual personalities), to detect anything that does not belong, could cause a problem, and even how the horse responds to my touch.
We all know that horses move away from pressure. It is intuitive and used in most training methods. As a result, I expect a horse that is sensitive or telling me that my touch is a little “too much” will move away from me. The movement can be slight or significant. Sometimes, the horse needs break, and that is my cue to give them a minute and step away or work on another area for a minute. My knowledge of a particular horse helps because I will know how much I can push them to get through that last little knot and allow for release or to stop entirely to enable them to relax again without being defensive.
But what I find often is the case is that a horse will MOVE INTO my touch. I confess this is my favorite reaction. In massage, we always begin with the least amount of pressure. When a horse tells me to press harder in an area, it is priceless to me. I cannot tell you how often I will have a horse almost leaning on me, helping me to dissolve tension. Recently an owner saw it and couldn’t believe her eyes, because it went so against his personality, and she remarked, “Wow, he likes that.” I smile, because that is the goal, having my client tell me what he needs and working with me to help him.
Any good equine sports massage therapist will know how to defend against an adverse reaction. Some horses do not prefer to be touched at all or need a little extra trust. Some horses are more defensive and prone to kicking if an area hurts, although I will so often they have good manners and will lift a leg to warn first. Still not ideal because you never want to hurt them, but I do appreciate a warning if an area is sensitive.
Knowing how the horse you are working with tends to react is extremely helpful. Some horses are biters, others kickers. Rarely will I find both to be the case, but it can happen. Blocking is essential. When working on the neck and poll, usually areas with a lot of tension in hunters, jumpers, and overthinkers often a horse will turn around to “check in” with the massage therapist. I can tell whether they intend to bite by how quickly they turn their heads. I use one arm to block, hold the halter, or use the pressure point in the cheekbone while working with another hand.
Once I move to the shoulder area, I keep the back of my hand on the lower shoulder area and work with the other hand around this, preventing the horse from pawing or lifting a hoof to stomp with impatience. Usually, the back of my hand is a gentle reminder to hold still, but the client can move. Again, the quickness of the movement is a huge indicator for me and I know through experience if I need to apply more pressure to prevent them from hurting me.
Once I start working on the back, I keep one hand on the stifle. I use the back of my hand as I did on the shoulder, and it’s a reminder to the horse but also an early warning system for me as I can feel the moment they twitch to move the back leg. Through experience, you learn what is merely a shift in stance, an errant fly, or a move to warn or kick. With my hand on the stifle, I can either apply pressure to lower the leg or use the push to move back quickly away from the strike zone.
In short, I massage with one hand while blocking and defending with the other. This technique has earned me well the last few years, and I have not yet been kicked or bitten while providing massage.
Last but not least, the human needs to be dominant. Not aggressive, but assertive. Calm, steady, and confident. I start by asking and then if met with resistance I ask myself why. Did I communicate clearly? What is my client telling me with his body? How is he telling me? If I answer all these questions and there is no physical reason for me to back off of an area, then I quietly and confidently push forward. I will coax with my voice or use it to admonish verbally. But I will keep trying until I receive a submission.
To be clear submission shouldn’t be done with fear or bullying. However, it is in the horse’s nature to follow a strong leader, and that is what I must be, quickly, in certain situations. The trick is knowing when to assert yourself, and when to back off which often comes with instinct and experience. But if you communicate and listen, the assertion is not usually necessary.
Will I ever be bitten or kicked during the equine massage? It’s a matter of time. Horses are reactive and will often move away from pressure. When they do not feel they can move away, defend themselves as they would in the field with their herd. It is easy to create trust and respect with horses when using the above practices and to use the least amount of pressure to evaluate, detect, and treat the tension.
To learn more about my practice or to schedule an appointment with me in New Jersey, please visit www.heatherwallace.us.