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.



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.



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!


You can massage a horse? Of course!

A fellow “student of the horse” I met in an Equine Anatomy course in the fall of 2016 is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist. Upon learning this, naturally, my curiosity was piqued! I want to learn all that I can about these magnificent creatures and couldn’t think of a more hands-on and therapeutic way to interact with them. I had so many questions for my classmate.

  1. What is your history with equine massage therapy?
  2. Did you have any other experience with massage therapy (human or animal) or equine anatomy/physiology/etc. prior to taking the course?
  3. What was the learning experience like?
  4. Did you feel confident practicing right away and how did you go about finding clients?
  5. Are other practitioners receptive to sharing skills/advice within the community?
  6. Do you feel this is viable as a full-time career or something to pursue part-time?

Her reply was encouraging. She spoke very highly of the course, the instructor, and the amount of knowledge gained, I simply had to wait until the course was being taught at a time and location that worked for me.

Fast-forward to June 2018 and I have successfully completed the 80-hour Certified Equine Massage Therapy Course myself. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience. The learning curve felt steep at times and there were many moments when, to borrow one of the instructor’s analogies, I felt like a pig on roller-skates!

Luckily, the group was small and all but one of us had zero experience in massage therapy. We were all beginning and learning at the same pace with guidance from an incredibly knowledgeable, patient, and kind instructor. Homework prior to the course included an overview of the skeletal system and layers of muscle along with a few fancy words, like Effleurage (ef·fleu·rage) and Pettrisage (pet·riss·age), both pronounced with a soft “G” like in the word fromage, one of my favourite foods!

Each day was structured in such a way that we covered theory and were able to apply it right away, hands-on with the horses – an invaluable part of the learning experience. Homework was assigned at the end of each day to review what we had learned and prepare for the next day. I did little more than eat, sleep, and study that week.

On the very last day, we tied it all together, each of us on our own to fully assess and treat a horse. My client was Oliver, a gentle, blue-eyed paint I fell in love with on the first day of the course. He, along with all of the other therapy horses at T.E.A.D. were very patient with the many inexperienced hands constantly poking them throughout the week.

I will admit, when I walked into Oliver’s stall to begin my first full treatment, I 100% felt like a pig on roller skates! Luckily, that feeling was short-lived. As I ran my fingers along the sides of Oliver’s spine, he winced when I hit a sore spot along his lumbar vertebrae. I felt an immediate sense of relief! Not because he was in discomfort, of course, but because I had identified an area to focus on in an attempt to relieve his discomfort. I applied all of the techniques I had learned that week to the muscles surrounding the area of concern on one side and slowly worked my way around his rump to the other side. Once there, he leaned into me as if the say “that’s the spot!” and stayed there as I massaged the muscles on that side.

During the treatment, Oliver stretched his body in a way I have never seen a horse move. It was a long and low full body stretch. After observing this twice, I decided to assist him with some hind leg stretches. He leaned right into it on the left side, put the weight of his leg in my hands and extended fully, hoof pointed straight out to the wall behind him.

After focusing in on a couple of other areas, at the end of a 2-hour treatment, I decided to finish with some myofascial release. I gently placed my hands on the top of Oliver’s forehead, closed my eyes, and slowly rocked with him, pushed and pulled by the force of the cerebral spinal fluid flowing back and forth along the length of his body. He fell asleep and I shed a few tears.

Oliver post-massage

I owe an immense amount of gratitude to my instructor, Sidonia McIntyre, all of my classmates who contributed to the learning experience with their curiosity, encouragement and support, to T.E.A.D. for hosting us, and to Joanne Rutley at Happy Neighs Tack Design for answering my questions and encouraging me to take the course. I will be practicing my newfound skills with the therapy horses I learned on over the coming weeks and months, with the intention of building a client base of my own in time.

Introducing Owl Equestrian

L’écurie equine is now Owl Equestrian!

Why the change? While I quite like the alliteration (écurie/equine), wordplay (écurie sounds like curious), and meaning behind the original name (L’écurie is French for horse stable and I have French Canadian heritage), the direct English translation of L’écurie equine is the equine stable, which I feel may have been a bit confusing or misleading, and, much like my last name, un-pronounceable by some.

Owl Equestrian, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward. Why Owl? Some people know me as Natalie Owle, a fun bit of wordplay with my husband’s last name. Naturally, when I thought about making a change, Owl Equestrian immediately came to mind, and it stuck!

I’ve been quiet for the last couple of months, as I took a term off from my studies to move across the country, from BC to Ontario. I will be back at it in September with Equine Nutrition, the last course required for the Equine Welfare Certificate. In the meantime, just last week to be exact, I completed an 80-hour Equine Massage Therapy course and am now a Certified Equine Massage Therapist!

The primary purpose of Owl Equestrian has been and will continue to be a place to share current research in equine studies while I work toward building a practice as an Equine Massage Therapist. More on that later.