Horses Tell No Lies: 8 Observations of an Equine Body Worker

Horses truly are master communicators. They communicate a number of things through their bodies and behaviors. Here are eight observations I’ve made in the course of working with a variety of horses as an equine body worker.

Working on Funny Bunny B. Photo by Marcella Gruchalak.

I’ve been an equine body worker for a few years now. I do equine sports massage therapy, red light/infrared light therapy, kinesiology taping and dabble in Equi Release Pro. Most days I really enjoy what I do. I get to work with horses of all sizes, breeds and disciplines, and with each horse, I learn something new. Every horse has something to tell me when it comes to its body, its job, how it feels and its relationship with people. Often, I am touching horses in ways that their owners don’t so I receive information that their handlers don’t. Also, I generally am a “new” set of eyes, so the information the horse gives me exists outside of knowing its daily routine, behaviors and intimate knowledge of the horse.

If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that horses tell no lies. Whether it’s how they’re being ridden, how the tack fits them or how they interact with their handlers, horses are full of information.

Here are eight things horses tell me when I do body work (and let me be crystal clear, as someone who constantly is working on improving her horsemanship, I write all of this with absolutely no judgement):

1. Who’s the boss. 

That’s right. Nearly the second I start working on a horse, I know who’s in charge in the horse-handler relationship. Horses whose handlers have established themselves and set boundaries in the relationship usually have polite, well-mannered horses who let me do what I need to do without much protest. For horses who are used to being in charge, the first portion of a massage usually is a discussion about what I am doing, why I am doing it and what my general intent is. Sometimes this discussion reoccurs whenever I move on to a different portion of the body. Sometimes these negotiations are visible to those observing the massage and sometimes they aren’t, but, believe me, they are happening. In the extreme version of this, I spend a lot of time establishing my space and letting the horse know where my boundaries are. Usually the massage takes longer and things move more slowly. Often getting the horse to relax, enjoy the massage and get a release is slow in coming.

2. How strong your ground work is.

This is closely tied to #1. Horses who are taught to control their emotions, stand, wait patiently and move out of people’s space are infinitely more enjoyable to work around than those that aren’t. This is especially true if your horse is sore or has other positive reactions to palpation. Horses that aren’t taught to control their emotions engage in all sorts of fun behaviors when I hit a sore spot. The more benign behaviors include pushing into me or swinging away from me. Others nip, stomp and cow kick. As a massage therapist, I work very hard to temper how I treat each horse so that I am not going beyond its tolerance level. However, working with a horse that has not been taught some level of patience makes determining a tolerance level that much more difficult.

3. How your (or someone else’s) energy affects your horse.

Before I did equine body work, I remember my farrier telling me that there were some owners that he asked to stay out of the barn while he worked on their horses. At the time, I sort of laughed and rolled my eyes, thinking that there must be some crazy owners out there and that he likely was exaggerating. Now that I do body work, I can tell you that he was not exaggerating. Not. One. Little. Bit.

In order for a massage to be effective, a horse needs to be able to relax during the course of the treatment. If the horse can’t relax, the massage can’t do its work. If the handler is on edge or  just is too … extra, the horse can’t relax.

I can’t always tell immediately what it is that is affecting the horse’s ability (or lack thereof) to relax, but usually through the course of a session, it becomes apparent if the issue is the handler. The horse might be nervous, antsy or tense. Sometimes my energy level is too high, so I have to bring it down to get the desired results. If the horse continues its behavior even after I check myself, I look around to see what else is affecting the horse. If the handler is being really animated or hurrying around the barn, the horse picks up on that and reacts accordingly. If the handler is in a bad mood and tense, the horse picks up on that. These are temporary issues, but if someone habitually is hyper, negative, tense, etc., this affects the horse… and the horse lets me know.

4. How your (or someone else’s) relationship with a horse affects its behavior.

This is closely related to #3 and this one is a biggy.

If the relationship between the horse and handler is strained the horse won’t be able to relax. Like the energy issue, I can’t always tell immediately what it is that is affecting the horse’s demeanor, but it usually becomes apparent. Sometimes the behavior is extreme. For instance, I recently was in a barn where I was massaging one horse and another was undergoing red light/infrared light therapy. Things were calm and the horses were well behaved and relaxed. A new person (and a regular in this barn) walked in. The horse receiving the light therapy set back and did everything in its power to swing its body away from the person who walked in the barn. The reaction was so dramatic that everyone paid attention and reconsidered how they viewed the person who walked in.

The reaction doesn’t have to be that dramatic for the horse to tell me its relationship with a handler is strained. For example, in that same situation the horse I was massaging did not respond quite so obviously. However, there still was a reaction. The horse tensed up and its attention immediately shifted from me to the person in who had just walked in the barn. It did not relax until the person left the barn.

It’s not just tense relationships that are clear during a body work session. I’ve also observed horses who, despite enjoying their massage and being perfectly happy with what I was doing, have no eyes for anyone but their handlers. For all they care, I can do jumping jacks behind them — I’m immaterial; it’s their handlers they love (these are my favorite relationships to observe, by the way).

5. The types of tack used on a horse and how it fits.

Now, this is not all-encompassing. I can’t tell you if you ride in a Circle Y or a Martin or if you ride in a Stubben or an Albion. I’m not a dentist, so I can’t tell you what type of bit you use. But I likely can tell if you ride your horse with a tie down or a standing martingale and how tightly you have its head tied down. I can tell you if you tighten up your cinch too tightly and/or quickly. There are tell-tale signs in your horse’s muscle development, fascia and (sometimes) scar tissue development that let me know if you — or someone in the horse’s past — has misused tack or training aids. For instance, horses whose heads are tied down often have tension and/or over-muscling in the cervical rhomboid, splenius and trapezoid — especially around C3 and C4. Or horses who have had girths over-tightened will often have scar tissue under the skin where the girth has pinched.

6. How you ride your horse. 

Okay, I may not be able to tell exactly how you ride your horse, but I generally get a pretty good idea if you ride your horse in frame or not. And I definitely can tell if you ride your horse hollowed out with its head held up. From a massage therapist’s point of view, the sore lumbar and tension along the entire longissimus dorsi (long back muscle) let me know that there’s something going on and the horse likely isn’t rounding out its back. Even without touching your horse, seeing poor muscle development along the topline and the upside down muscling of the neck will let me know that your horse isn’t using its core.

7. Whether or not you’ve done your homework.

For clients who I see more than once, I often assign “homework” in order to help with a horse’s body issues. It might be something as simple as carrot stretches (pretty much everyone gets this homework) or backing or hill work. These exercises are designed to help increase mobility or build muscle or any number of things to help out the horse. When I come back, I know pretty much right away whether or not an owners has followed through with their assignments. For example, if a horse isn’t familiar with what do to when asked to stand and reach back for a treat (traditional carrot stretch), I know the handler hasn’t worked on that. If there’s not change in the horse’s range of motion when I stretch its legs, I know handlers haven’t worked on this.

Horses truly are master communicators, and this becomes especially obvious when I lay my hands on their bodies for extended amounts of time. What would your horse tell me?