With horses, healing is often a process of trying to solve a puzzle without knowing if we have all the pieces. We observe symptoms or reactions or feel something that’s not ‘normal’ and then we look for the most likely cause to guide how we treat it. Even with humans who tell you exactly what they are feeling and where, the symptom and the cause don’t necessarily live in the same part of the body. To be fair, horses tell us too, but they speak equine body language which we often misinterpret or overlook.
Danny is a perfect example. A 17-year old Paint/Quarter Horse gelding, he was shown in hand, followed by competing in English & Western Pleasure, trail riding, and reining. He arrived at the barn where I ride two years ago, presenting issues in his front feet, which have been managed by good shoeing. Better, but still not sound. His person, a knowledgeable dressage trainer and judge, saw something in his right hindquarters—because his front feet were no longer the primary issue. I gave him bodywork sessions 6 weeks in a row, followed by monthly sessions which have helped his soft tissue. His owner began to suspect his stifle, then she thought it was his right hip. When the vet did a lameness exam, it was his right hip, now injected. Then he got another tweak to his shoes. Danny is improving steadily, but it’s still not clear if he is all the way sound.
It’s so tempting to try and be the Healing Hero in these situations, but more often it takes a village of owner, trainer, vet, farrier, chiropractor, dentist, saddle fitter, bodyworker, etc, to unravel issues and maintain a horse’s well being. Bodies can be self-correcting, and sometimes healing begins because we’ve helped the body move into greater balance. But what a puzzle, this journey of unwinding—peeling the onion, and continuing to listen, be curious, respond and invite the body to release another piece. I am enthralled and endlessly fascinated by these intimate conversations with horses.
Many horse people understand and are able to have regular bodywork for their horses. As one trainer said to me, “My first priority is the vet and the farrier, and so on. I believe in regular bodywork for my horse, but how often I have it depends on how much my vet bill is in a given month.” Believe me, I understand how expensive horses are to keep. And sometimes The Problem has been going on for months or years and the process of different treatments leads them to me, the bodyworker (or the vet, trainer, farrier, etc.) It is easy to be critical of others’ training or horse keeping methods, but that doesn’t help the horse. I think most people try to do the right thing, but there are many versions out there of the ‘right thing’.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither were most of our horses’ physical compensations and lameness. It can actually be easier to treat a sudden onset issue when we know the cause: horse stepped on a nail, it got infected, then x-rayed and removed, flushed with antibiotics, bandaged, treated with antibiotics and stall rest.
The video of Danny shows his tense, self-soothing mouth movements interspersed with some authentic licking and chewing release. This horse is as sweet and cuddly as he can be, and willing to release some of his compensations if I go slowly, giving him time and space. At some point in his life, Danny developed this way to compensate for feeling uncomfortable. We can call it self-soothing, and we can also call it communication. We all do this in different ways to cope with life. I’ve seen many self-soothing behaviors in horses that have been competed from an early age—off-track Thoroughbreds, for example. Horses are sensitive creatures and internalize the expectations and pressure to perform, and it has to go somewhere. Tissues store mental/emotional stress as well as physical trauma. There is our recipe for compensation.
Danny’s owner’s goal for him is to be a happy school horse. I love that. Another person I work with wants her horses to have a voice in what they do, and she listens to what they say. I respect and appreciate both these horsewomen for their knowledge, their dedication and commitment to their horses, and for listening to what their horses are saying. Our equine partners are conscious beings, after all, and deserve our greatest care.