The importance of touching your horse.

Gary Severson was the first person to show me how bodywork can be used to release tension.

Last week I read a post at Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch that really struck home, Routine Tasks with no Inherent Meaning Diminish the Spirit of the Horse.

There’s a lot in the post that I agree with. But it was this paragraph that really resonated with me. It refers to how we can motivate our horses by touching them more:

Another way is to increase the amount of physical contact we have with our horses. Not the kind with the whip or with the leg. The kind where you both are on the ground and your hands are on the horse. Touch is a miracle communicator because horses are sensory creatures. Like us, touch in equine life is an important part of the establishment of social hierarchies and family interaction. The reward of human touch is powerful for such tactile animals. You’ve seen a horse with a metaphorical sign reading, “will work for food,” but most of them also will work for touch.

Over the past two or three years I’ve come to believe strongly in the positive effect of touch. It started by watching my saddle fitter, Gary Severson, work on my horses. There have been times when my horse would flinch over his loin, or get a bit girthy, even though I knew my saddles fit. Gary showed me a few techniques to release that tension and I was hooked.

I searched the Internet and found Jim Masterson’s instructional DVD and a few articles on his techniques. This was what I was looking for — clearly illustrated instructions that helped me understand how to help my horse myself on an as-needed basis.

I started to give my horses massages — first using massage tools and then learning how to use my hands to release tension. Okay, I’m not a professional massage therapist and I’m sure I’m nowhere near as effective, but I have the advantage of being able to massage frequently and to feel how my horses’ bodies react to massage and are changed by it. Your hands give you a direct connection to your horse’s muscles so that you can feel exactly where he might be holding pain or tension. The signs are sometimes subtle and would be missed during a regular grooming.

Kroni loved being massaged

Kroni loved being massaged and he liked you to go deep into his muscles.

My Trakehner, Kroni, loved being massaged. He made the most incredible faces! Sometimes he would lean into me so hard I thought he’d fall over if I stopped (that massage sure feels good).

Freedom, my TB, is much more sensitive. While he holds a lot of tension, he is also very reactive and at least at first, could tolerate only the lightest touch. When I tried to work with him he’d dance around, try to nip me and otherwise be uncooperative. It took me a long time to figure out how to touch him in ways that were calming. When Kroni died, I spent a lot of time working with him on the ground, sometimes just putting my hands on his body to settle him, sometimes using accupressure points that are known for calming (the calming power of touch).

I believe that through this regime of bodywork and touching, I have been able to soothe both his body and his mind.

Interestingly, I don’t know that many people who use touch (at least consciously) as part of the way they care for their horses. I posted a poll recently on the Chronicle of the Horse Forum that asked people:

How often do you incorporate massage/touch into your grooming routine? Forty-one people responded:

  • 41.46% (17) reported they groomed horse thoroughly but don’t specifically use massage techniques.
  • 19.51% (8) reported that their horse gets regular massages from a professional.
  • 17.07% (7) answered that they incorporate massage into their daily routine.
  • 29.25% (12) said they give their horse a massage themselves periodically.
  • 14.63% (6) reported that massage is not part of their horse’s care.

This data is pretty consistent compared to the people I know. Most give their horses thorough grooming. It’s clear to me when I groom my own horse that some release of tension occurs when you groom, especially when you get those itchy spots where your horse leans into the currying motion. Okay, so I’m a recent convert and probably am still in the zealot stage, but with my horses I have not been able to get the same effects from grooming as I can when I touch my horses with my hands.

Equine bodyworkers that I’ve encountered talk about sharing energy with the horse when they work. I’m not sure that I’d say that — yet — but there is definitely a greater connection, which has a more positive impact, when your touch is not blocked by a curry comb or a brush.

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