A Better Alternative: Intro to body work

In her first of a series of articles exploring alternative modalities, Liz Barnard explains what horse owners can expect from a body work session.

From Liz:

So you think your horse needs something, but not the vet.  He just hasn’t been working right.  He doesn’t seem to be as soft to the bridle as he used to be.  He doesn’t appear to look forward to your time together like he used to.  Or maybe, you think he’s earned a spa day.  You’ve ruled out any obvious signs that he needs veterinary care… lameness, illness, etc.  You’ve heard that massage and body work can help the equine athlete.  But what’s it all about?  How are they going to get your horse to lay on that table to work on him?

In another writing I’ll go into more detail about when and why you might want a body worker for your horse instead of a vet, and when you should absolutely call the vet out.  Today, though, I’m going to give some background on what body work is for a horse and what to expect out of a session.

First off, body work can be used as a blanket term for several modalities.  For me, it covers both the massage type work I do and the lighter touch therapies that I perform.  For some people it may include joint manipulations as well as soft tissue work.  It really depends on training and licensure, as well as local (city/county/state) regulations.

At any rate, we’ll work on your horse while he’s standing.  Preferably in an area that is comfortable and familiar.  I’ve worked on horses in their stalls, paddocks, pastures, pens, in their usual grooming area and just tied to a trailer.  My only real requirement is that the horse be dry.  Wet hair and skin tend to cause my hand to stick to the horse, instead of sliding along the hair while massaging.

Some body workers want the horse’s owner or trainer to be there; others want to be left alone to do their thing.  Personally, I can work either way.  I appreciate a thoughtful question from the horse’s owner about what may be causing things to be tight.  For me it’s an opportunity to help educate people on how horses work–at least the anatomy and physiology part of how they work.  Other times, the owner can be a distraction to the horse.  It helps immensely if you are aware of your influence and excuse yourself if necessary.

Every practitioner that I’ve met approaches their work in a slightly different way, no matter if we went through the same education or not.  We are all individuals.  I can point to people I went to massage school with whose style of massage is completely different from what I will do.  I know one friend who went with me to the exact same Equine Body Worker course who has a different focus than I do.  What we all aim to do is to be aware of the things that we can work on, and make note and help the horse owner be aware of anything we notice that appears to be out of the ordinary.  For example, I do not do any sort of rehab work.  If I notice a swollen tendon, I will be sure to call your attention to it–hopefully you are already aware of such a problem… but sometimes even the best of us miss small changes.  I will also tell you when I think the horse would be better served by another modality, say, chiropractic.

Once I have a fairly detailed history of the horse, the session will generally start off with an observation of how the horse travels.  That may require watching the horse under saddle or it may be a brief assessment as the horse is being led to where we’ll be working.  Then, I’ll go through and check for sore and tender spots.  After that I get to work on the muscles and soft tissue to help relieve tension and restore balance.  Afterwards, I will double check the spots that showed tenderness.  If they still seem ouchy, I’ll rework those areas.  Finally, I’ll go through some stretches for the horse.  I may or may not assign follow-up stretches for you to do.  Typically a session lasts for about an hour.  I have had some go as little as 45 minutes.  Some horses I work on for a couple of hours.

For some horses I can clearly see where a repeat session or two will be warranted and will make appropriate suggestions on when to reschedule.  Most of the time, I leave it up to the owner or rider to notice when the horse needs another session.  In an ideal world we would all get massages at least once a month.  Usually I encourage lots of turnout time and light riding for a few days following a session.  It is not uncommon for changes to occur in the horse’s body up to one week after a session.

Then you get to enjoy your horse!

Bio:  Like many here, I was always a horse-crazy kid.  After receiving my Bachelors of Science in Equine Science, I started training horses.  At some point it occurred to me that there were ways to make a living that were easier on my body.  So I changed careers and became a Licensed Massage Therapist and Equinology Equine Body Worker.  I love what I do.  Growing up riding in the Pacific Northwest I was spoiled with indoor arenas.  Now living in the high desert of Northern Nevada where covered arenas are as sparse as the trees, I find I’m a fair weather rider.  When I do ride, I dabble with Reined Cow Horses.  For more info, please visit my website www.lizbarnard.massagetherapy.com.

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