Snores, Yawns & Stretches: A Horse-Guided Massage

In You can massage a horse? Of course! I wrote about Oliver, the first horse I fully assessed and treated on the last day of the equine massage therapy course. Since then, over the past 6 weeks or so, I have been visiting Oliver’s barn once a week and giving treatments to other horses. So far, I have worked on Ebony, RT, and Willie. This is an invaluable opportunity to practice my skills and develop a routine – health check, assessment, full-body massage – or so I thought. It’s not always as straight forward as that.

What I’ve learned over the last several weeks is that, although guidelines and a general approach are good, the most important thing I need to do is listen. Mr. Ed and BoJack Horseman aside, horses can’t talk. They can’t tell me where they are feeling tension or pain, whether there’s an area they want me to focus on or a particular spot I should avoid. These are things I look for during the assessment, but it isn’t always obvious. Likewise, if I’m applying too much pressure, the horse may simply shift or move away, or, as was the case with RT, display a bite threat.

Knowing which signs to watch for to gauge whether the horse is enjoying the treatment or not is key! One horse may have a particular problem area that, when found, will elicit any number of positive responses, a droopy lip, a soft eye, a relaxed posture, a release of gas, a stretch. A couple of weeks ago, Ebony lowered his nose to the floor and started snoring as I worked on his shoulder. This week, he seemed intent on having me spend 90% of my time massaging his neck, ears, jaw, and forehead.

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Part of my routine when I enter the stall is to set up my space by placing my step stool in the corner and putting some diagrams on the wall. Two weeks ago, Willie laid down while I was doing this. Of course, I took full advantage of the opportunity to crouch down to his level and be still for a moment. I also couldn’t resist getting a picture of the regal fellow in repose.

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Ebony, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for me to set up today. Rather, he sidled up to me, leaning in with his neck! He continued to direct me by nudging me with his nose as I attempted to do a health check and physical assessment. However, I couldn’t quite determine where he wanted me. Shoulders? No. Scapula or withers? Not quite. He did assume a more relaxed stance when I massaged his “armpit”, with my left hand on his anterior pectorals and my right working his posterior pecs and biceps, he widened his stance and relaxed his head. However, it wasn’t long before I received another nudge, to his hind end?

Normally, the buttocks and hips are spots that most horses really lean into. They exert a lot of force with their hind legs and generally love having these areas massaged to relieve the muscle tension. With some horses, I’ll get right in there and massage the inner thighs too, my cheek resting against their derrière. I essentially hug the hip, with one arm swept in under the belly to the inside of the leg, and the other under the tail and through the legs. It’s a vulnerable position for both of us, but if the horse is receptive, I really don’t mind hanging out for a while and gently working the area.

Back to today’s session with Ebony. The rump rub was short-lived and I soon noticed that with nearly every area on his body, Ebony would stand still for 30 to 60 seconds, walk away from me, circle the stall, and re-approach in one of 3 ways,  1) with a side of his neck arched toward me, 2) with his head lowered, placing his forehead on my chest, or 3) with his head raised, presenting the underside of his jaw and neck. Once I realized the pattern, I more or less stood in one spot and let him position himself as if to say, “here, please!”. We went on like this for at least 30 minutes before he shifted my attention to his ears, an area he typically has not enjoyed having touched, according to one of the caretakers at the barn.

Even though this was not in any way a typical treatment, it was what Ebony wanted today. I was reassured that our time together had gone well when he yawned 6 or 7 times in succession while I massaged and scratched around his ears.

It may not be a glamorous shot, but this is one content horse!

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