'Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally' with Catherine Bird

Archive for the ‘Bodywork’ Category


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.

Improving Your Riding Off Horse – few things that are good taken care of on the ground…

This is a useful article on looking at your own body – often if a horse doesn’t respond the way I expect it to, then massaging the rider often helps with their balance and that in turn helps with their horse’s movement when ridden.

Official Blog by Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy

SONY DSC We are just freshly back from another great, long weekend in Yorkshire running Aspire Grassroots clinic at Lindrick Livery – it is a little bit of a trek up North from South East hence few quiet days on the blog.

It might be a short post today but I hope useful nevertheless. There are certain issues we all have in the saddle that I find are best addressed off-horse and since those issues are so repetitive and span various riding levels (and come up in Aspire blog’s search stats all the time) I thought it might be good to chat about them 🙂


If you find it difficult to break the habit of aiding too frequently, losing your balance through overriding, collapsing in your waist due to too much strength you put into a leg yield or weight shift or you revert to manhandling your horse sideways by…

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Stretches for Your Horse

Sometimes a simple stretch can help your horse with a movement that may be a bit ‘sticky’.

Simple stretches can assist your horse with movement

Simple stretches can assist your horse with movement

Before you stretch your horse, warm the muscles. You can do this by walking your horse for ten minutes, or massage the area you intend to stretch. Ensure your horse is squared up behind and on balanced ground before picking up the foreleg. It is important your horse relaxes into the stretches because if he tenses you will find it difficult to achieve the desired results.

Your stretches should always be slow and gently moving into a slight resistance. Do not tie a horse for these stretches, having a handler is better so they can also guide your direction and help the horse keep his balance. A handler will help you stretch your horse in his natural line of movement. As a guide, begin with a 10 second hold when stretching your horse, as your horse gets used to being stretched you can extend this to 15 seconds, eventually as he accepts the stretch hold for 30 seconds. Keep the stretches short in durations and small in size to begin with.

Stretches to Help the Front End and Foreleg

Girth stretch

Begin by picking your horse’s leg up as if you were going to clean out his feet, gently support his fetlock in one hand and do small circles or give the leg a light jiggle to help him relax. Then have your inside hand come in between his front legs and rest your hand above the knee behind the fold. Stand up straight and let his knee rest against your inside knee, meet his resistance, take a breath and then take up the slack towards your belly. Hold the limb for the required time and if the horse wants to stand down on you, raise the knee slightly. Ideally the radial and ulna bones are parallel to the ground. When you are first teaching your horse you may want to give him a break by returning his leg to the ground between each stretch. As he learns what you are asking of him you can do three gentle stretches in one session. When a horse is restricted in his movement here he may become resentful when being saddled, and if the deeper pectoral muscles has become tense and painful it can appear as heaviness or to be on the forehand.

Elbow Stretch

You can then continue into a triceps or shoulder flexor stretch by cradling your arms behind the knee and gently lift upwards until you meet his slight resistance, as he relaxes you can lift slightly higher to complete the stretch. The triceps is a three-headed muscle with three places of origin that work in combination to extend the elbow joint, flex the shoulder during its swing phase of the stride and also play an important part in stabalising the forelimb.

Return to the beginning of the girth stretch position and then step to the side of the horse and towards his tail and rest his knee against your thigh/hip is resting on the radial and ulna bone, ease your hip towards his chest and again meet the resistance and take up the slack, this stretch is good for the lateral muscles, especially for the horse just beginning to learn lateral movements.

Whenever stretching your horse’s legs, do not fully extend the leg. You do not want to hyperextend any joints. You may have noticed your veterinarian stretch your horse’s foreleg out fully, this is not a stretch for you to perform because the leg is not able to be moved into a stretch affectively. Your veterinarian is doing this for diagnostic purposes. It can also teach your horse to bear down on you with his weight.

