To glove or not to glove...
So often I have been asked the question if wearing gloves lessens the effect of massage work. I usually reply with a simple answer 'gloved bodywork is better than no bodywork at all'. But I will take the opportunity now to expand on wearing gloves...
One of my favorite things about bodywork is that it is a connection with my horse, and one of the things that really strengthens that connection is the contact made between my hands and my horse. Now a glove is not going to completely eliminate that contact, but I have found that it does diminish the overall experience that both horse and handler receive. When I am getting ready to ride and want to do a quick stretch to my horses shoulders or loosen up those lateral muscles, than gloves are not going to be quite as limiting. However, if I am applying bodywork to help with a behavioral issue, working a green horse, or trying to transfer some heat to an aging joint, then I would say a bare hand is your best choice.
With these winter months setting in and our horses growing these great thick coats, I also think that running your bare hands over your horse several times a week really gives you a great opportunity make sure that coat isn't hiding any goat heads or wounds that might need tending!
Baby, It's cold outside!
Holy freezing temps! Well, fall is definitely in full swing in the mountain region and sometimes that can mean dicey footing and a temperature that isn't always conducive to a productive workout. I always look at winter as a chance to get a little 'brain workout' done on chilly days we can't do work under saddle. Here are a few ideas you can do with your four legged friend when you go to the barn that are 'snow pants friendly'...
Lowering the poll - place your right hand on your horses poll and add light pressure until your horse lowers his head. Once your horse shows the slightest sign of lowering their head, release the pressure on their poll. Ask again with the same expectation and release when they give to the pressure. Repeat this process until you can successfully get your horse to lower their head pretty close to the ground with one gentle application of pressure on the poll. While it may seem like an insignificant task, asking your horse to lower their poll is a great stretch for muscles that run along the entire topline. When horses are turned out or in a pasture setting, they naturally lower their poll when they graze and do this stretch for themselves. If you have a horse that is kept in a stall and fed in a feeder that is chest height, this move is crucial for proper digestion and avoiding strain to those major topline muscles during work or turnout. My preference is to not pull down on the horse with a lead rope during this process, but to have them yield to the pressure at the poll.
A great lateral stretch that accompanies lowering the poll is to ask for your horse to bring their head around to meet their shoulder. The ask for this in going to come in the same fashion, apply pressure using the lead rope (hold lead rope near their withers), and ask your horse to bring their head around to meet you at their shoulder, releasing any time they show effort to soften to the pressure. Their instinct tells them to move their feet, but you want to keep applying the pressure until their feet are still and they are soft in the face. Repeat with both sides of your horse.
If you feel like you have mastered this lateral bend with a halter, try it without a halter and apply pressure to the opposite side of your horses upper jaw. Release the pressure with they yield (quiet with their feet) and repeat the ask until you receive your goal.
I like to incorporate these into my daily work with my equines (especially during the colder months) as they involve participation from the horse. You are able to do a bodywork exercise that is beneficial to the physical being of your horse, but you are also able to stimulate their mental being as well. As a (HUGE) bonus! Both of these methods will provide a softer horse under saddle as well, as they are learning to soften to pressure rather than brace against it.
Take a deep breath!
The most essential key to life is breathing, without it, we perish. Through just our breathing we can quickly slow our heart rate, release endorphins, increase our energy, lower our stress, and rid the body of harmful toxins. Amazing, eh?!
Well these same benefits can improve the health of your equine companion as well, especially when combined with the healing connection of touch. When explaining the benefits of bodywork to someone, I always like to start with the basics of breathing. The ability to control your inhalation and exhalation when working on any animal are very important. Your breathing rhythm can be very contagious to your horse; be it a nice, relaxed cadence, or a fast, nervous one. One of the remarkable attributes that horses possess, is that they have an astounding ability to read body language - especially the kind we don't know we are emitting. Not only will they read it, but the will react to it as well, be it for the positive or be it for the negative. I have been amazed several times to watch the change in behavior on a nervous or high strung horse when I start moving more methodically and slow down my own breathing. Within minutes, they become more attune to my movements and begin to match my breathing. Now, the average respiratory rate of an adult human is 12-16 breaths per minute, and the average respiratory rate for an adult horse is 10-20 breaths per minute, so you can easily see how a relaxed rhythm can start to coincide with each other, especially when coupled with long, engaging massage techniques.
So next time you find yourself frazzled before tacking up - take a few minutes to slow your breathing, lay your hands on your horse and concentrate on your intake of air for a few minutes, and watch how it benefits your ride!
On donkeys and mules
I was recently asked what is the difference when doing any type of bodywork on a mule or donkey compared to a horse? Great question!
We are mule people, we are blessed to share our lives with 2 amazing mules; Odin and Phinny. Both of which enjoy any type of bodywork just as much (if not more!) than our horses.
So do I do anything different when I massage a mule or donkey? Anatomically speaking, mules and donkeys have a very similar muscle structure to that of a horse, so most bodywork techniques I would apply to a horse, would apply to a mule or donkey. Just as there are conformational variances in horses that need to be accommodated for, the same applies to mules and donkeys. I have noticed in winter months, the coat of a mule or donkey can be much heavier than that of your average horse, so I may have to adjust the pressure of my massage accordingly.
Behaviorally speaking, I find that once those wise mules or donkeys figure out what I am there to do, they welcome me with open arms. Just as I do with horses, If there seems to be some trepidation on the part of my equine recipient, I make a concentrated effort to stay in the shoulder and neck area until a level of comfort and acceptance is reached. I have noticed on more than one occasion, that mules and donkeys remember me on following visits, especially when their previous experience of me was a beneficial one!
