By Catherine Bird
Massaging your horse/dog/cat can be a way to develop a bond between the two of you, and open up another level of understanding how your animal/dog/cat moves.
One thing a student finds foreign when learning to massage a animal is getting the feel of what is under their hands. It is not something everyone can feel automatically but it is possible with practice to be able to feel effectively.
When your feel develops you will find you can begin to get an idea of what has happened to your animal in the past. When you are feeling your animal you need to be able to distinguish what is normal and what could be causing your animal discomfort. It is important to compare both sides of your animal before panicking and thinking your animal has an abnormal muscle development.
Once you begin to develop a touch and feel with your animal, this will become another way to communicate with him. It will also enhance your relationship.
Exercises to develop sensitive hands
When you begin to touch your animal you may have to turn off your rational mind for a moment so that your hands can begin to assess from a more intuitive and feeling space. One way to do this is to stand with your animal quietly. Place your hands on his shoulder and close your eyes. Take your time and become aware of how your animal feels under your hands. Sense his movements and how his body responds to your touch. Then begin to explore. A word of caution – this is not an exercise to do with a animal that is not trustworthy or alone. It is wise to have someone standing quietly holding your animal so you stay safe.
Take the time to touch your animal before and after work. A muscle that has worked and is pumped with blood will feel very different to a cool relaxed muscle.
Find a Bible or dictionary with the old fine pages. Use a hair from your animal’s mane and place it between the pages. Start with one page over the hair and run your fingers over the hair and feel it under the page. Then turn another page over the hair and repeat feeling the hair. Initially you may only feel the hair under six or seven pages, but as the sensitivity in your hands develops you will find the number of pages you can feel the hair through will grow dramatically.
When you are feeling confident or want to continue developing your sense of touch, try this same exercise with your own hair.
No Animal? Practice on your own body. Your thigh is a great body part to practice on while sitting in front of the television. You can practice all sides of your leg, the quadriceps in the front of your thigh offer a good wide muscle to feel. You can feel it when your leg is stretched out in front or when you are sitting cross-legged. This exercise you may have to explain if caught by other family members.
A good sized cushion or pillow will also help you with any ‘pumping’ or tapotement techniques before you attempt them on your animal.
Your dog may be a willing model to practice on if it is too cold to go out to the stable one evening. He will be more sensitive to firm pressure, so remember to use a gentle pressure on your dog. He is not as large as your horse and as this obvious to the eye we sometimes forget when enthusiastic about a new skill. A dog will not give as much warning either if you hit a sore spot and may bite without warning. He will be a guide as to what angle to apply pressure with your fingertips. When applying pressure you use the pads of your fingers. If you are pointing too directly you will find it feels like a poke and your dog may give you a quick growl or grimace.
Book yourself in for a massage with a professional therapist who treats humans and feel what your animal may be experiencing. You will be surprised at how many sore muscles or spasms you may have in your own body. Try different styles of massage on your own body as it will help you understand how your animal feels if you poke him a little too hard. If your budget stretches far enough it would be beneficial to compare different styles of massage. A Swedish massage will have different responses in your body compared to a Sports massage.
How different tissue feels
One of the most common muscle complaints you will find is a muscle in spasm. This has occurred when the muscle has been stressed while in use and when it has contracted some of the fibres have remained stuck. These fibres have restricted blood flow to them and are often unable to free themselves. What eventually ends up happening is the fibres surrounding these fibres join with them and create what feels like a lump of tissue.
One of the most common places you will find one of these lumps or spasm is in front of the shoulder blade where the neck joins the shoulder. Now as you develop your touch you will begin to notice some of these spasms feel harder and more resistant to your touch than others. The ones that are hardest and less responsive to your hands are most likely the ones that have been there a long time. A spasm that has been developing for a week will ease out within minutes whereas a spasm that has taken years to develop may take several massages to restore healthy tone to that tissue.
