'Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally' with Catherine Bird

Posts tagged ‘bodywork’

What I have learnt from massaging horses

Easter is a time of reflection for when I give thanks and review my world.

 
I wrote this article over a decade ago and I am learning from each horse (and most humans) in my life.  The humans who belonged to these horses are still friends and I thank them for allowing me into their special  ‘horse space’. I will add the caveat that these were my experiences and reflections and are quite personal at the time.
 
This Easter’s gratitude is for accepting that I do not know everything  –  Each horse/human interaction brings its own unique dynamic and sometimes  my contribution brings a sudden change while other times I may only be one aspect of what is needed.
 
The one thing guaranteed is that I learn something – sometimes I gain a huge realisation, other times a simple interaction may add to an ongoing life lesson.
 
I haven’t edited this article as it also contains some fond memories, and I invite you to revisit them with me.
 
 
 

What I Am Learning …..

We often discuss what we do with horses, how we ride or train them and what we can do for them. But how many of us realize what our horses have taught us?

The more I work with horses the more I discover about myself. Sometimes they teach me a way they like to be massaged, sometimes they guide me to where they are hurting, other times they show me how I can let go of judgement and criticism, learn acceptance, to see my own limitations and to understand what it is to love unconditionally.

Angus

Angus

Angus

Angus was a police horse that had been carried 60 meters on the front of a stolen car before he fell to the ground. I volunteered to massage him while he recovered. That was the beginning of my four-year journey with Angus.

The life of a police horse is not an easy one. Living in the city, patrolling on asphalt roads, performing in musical rides. Angus was a favorite amongst the officers and often gave beyond what was acceptable. He just kept giving whenever asked.

One of the most valuable gifts Angus gave me was to be able to discern how I judged people. He was pleasant to everyone, and accepted everyone in whatever space they were in. I could turn up feeling sad or happy and he would simply respond to whatever space I was in and just allow me to work through whatever my issue was for the day.

Caleb

Caleb is a pony Arab stallion. He is also the horse I learnt to canter on again in my adult life. He taught me the value of balance – balance of the mind as well as the body.

If I was too extreme in any emotion he would soon level me out, or I had a dreadful ride. If my body was not riding evenly it would reflect in his body when I gave him a thank you massage after his ride.

He displayed balance in both his body and mind. He would respond intelligently to all of my requests; he was always responsive. He never over-reacted to an incorrect aid or when I was massaging him and I found a sore place, his response was always polite and he never over reacted or suppressed his response.

Interestingly, if I was allowing unreasonable emotions to govern a situation in my life, my canter was often off balance when I rode on this horse.

When I find my emotions are displaying an over reaction, I can reflect on Caleb, and often just bringing him into my awareness helps me to regain a balanced approach to any problem.

Cinta

Cinta was a grey mare, breed and history unknown and quite possibly from an abused life before finding her way to the stables I massaged at regularly to practice my skills as my business was building up.

Cinta was the charge of a teenage girl. She would come to the stables to unleash her frustrations from her final years of high school, and unfortunately Cinta was the ‘object’ for this release.

She was ridden frantically and in an unsafe manner, she would be slapped harshly if she moved when being braided and she had to weather the moods and whims of a teenager prone to temper tantrums.

Through all of this Cinta remained steadfast. She showed to me an inner strength that remained solid. It was as if no matter what happened to her, past or present, she knew herself and what her life was all about.

When I feel life gets all too much for me, Cinta’s memory recalls, reminding me that I am strong enough to withstand any adversity I may ever meet in life. It reminds me to have faith in myself and to just keep on going as “this too will pass”.

You will be pleased to know Cinta’s human grew up and developed into a horsewoman in her own right.

Spring

Spring and I after an amazing clinic with Mark Rashid

Spring and I after an amazing clinic with Mark Rashid

Spring was an adorable and sensitive thoroughbred gelding not long off the track. His owner arrived at a training clinic with him as my loan horse, and I was nervous. Not only was I to ride a horse I had not ridden before, but I was to do it in front of almost fifty auditors.

The clinic was to teach the rider to recognize the offer and to learn to feel when a horse was giving or in a space to be able to give. Spring gave me the opportunity to improve my timing. Not only in my riding, but in my everyday life.

He showed me when I got anxious, all that would happen would be that we walked backwards. When I became focused on my goals, there was no faulting my forward motion. He taught me how my emotions have substance and how if they get out of control they can create obstacles in my life.