Shoulder Stretch

One of my favourite stretches assists the biceps brachii that branches over the point of shoulder. Pick up the foreleg and have the fetlock resting in your hand, this hand is simply to support the leg. Make sure the cannon bone is parallel to the ground and avoid closing the limb any further so as not to over flex. Let the leg relax and bring your hand in front and above the knee and gently guide it back towards his rear.

When a horse is restricted here the biceps brachii in conjunction with the brachialis muscle is not able to lift the foreleg forward while flexing the elbow, I often find horses with limited extension respond to this stretch. These stretches are simple and can be added to your weekly routine. I often recommend to clients stretch a body area once a week. Each session includes a series of stretches such as those above, and you only need to do three (3) of each stretch in a session to help your horse’s muscles.

Never force your horse to do any of the stretches, you simply meet the resistance of the muscle and guide the muscle to open up to your request. This will achieve more results than a ‘yank’ or forced move. If your horse continues to resist a particular stretch you may need a specialist bodywork therapist or your veterinarian to assess your horse’s muscles in this area.

Stretches For Your Horse’s Back

From some point in history, man looked at the shape of the horse’s back and decided to sit on it. It is, after all, a particularly inviting shape, a sensual shape, a shape that is unique in the animal kingdom ~ Sarah Wyche

Your horse’s back can become sore if he has slipped, caught his hip on a gate latch, pulling back on a lead rope when tied, been cast in his box, pulled his leg through a fence, ridden over a change of surfaces, had an accident in a float, or suffered from poor shoeing or an ill fitting saddle. There are a number of signs to look for to indicate if your horse’s back may be sore.

Your horse may not want to move straight along the long side of the arena, he may become unbalanced in the canter, be unable to change diagonals easily at the trot on a circle, may go wide when asked to lengthen at the trot, have difficulty walking in a straight line down an incline, unable to track up, unwilling to lower his head and accept the bit. You as a rider may feel a loss of contact with one side of your seat, tension in your horse’s back or feel like you are riding ‘downhill’, feel twisted in the saddle or one of your stirrups feels longer than the other when it isn’t. Also consider your horse’s back is sore if your back is sore after riding.

Flexing the Back

Rock the horse gently with your hands over the spine to start to relax your horse’s back. With this stretch we are assessing where there may be resistance to bending his back in either direction. The muscles you are targeting here are the para spinal muscles by encouraging contraction in the opposite side of the spine using our fingers in a crescent stretch. Rock the horse to use the momentum. Lay the pads of your fingers on the opposite side pressing gently to get a contraction on that side and have him bend around your fingers.

This will give you a stretch in the muscles on the side you are on and also give you an indication if there is any muscle spasm causing your horse discomforted if the contraction under your fingers is resistant.

Lifting the Back

Use both sides with your hands close together with your arms close to your sides and your knees bent. Place your fingers pointing up and along the midline beginning just below the elbow and run your hands back to where the texture of the coat changes. Stand up holding as he lifts his back and try to make him lift his back in a slow controlled manner. Then hold for ten seconds. Then tickle him just behind the wither so he drops his back again and repeat the stretch. I find three belly stretches from each side of his body helps with the strengthening and development of the longissimus dorsi muscle.

The longissimus muscle connects the sacrum to the wither and runs the length of the back. This muscle helps stabilise the spine during movement and allows the limbs to swing through the phases of contraction and retraction. This muscle needs to be strong, yet subtle, so the rider is able to bring the forward movement from the hindquarters through to the neck.

The intention with these stretches is not to manipulate, they are to increase the range of mobility and have a horse able to carry you with ease. If your horse’s sore back or riding issues persists, please consult a professional.

Your veterinarian, saddle fitter, or body worker will be able to assist you. The longer an issue has been within the body, the more time you need to address the muscles. A soreness that has been present for a week will melt away almost immediately, but one that has been there for months or years will need to peeled away a layer at a time. For any stretches of the back make sure all your horse’s legs are square. This way you will be able to target the muscle groups you desire with ease.