Rules of engagement
Thankfully the content of this article has nothing to do with a ring... It does, however, have to do with the major muscles in the hindquarters of the horse that are used during a collected movement.
When a horse engages their hind end; either for collected work under saddle, in harness, or playing in the pasture, they are supporting more of their weight on a large gluteal (Medial Gluteal) muscle. This monumental muscle is connected to several other muscle groups in the body reaching from the poll to the hip. When the muscles in the hindquarters become over worked or stressed, we are going to find restrictive movement through the hip, the neck and the back.
By slowly increasing the amount of collected work we ask our horse to do, we can slowly (and correctly) increase the strength in this muscle and affected muscle groups, minimizing injury and building the athletic abilities of our horse correctly.
Along with a slow increase of workload, there are a few massage techniques we can do to increase circulation and relive tension in the hindquarters. By slightly cupping your hand, you can use the pads of your first, middle, and ring finger to apply circles (about the shape of an orange) in a clockwise motion, gradually increasing pressure with each turn until feel the muscles surrounding your hand relax. Another helpful method to ease tension in muscle fibers is to use the outside edge of your hand and lightly percuss the topline of your horses hindquarters from hip to tail, taking care to avoid the hip bone and areas in front of the hip where the kidneys are.
By keeping muscles relaxed, vessels are less constricted and better able to carry oxygen rich blood that is essential for growth and recovery. So next time you find your equine hard at collected work, try these healing methods to get the most out of your workouts!
My approach to anything with horses is to mimic nature as much as possible. Horses have been around for thousands of years and evolved and adapted as necessary. In their natural environment, they are hearty and thriving breed. They forage for their own food, do not have their teeth floated or feet trimmed, are never blanketed or put in a barn, and they certainly don't have anyone come out and give them bodywork. That Mother Nature sure is one smart gal!
So why as humans do we feel the need to provide all these services to our horses when they can clearly flourish in nature just fine without them? Well, we have domesticated our horses for starters. They don't travel dozens of miles a day naturally trimming their own feet, we select their lineage, and we typically confine them to an area less than a few thousand acres where they are not able to meet their own needs.
With the willingness of our amazing horses, we are able to ride them - to perform athletic movements in perfect unison all while be seated on their backs. While that may seem about as unnatural as it gets, I am pretty sure God knew what he was doing when he gifted us with these great creatures.
I became increasingly curious of how horses provide their own bodywork in nature - and do they need it? They don't have these two legged humans constantly sitting on them... So how necessary is this therapy that we are doing?
With much observation, I noticed horses in their natural habitat are constantly performing bodywork, either on themselves or on each other. In a herd, horses are able to groom and stretch each other, they are able to roll on varied terrain and in various types of sand and soil. They are reaching and bending for food that isn't tossed in a pile in front of them. Without giving our horses these important ways of meeting their bodies demands, I find the application of bodywork to be all the more important, especially after the hours of enjoyment they give us in the saddle:)
The entire horse
When I see a horse with any type of chronic behavior or health issue, I like to take a look at the entire horse. What is the big picture with the animal; Are they frustrated with saddle fit? Bored with their daily routine? On an improper feeding regiment? The list is can have many possibilities as to why your equine friend may be less than happy. When I teach bodywork, I like to not only look at the muscular areas of the horse, but also think about what else in that animals life is going to promote the sustainability of the bodywork and encourage successful healing.
In a horse that sees daily heavy use, the equipment being used plays a huge part in their overall well being. Improper saddle fit, a pinching bit, poorly placed saddle pad are all reasons for your horse to dread work and for bodywork to become a short term fix.
A horse that is in a light working program but spends hours in the stall can build negative behavior issues, pent up aggression, and an unwillingness to bond with their handler.
While bodywork is helpful in both cases, it is only putting a band aid on the bigger issue. Allowing yourself to step back and evaluate the entire horse gives you the ability to better treat your horse with the solution they require so the results are seen and felt on a long term basis.
Time well spent
The quality of time you put into your horse always comes back to help your relationship 10 fold. If your time spent with your equine has a productive outcome, then it doesn't need to be hours upon hours every day, 10 productive minutes will net you way more in the long run than 2 frustrating hours. I always encourage people to leave their emotional baggage at home when working with horses, they don't deserve to feel the frustration you experienced in traffic on your way home. As a busy working mom, I understand the complexity of completely detaching your negative emotions, especially when you are on a time constraint. Enter bodywork...
It's amazing the release of negative energy that people experience when their hands are even rested on a horse without any movement at all. The heat and electrical transfer from human to animal is effortless and always present. When positive contact is made, endorphins are released for both human and animal that help lower blood, relieve stress, and form a closer bond. So 10 minutes of applying your hands to your horse can be much more beneficial to you and your horse than a rushed ride!
Most people that aren't familiar with bodywork associate a massage as a nice relaxing experience you get in a spa, and to have it done on your horse, absurd!
Well no, actually the massage experience for a horse doesn't need to involve warm towels and soft music (although it doesn't hurt...). It can be as simple as a 5 minute session of acupressure prior to your ride, or a 15 minute stretch for the stall bound horse. Either way, applying bodywork to your horse is a great way to help behavioral issues, increase circulation, maximize range of motion, alleviate soreness, relieve stress, and strengthen your overall bond with your horse.
In my years of massaging, I have been the most pleased when owners say they have noticed a significant improvement in their horses overall attitude and willingness to work. Any equine from age 30 days to 30 years benefits from the manipulation of their muscle structure. It covers such a broad range of therapy that it can be applied and tailored to virtually any discipline or use.
Learning how to provide your own bodywork gives you yet another way to enjoy your horse AND have your horse enjoy you!
Paula Stirewalt is a Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist and has 25+ years in the horse industry