If life gets that roller-coaster feeling, I think of my weekend with Spring. I remember how I felt when I was anxious and walking backwards and then I take my memory forward to where, by the end of the clinic, I was riding in an easy collected frame to the applause of the crowd. By recalling this feeling and gift Spring gave me, I then harness that feeling to get my life over the anxieties I perceived to be in my way and I simply overcome them and tackle my new challenge.

Skeeta

Skeeta was a thoroughbred gelding who had spent several years going around the show-jumping circuit. A regular client who was preparing him for the owner to sell called me out to massage him.

He had a valuable lesson for me on this day. Often as therapists we want to help someone or a horse and we sympathize with them, and when we do this we are not always detached emotionally. It is preferable that we feel empathy for our ‘client’.

By sympathizing we often take on the pain the animal is feeling and this day I was wide open. As I massaged him the client talked about the life Skeeta had had. It was alarming and as she described his ‘hard’ life I began to feel pain in my body. Then suddenly as the client mentioned an incident I went in my mind, “oh you poor thing”. Well that opened me up completely and I doubled over with pain in stomach.

I had broken the therapist’s golden rule and had not remained in the detached caring role. I managed to finish the massage, excused myself and attempted to drive down the freeway. The pain became so intense I had to pull over to the side of the road while I cleared and healed this horse’s past.

Skeeta gave me the opportunity to feel what sort of pain he had experienced and to also understand that I could not help him if I simply took that pain on myself. He helped me realize that the greatest gift I could give anyone when they were in pain was to empathize, but to sympathize was to both our detriments.

The list goes on …

I suppose every horse I have ridden, massaged or simply observed has offered me more of an understanding of myself.

Not only have they given me opportunities to address my own failings or to learn about patterns that sabotage my development in life, they have also given me an opportunity to see myself with qualities I can admire and accept.

Red

Red - my favourite

Red – my favourite

 

Red is the first horse I practiced massage techniques on regularly, and he was also the first horse that I trusted enough to get me riding again.

No matter what I am wearing, how I am feeling, if my hair has been done or I am just looking like I have slept on the park bench the night before, he is affectionate and accepting of me. Now I can visit and he is always ready to nuzzle or want a scratch. When I have the opportunity to ride him he is always willing to guide me safely around the park. Centennial Park in Sydney can be hazardous often with film crews, tourists, dogs and oh yes, cyclists who forget horses have the right of way in the city. If I want to step up to another stride or movement he makes every attempt to teach me how I should ask and still does it when I ask the wrong way. Mind you he lets me know if I have given the wrong instruction with a flick of his tail to just give a hint of frustration with me.

He has accepted me when I have hated the world and he has accepted me with tears falling down my face. He accepts me if I walk by his stable and just say hi and he accepts me if I come to massage him. He accepts me if I have a treat or if I don’t.

Through his acceptance of me, I learnt to accept myself.

I believe if my life was void of horses, it would be hollow and without substance. What they have brought to it has enhanced every aspect of my life and they have proven to be my greatest teachers. Sometimes the most challenging horses have taught me the most, and I have to admit to not always being a willing student.

 First published Volume 3 Issue 3 – 2001 Natural Horse Magazine, written by Catherine Bird
 
 

I’ve tried everything but nothing has worked!

I’ve tried everything but nothing has worked!

From freefoto.com

From freefoto.com

When a new client makes an exclamation like this, a therapist’s response may vary from “well I won’t be able to help you either” – through a range of thoughts – from seeing this client as their next great challenge and/or wanting to be competitive with the series of therapists the client has seen; and any where in-between these responses.

It will depend on how this exclamation is made to me as to what my response is on that day. So in today’s blog I am just throwing around some ideas for pondering upon. I am happy if anyone wants to comment or discuss some of these points.

Because healing is multidimensional and mercurial in nature, it is often difficult to make such a claim. Often what the client has tried, has worked in some way.

Many of us on a mass consciousness level have been indoctrinated into a ‘quick fix’ mentality where we believe an aspirin will take away every ill and dis-ease. Healing is not like that, it is an evolving process that needs to be adjusted as each horse responds to what is being done to rectify an issue.

For example with massaging a horse: A client may have had another therapist seeing to that horse for a period of time, but they identified different issues. Just because I come along and then identify another area, does not make either of us wrong. The previous therapist may have addressed one area, and rightly so. If they had not massaged the area they had, I may not have been able to identify the next area to address.