Keeping Flexibility in the Neck and Poll

The horse’s neck is his main balancing mechanism. The horse often goes into co- contraction as a protection against loss of balance, and in doing so may create tightness in his neck that does not relax when he does. This can affect your carriage when asking for your horse to come onto the bit, and if long term in its nature, the ability of your horse to collect and come through from behind.

As a rider you may notice your horse is resistant to flexions of the poll and neck, your horse may not ‘settle down and feel like he is jarring in the front, become defensive to your hands, or develop limited extension as the trapezius and rhomboids tighten in response to the tension in the neck. When you are ready to stretch the neck, it is preferable that your horse has a relaxed neck.

Do not force any of these stretches. A simple technique to relax the neck is called jostling. This technique involves cupping your hands over the crest of your horse, placing your thumbs at right angles, and then rolling the crest towards your thumbs. This can be done with a light pressure to begin with, and can become a stretch in its own action if held where you find any resistance.

Opening the Poll

Place one of your hands over the poll to stabilise the joint before your begins and one hand underneath the chin where it is comfortable for the horse. Keeping your arms close to your body for support lift the chin hand to relax in a rocking motion.

You will feel him give and relax. It is important your horse is relaxed for this stretch so once he is go and stand in front of him and move the curve of his chin on to your shoulder.

Place the one hand behind the poll and ears and the other on the halter to keep his head from swinging into you. Once he gives his weight, encourage him to extend his nose by leaning away from him, this will have him lowering his poll and neck.

You may have to step back to accommodate the movement. This is a wonderful stretch for the poll flexors and the ventral neck muscles. It is like giving your horse a big hug and I find it very effective when I am massaging a horse that is tight in the poll.

Carrot Stretches

Using a carrot as the target is not ideal but sometimes unavoidable when teaching a horse a new stretch. The horse tends to give you a ballistic contraction rather than a slow controlled stretch. If you practice these stretches often, you will find your horse will do them willingly for a scratch or tickle.

To stretch the neck to the side it is easier to do the nose to barrel stretch with someone acting as a wall or against a wall so the horse can’t swing out. Place your back and shoulders against his so he has to move his neck out further first and then around you to the carrot. Place one hand on the halter and guide him to the carrot. Hold for the desired time. Then wait to give him the reward after his stretch when his head comes back to the front. (Chewing with your head to the side is uncomfortable and if your horse eats the carrot in the stretch he will also be uncomfortable.)

To stretch your horse’s neck and back you can ask the horses nose to come to the ground. Place the carrot between the legs below the knees and ask him to reach through, if he steps back he has not completed the stretch so do not reward him and ask him to do it again.

As well as getting him to touch low in front of his legs you can also ask for a lateral stretch where you place the carrot on the outside of his cannon bone or as he becomes more flexible the outside edge of his hoof. It is very important with this should be placed well below the knee, if you ask your horse to reach between his legs above the knee you may risk doing damage to the vertebral column. With these carrot stretches, two or three times in each session is sufficient and make sure you work side to side when stretching the neck. This is more effectively than one side only.

If you use stretches in your weekly routine with your horse you will assist him to give you what you ask of him athletically.

I would like to thank Debranne Pattillo of Equinology Inc for introducing me to this concept of stretching.

For further reading one book I have found useful in understanding how muscles affect movement is The Horse’s Muscles in Motion by Sara Wyche and Understanding the Horse’s Back by Sara Wyche.

If your horse develops any neck stiffness after a fall or accident, please have your veterinarian assess your horse to ensure there is no damage to the vertebral column or other underlying disease states.

written by Catherine Bird

Horse Rub Hint

Is your horse giving you a hint as to where he needs you to massage?

massage horse hint equine

Ever thought your horse was trying to tell you something?

If you scratch him he may move to where he really wants that scratch.

If you miss this hint, and your horse rolls in dirt or sand, watch carefully. You may catch where his trying to put pressure himself.

If you are lucky, when he stands up, the sand or dirt may have stuck to a few spots.

Note this places before he shakes the dirt off.

This is where he was trying to put pressure himself and where you should next look with your fingers when you give him a rub or groom him.


written by Catherine Bird