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.

The Non-Ridden Equine

An interesting shift is happening in my relationship with horses. Just as I began to realize this, I came across The Non Ridden Equine Association UK and learned there is a chapter in Canada!

You see, riding has become much less of a priority for me in recent years and I have become quite enamored with the idea of caring for a non-ridden equine or two. While I suspect I will still want to ride on occasion, I have come to value my time out of the saddle much more and am eager to have a horse (or donkey or mule) of my own to groom, walk, sit quietly, or practice clicker and liberty training with.

And if I do decide to ride, I want to ride along trails with another person or in a group – which was always my favourite setting to ride in. I think that’s what has been missing for me in recent years. Riding alone in a corral feels unnatural to me, in an indoor arena, even more so! I grew up riding trails or outside in the corral year round with my mother, sister, and other borders at the barn. I have never been interested in learning a particular discipline or competing so I have a difficult time relating to that part of the horse world. I grew up riding “English” or “Western” depending on which horse I rode on a given day – my family had 3 horses, 2 English saddles and 1 Western.

The closest I got to this feeling was when I was taking group riding lessons a few years ago, outside rain or shine! It was a fantastic program! But I was lured away to a different stable by the intrigue of vaulting. I took a few lessons and loved it! I ended up leasing the vaulting horse but stopped vaulting after a handful of lessons. It was through spending time with that gentle giant, Fresco, that I realized riding simply wasn’t that important to me anymore. Of course, it took an injury and a doctor-advised break from riding for me to realize that.

Nonetheless, it’s where I’m at now, and this feeling is reinforced constantly through my current interests in Equine Studies, through studying topics related to equine anatomy, evolution, learning, training, behaviour, and welfare.

I’m as curious to see where I’ll be at with this feeling when I’m ready to adopt a horse of my own as I am to continue learning all I can about these magnificent beasts!

Virtual Farm: A Resource for Equine Health & Disease Prevention

The end of another term is fast approaching! The past few months have been filled with a wealth of information from my instructors and peers. One of the assignments for Equine Health & Disease Prevention was to create a virtual farm with action points for each unit. I’ve even included a few horses, a mule, and a couple of barn cats – Henry, Mabel, Marvin, Fellini, Mr. Mustard, Lucy, and George. The farm will serve as an invaluable tool as I continue through these courses and particularly when I adopt a horse of my own. I hope other people will find it helpful too!

The categories are as follows:

  1. Advocating for Your Horse’s Health
  2. Monitoring Your Horse’s Health
  3. Role of Biosecurity in Equine Wellness
  4. Effective Approaches in Emergencies
  5. Hoof Health & Conditions
  6. Lameness – Diagnostic Process
  7. Lameness – Understanding Conditions
  8. Dental Care & Parasite Control
  9. Owner Impact on Colic
  10. Overview of Medical Conditions
  11. Respiratory & Cardiovascular Health
  12. Pre-Purchase Examination
  13. Toxins


Enquire, Reflect, Engage & Advocate

The discussions in the current unit of Advanced Equine Behaviour, nay, in the entire course, have been fascinating and incredibly insightful. A statement which holds true for every course I’ve taken with Equine Guelph. While I don’t have a horse of my own, nor am I currently leasing, I do aspire to adopt one within the next year or two, once I’m settled in Ontario.

The truth is, I’m a city girl, living in the heart of Vancouver, so apart from the stables I’ve ridden at in the past few years, I can’t comment too much on prevalent welfare issues in my community, breed, discipline simply because it doesn’t apply. Growing up, my family was very far removed from the world of competitions, performance, disciplines et cetera and simply rode and spent time with our horses because that was our passion. In fact, when first presented with the terms hunter-jumperdressage and hacking a few years ago, I admittedly had to turn to Google to learn what they meant.

At the beginning of the Equine Welfare and Equine Industry courses, students were encouraged to reflect on their experiences with horses, the role(s) we play within the equine industry and our goals for the future. At the end, we were asked to revisit this and note if and how our values, perspectives, and ideas had shifted. I love these reflexive moments and find them to be of tremendous value! They force me to really think about how my understanding of and relationship with horses has changed. The courses I’m taking this term have served to reinforce and build upon things I have learned in the previous 4. It’s been a fascinating, informative journey so far! One that has given me a great deal of knowledge to apply when I finally have a horse of my own. It has also given me insight into the type of role I see myself playing in the industry.

Re-entering the horse world after several years away, taking riding lessons from someone other than my mother for the very first time in my life, at the age of 36, participating in a number of horsemanship classes to brush up on my knowledge and skills, and leasing someone else’s horse, was a series of exciting and sometimes challenging experiences. There were also some eye-opening moments along the way. One of the biggest surprises was how differently the three stables I’ve ridden at are managed. They differ vastly in terms of housing, turn-out, etc. Having observed some clear signs of distress in several horses at one of the stables, I quietly wondered about the rationale behind their management practices. I later learned that these practices, although somewhat foreign to me, are quite common.

Anthropomorphism is also quite prevalent, which, while often harmless, can have some serious welfare implications. Every instructor I’ve had in these past few years (3 in total), as well as my mother, were guilty of saying things like “don’t let the horse get away with that”, “kick him harder”, “make him listen”, “show her who’s boss” – expressions I have come to understand are instances of anthropomorphism and a misunderstanding of why horses perform, or fail to perform, as expected. It’s obvious to me now that timing, consistency, and application of cues is of the utmost importance in training and riding. Something I became more aware of as I began to ride/lease horses that were constantly ridden by different people and exhibited dulled responses and perhaps a degree of learned helplessness resulting from the inconsistent application of cues amongst riders, myself included.

Over the past 14 months, I’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into a number of issues. Of particular interest have been topics related to shoeing, blanketing, natural horsemanship, anthropomorphism, barrier frustration, imprint training, wobbler syndrome, equitation science, and learning theory. These last two topics are of particular interest to me.

Understanding and incorporating learning theory and the principles of equitation science into all levels of horse training and management has indispensable value for everyone involved in the equine industry, humans and horses alike. With a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, perception and learning processes, we can develop and apply more species-appropriate methods to the management and training of horses. Strides made in recognizing and working within these parameters and understanding the behavioural and health effects of housing and training will undoubtedly improve other areas of horse health and welfare.

My classmates and I are clearly all in agreement that the welfare of the horse should be of the utmost concern to anyone involved in the industry. As has been discussed on numerous occasions in this course over the past 8+ weeks, I find myself wondering once more, how do we influence this and change people’s ingrained and, in their mind’s adequate/justified/appropriate handling and management styles? As has been raised by a classmate, how do we broadcast the importance of proper care to a wider audience in a way that is engaging and effective?

In the next post, I’ll reflect on some of the key things I’ve learned in the Equine Health & Disease Prevention course.