On a bad day a practitioner of any ilk, may be a little off with their approach. They may not have listened fully to the client or they may have their own attitudes and belief systems they hold strongly too.

Have you told the practitioner everything, sometimes what you think is of no consequence may just be the key to unlocking the solution.

I believe the key to effective healing is finding the practitioner who is the best fit for you and your horse at whatever stage you are at. Don’t make the mistake that if you had a bad massage experience, a bad veterinary diagnosis, or a weird energy healer that all practitioners working under that banner are going to also be ‘bad’.

A truly gifted healing experience may comes down to the intention of the practitioner and/or the client, and no matter what modality they used on the day, it was simply to conjute to achieve the result.

I’ve sometimes thought my own practitioner’s have walked on water one week, and then the next week had that illusion shattered quite dramatically. The alchemy between you, the practitioner and your horse are vital to any healing process. If you or your horses don’t meld with the practitioner, negative thoughts can block or inhibit any healing process.

Then there are life’s lessons. If your horse is not responding to treatment, is your horse supposed to? What do you have to learn from this experience? Many good practitioners found their passion when they couldn’t help one of their own horses the traditional way, it began a life long quest of their own, that many now get to benefit from.

Sometimes it may be the practitioner who needs to learn humility or be tested outside of their comfort zone. Arrogance can manifest at any time.

What could the karma between you and that practitioner be? Have you ever had a friend rave about their farrier, think he is the only one to ever touch a horse’s hoof and then you book that farrier and he cripples your horse? Could you be repaying a karmic debt for something you did to that farrier a few lifetimes ago, or could it be that your friend had a better karmic relationship with the farrier?

With acute and life threatening issues, your veterinarian is always the primary practitioner. In some parts of the world it is mandated by law that your veterinarian is the primary practitioner for any condition. Unfortunately in some cases even deemed the only legal entity. That’s another story for another blog.

A well worn analogy in most healing circles is to ask the client to see their horse (and themselves) as an onion, with layers, and that there is a progression where the onion needs to be peeled away, each layer after each layer, until you get to the root cause of the discomfort and address it.

Another example that was a theme over the last few weeks has been clients coming to me and saying that their horse had been on a certain medication and that the medications had not worked. Now, I will often mentally probe this. They may have worked, but not met the client’s expectation. Then they try the herbs I suggest, and fantastic, the infection or cough or whatever goes away. But, would the herbs have worked so well if the medication their veterinarian had prescribed had not been given first?

I don’t know.

I do know that if I have a serious issue, I want a veterinarian to make the call as to what that issue is (ie provide the diagnosis), and then if there is a need, the horse be given the first level of treatment. Yes, your horse may get sensitivity from the drugs, but after the medication has helped the horse begin the healing process the herbs can then help re-balance the body and continue the process. You may not completely ‘fix’ (oops there is that need for a quick fix again) initially, but you have saved your horse’s life or spared yourself months of long term repair identifying the issue quickly so that you understood what you were trying to heal.

Be cautious about being adamant that your horse has a certain condition and refuse to contact your veterinarian for a diagnosis. This can either make the ‘real’ issue worse; or damage a friendship because you took the advice of a well meaning friend and that advice had negative consequences. If you are not feeling right about a diagnosis, you can also seek a second opinion.

Often when you think something has not worked, it is worth going back to that practitioner and discussing this with them. Your expectations may have been unrealistic. When you go back to that practitioner, as you discuss the issue, more information may be exchanged and together you find a solution.

Hopefully not, but it may be that the practitioner thinks that what they are doing is working because they never hear from their clients and get the feedback they need, they may continue with poor practices.

And sometimes – it is a bad mesh for whatever reason, and you do need to get a second opinion or move on to another therapy.

Even practitioners in the same field will have a different approach – that is part of the art of healing. I will have studied different herbal philosophies to another practitioner, that does not make one of us any better than the other. What I encourage with my students is they take what I am teaching as a foundation, and then what they make of it and create from that – is their approach. The ones who end up being successful have really stepped into their own expression of what I have given them.

 Because healing is such a dynamic process, you cannot afford to be rigid.

I may be completely wrong. I may look back on this blog in 6 months or 6 years time and cringe at my thoughts. But today as I hit the send button, they are valid for me.

 

written by Catherine Bird

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