With any type of spasm your aim is to get the blood to flow again in this region. Deep finger pressure and stretching of the tissue alternated with effleurage will help lossen this area and then the circulation can be restored.
Tightness in tissue is another thing you will find. Often when an area is strained you will feel a tenseness or banding effect under your hands. This will be localised to a string of fibres tightening up and feeling like a tight elastic band under your fingertips or you may find a sheet of mysofascial tissue tight across a region.
The best way to address this sort of tissue is to find where you get the most resistance to your touch, as in the tissue that is tight has the least give when you press it and then place digital pressure upon it. This does not have to be heavy pressure and it is best if you apply just enough pressure to get some resistance from the tissue and hold. Once that layer releases, you can build up the pressure to the next level and again hold until that layer releases, continuing until you have removed all tightness.
Swelling will hopefully be obvious to you. It can come in various sizes and can be as a result of an injection site or impact causing a haematoma, or an allergic reaction. It will feel similar to a balloon filled with water when you touch it. If it is hot and from an allergic reaction you are best to get your veterinarian to attend, as massage will only increase the irritation to your animal.
To deal with swelling you can apply a draining technique. With the lightest of pressure you can draw out from the swelling into the surrounding tissue like a sunburst, just going around in a circular fashion. If your fingers were a pencil you would end up with a drawing that looked like a child’s sketch of the sun. If the swelling is on a leg you can place the webbing of your hand about the swelling and slowly pump over it. This is also done with the lightest of pressure because you are working the lymphatic vessels just below the skin.
If a swelling has not been able to drain naturally and has hardened you need to break up the stale lymph, you will find this feels different to a spasm. It is difficult to describe this difference, but you will often find this sort of lump is more enscapulated and not following the lines of fibres in striated muscle as a muscle spasm does. With this sort of hardness rapid finger friction over the area will help the body break up the hardened lymph and then drain to remove it via the lymphatic system.
Let your animal teach you
Your most valuable teacher when learning to develop your feel will be your animal. He will quickly guide you to what feels good for him and what disturbs him. Every animal is different so it is wise to introduce your hands to a new animal gradually until you understand what he likes or dislikes.
When you work with your animal observe his reactions. Be guided by him when you feel something odd to your touch. You will soon learn what sort of muscle spasm hurts. It is important to approach your animal with respect while you are developing your touch. If you rush the process or poke him in a harsh way you will soon be the recipient of his disdain.
If you find an old stale tightness or one that has been restricting his movement he may place his weight against you to indicate he wants you to place more pressure on this area. He may also move forward to guide your hands to a tighter area he wants relieved or move away quickly if you are too enthusiastic with your new skills.
Remember you will be touching your animal in a way he may have never experienced before. It is interesting with students who have been adamant their animal does not kick or bite discovering when they inadvertently touch a sore spot their animal is capable of biting or kicking. You must use all due care and always remember that your animal is a live creature under your hands and may have soreness yet to be uncovered.
What I find rewarding is when a animal begins to instruct you on what he likes. Many of my equine clients will either turn and nibble places on their bodies that they want rubbed. If I am placing pressure on a tight area they will lean into me or match my weight with theirs. Others will stretch into a release of tightness from the withers, or move slightly to get you to put your hands slightly in a different spot to the one you are working. Learn to read your animal’s requests and you will find you both work as a team when its time for you to learn how to feel his body.
Be patient with yourself. Some people are lucky to be born with the ability to massage, while others have to practise and dedicate a lot of time to getting the feel. If you persevere your understanding will grow.
If you are unsure of what you are feeling or it does not respond to your touch you can always call on a professional therapist. Most are willing to show you how they work as they massage your animal and help you understand his muscle health. Make your intention clear to the therapist and explain you want to be able to help your animal as much as you can yourself. You will find them only too willing to assist you with this goal.
Ultimately it is your animal who will benefit from all this attention, and he will reward you with a more understanding relationship.