A Better Alternative: CranioSacral Therapy

This week, Liz Barnard introduces us to a modality called CranioSacral Therapy, a light, subtle therapy involving the spine and nervous system.From Liz:

As I mentioned last week, I’m going to back track now to manual therapy modalities.  Last week we got the differences in names sorted out, right?  Or we determined that any confusion is due to overlap of different techniques used.  We also know that not everyone calling themselves a (choose one) bodyworker/massage therapist/chiropractor will do any or all of the same techniques.

Today I’m going to go in-depth about the first of several modalities.  I’ve used that term here and there – all it means is a group of techniques that have an underlying philosophy.  Just to confuse things farther, it seems some modalities use techniques from other modalities.  For example, I can think of a few different modalities that utilize some form of fascial release, but they aren’t all Myofascial Release.  (More about that at a later date).

Without further ado, today’s modality is CranioSacral Therapy.  I’m starting with it, because it’s my favorite.  It is the reason why I’m doing what I do today.  Once I was introduced to it everything in the world was way more intriguing.  Several years after I first was made aware of what it is, and just after a traumatic motor vehicle accident, I wound up getting a lot of CranioSacral Therapy done on myself.  It helped in my recovery and at some point I decided I wanted to learn how to do it, and so I studied to become a licensed massage therapist.  That has allowed me to take classes from the Upledger Institute.


CranioSacral Therapy was developed by John Upledger, DO, after assisting in a spinal surgery where he was able to see the CranioSacral Rhythm live.  It is a subtle, light touch therapy that he has made available to more than just osteopaths.  For a quick intro and FAQs about CranioSacral Therapy, check out The Upledger Institute’s webpage.  For a deeper understanding of what it’s about, I highly recommend the book Your Inner Physician and You written by Dr. Upledger.  He pioneered the use of these techniques with developmentally delayed and autism spectrum disorder children seeing amazing results.  Truthfully, most any body I’ve met can see remarkable changes following a CranioSacral treatment.  Including horses.


As you may have surmised by the name, CranioSacral Therapy deals with both ends of the spinal column, the cranium (our noggin) and the sacrum (next to the last chunk of vertebrae – it sits right in the middle of our hips) plus all the parts in between.  Additionally there are ways to address other places in the body that have been impacted by an imbalance in the CranioSacral system.  Since the CranioSacral system houses our nervous system, there isn’t any part of the body that is not influenced by its workings.  Overall it’s a comprehensive way of working with the whole body.

It may help with quite a few difficulties–anything from reluctance to bend, evasion of the bit, lack of suppleness through the body, difficulty with lead changes, and so on.  There was one horse I worked on recently that went from being on edge, ready to spook at anything, to a fairly average level of alertness after one session.  Although to be fair, I would probably be pretty edgy with a headache like he had.  In fact I’m sure I would have been nowhere near as tractable as he was.

I start all my equine sessions with CranioSacral techniques.  Typically I find that even if a horse doesn’t have huge issues with being “out” in the poll, a little time spent with the poll and the jaw can help soften and relax them.  Given the amount we handle horses by their heads, it’s no small wonder that we see an impact on the way their jaws and their polls work.

Having had the work done on me, I know how profound the changes can be after treatment.  Yet, it still amazes me how helping to get a horse’s TMJ and poll operating in harmony can almost instantly relieve tension through the neck and back.  At least that’s been my experience with it.

Who does it

Right now, I don’t know of any classes aimed solely at learning how to do this on horses.  (If someone knows of anything out there, please please please let me know.)  The courses I have taken so far through Upledger Institute are typically attended by those in the health care or allied health care fields–massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses, doctors, dentists, etc.  Which means any of those people would be crossing over from a human based practice to work on horses.

I am aware of at least a couple of people who work just with horses, who do CranioSacral work on the horses.  In most of those cases they seem to have learned these techniques from someone doing the work themselves on horses.  As long as they understand the anatomy and what they are doing and are appropriately credentialed for the work they do, I feel it’s all good.

What to expect if you have someone out to do a CranioSacral Therapy session on your horse

Do NOT expect them to be vigorously rubbing your horse down.  While I often include massage techniques, it will vary with the horse’s needs.

Do NOT expect them to be forcefully cranking your horse into different positions.  If they are, they are probably doing something else.

DO expect them to seemingly hang-out with their hands on your horse in different places.  It can be a lot like watching paint dry.  You will most likely see signs of release though; licking, yawning, chewing, sighing.

Do NOT be surprised if your horse continues to change up to a week after a session.  I have noticed shifts in my own body several days after getting worked on and have observed the same in my horses.

How to find out more

If you are intrigued by the sound of this therapy, I highly recommend getting some work done on yourself.  I feel it helps my understanding of what might shift with my horse, if I know how a type of therapy has impacted me.  Definitely read up either on different websites about CranioSacral therapy, both for people and for horses, or any of several books (including the one I recommended above).  Finally, schedule a session for your horse and see what differences you notice afterwards.

About Liz:  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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