Have you ever considered having your horse massaged? A certified equine massage therapist can bring great relief under a variety of circumstances: to the equine athlete, the horse recovering from injury, the backyard trail buddy, or a rescue. However, have we considered all the options for getting the maximum effectiveness out of our equine massage therapy session?
Humans sometimes project their preferences onto their horses. For example, humans may enjoy a massage in a private room with low lighting. For horses, though, such an environment is frightening because it is in contradiction to their natural survival instincts. Horses seem to do best when there are no restrictions on their sense of sight, smell and sound.
This makes questionable the current practice of most equine massage therapists: to have the horse in its stall – presumably it’s a “safe and comfortable space” for horse and massage therapist. From a horse’s perspective, however, is it safe and reassuring to be isolated in an enclosed space? Might we actually maximize the effectiveness of our equine massage therapy session by incorporating the fundamentals of the herd?
Horses have strong social bonds with each other which are essential to their sense of wellbeing. “Herd behavior is [an] important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized,” says Julie Goodnight of Julie Goodnight Horsemanship Training and Goodnight Training Stables, Inc. In fact, by nature, horses associate being alone with being vulnerable to predators, which can increase anxiety and hypervigilence – certainly contraindicated for this form of therapy. Perhaps the most advantageous place to have a horse receive its massage is in the company of a herd mate.
Horses in a herd use body language as the most important means of communication. Being able to read a horse’s body language is a key element of being an effective equine massage therapist. The equine massage process may be described as a series of: search, response, stay and release. With each of these steps, the therapist looks to the horse for a physical response. For instance, in the “search” aspect, the therapist palpates a muscle group looking for signs of tension or adhesions. If these conditions are present, the horse will indicate with a “response” as subtle as the blink of an eye or a twitch of the muzzle. With an acknowledging response from the horse, direct pressure is applied and the therapist “stays” with that position awaiting a “release,” which may be demonstrated through licking, chewing, yawning (to name only a few examples).
So what do you do with the horse who simply cannot release? Not all horses are able to relax enough to release during a massage. This is when the power of the herd may be especially helpful. It is quite possible that being in the vicinity of a herd mate helps a horse feel more secure, safe and available for the massage.
This thought came about when Certified Equine Massage Therapist and owner of Helping Hands Equine Massage, Connie Grob, discovered this while massaging a horse in the presence of other horses.
Connie Grob and Susan Aleksejczyk have worked together in the horse industry for many years. Susan had asked Connie to come to RoseWal Farm to massage an ex-racehorse that is the farm’s best therapy and lesson horse. Connie began massaging the horse in its paddock when she noticed other horses, forming a circle around her and the horse being massaged. Connie and Susan found this to be intriguing, because it seemed intentional. All horses were calm, with heads hung low, so Connie continued. Then she noticed the surrounding horses, yawning, licking, chewing at the same time she felt the muscle release with no visual reaction from the horse being massaged. This continued throughout the massage. When Connie was done, she wanted to find out more about this phenomenon, and began to do research on the web for additional information. She found nothing. Connie continued to research this with other clients and their horses and found the same results.
Research shows the herd is of great importance to horses because they seek a shared emotional connection. Such a connection creates neural resonance, which means that one horse will translate the actions, sensations and even the emotions of another horse into its own neuro body language so that it is, in fact, having the same experience.* Simply put, any horse around the horse being massaged receives and participates in that experience.
This herd phenomenon allows for a more effective massage of the horse. In short, it is as though the herd experiences – and helps facilitate – releases while being near the horse receiving the massage.
This technique has proven very effective in the Helping Hands Equine Massage practice. Connie and many of her clients now recognize and rely on herd fundamentals in their daily equine routines.
*This information was obtained from “The Bond” by Lynne McTaggart and “The Power of the Herd” by Linda Kohanov.
Connie Grob (www.helpinghandsequinemassage.com) is an Equine Massage Therapist certified in Equissage, while additionally implementing the Masterson Method and Reiki in her massage sessions. Connie is also the owner of Helping Hands Equine Massage which serves the Capital District.
Susan Aleksejczyk (www.rosewalfarm.com) is EAGALA Certified, trained in Large Animal Emergency Rescue and specializes in human/equine practices at RoseWal Farm.
Avis Burnett, PhD (www.avisburnett.com) holds a doctorate in Transpersonal Psychology and has over 20 years of experience. Avis specializes in Transformational Counseling, using principles of quantum mechanics.