Listening in . . . touch as conversation
This is much of what constitutes bodywork.
My starting point: horses are conscious beings, and they get to say “no” or “I’m done.”
Their language is 100% body language (including vocalizations), so everything they do is communication. Starting with great subtlety, they escalate only when their first effort didn’t get the desired response. They are incredibly efficient that way!
My job is to listen really well, creating enough safety and trust so that I can have a conversation with their body (aka bodywork.) Showing them that I received their communication by my response, I pause often, praising and thanking them for letting me know how they feel.
I am constantly learning to listen better, to ask and respond more subtly, to be a bit more horselike. Although body language was humankind’s first language, today we are predominantly verbal. Or we think we are. Our bodies still understand body language, and that is part of what engages me.
If I am with a horse who is telling me something is uncomfortable, or they’re worried about what I am doing, we might have a conversation that goes something like this:
Horse: raises its head, pins an ear, turns its head around to look at me, or maybe raises a foot. Translated as, “ACK! What did you just do? I am not sure I like this! I don’t feel relaxed about this!”
Me: breathing and pausing, lightening my touch, slowing down, “Ooooh. I hear that you aren’t sure what I’m up to. I am pausing to show you that I heard you. I am going to take away pressure on that spot, but I am going to leave my hand there. Then I’m going to ask again, much more gently, if something is hurting or bothering you in that place.”
Horse: similar reaction as first time, but intensity is unchanged, or maybe less. Translated as, “Uhhhh, okay. The warmth of your hand feels okay, but I’m still worried.” Or, “That’s okay now.” Or, “I still don’t want you to touch me there.”
Me: more breathing and pausing, still moving slowly and gently, “I understand you are still worried. I’m going slowly and gently, but I need to ask again to better understand what your body is telling me. Please be patient with me.”
Horse: breathing, releasing, or continuing to express concern about discomfort, “Okay . . .”
Me: continuing to explore ways to work with or around the area that is being protected.
Sometimes, a horse does not want to be touched THERE, or any more, or at all. Through experience, I learned to respect their wishes and let go of my agenda to help or heal. As my wise young friend, Matney Cook, says, “You can’t force relaxation.” You can’t force healing either. It’s how our bodies work.
Most sessions include lots of relaxation and enjoyment along with my exploring their areas of discomfort. If the horse enjoys what I am doing, our conversation can be very similar to the ‘I’m worried’ dialog. I sometimes have to remind them that I cannot hold them up if they sit on me or lean too hard. We often pause for them to release and process. If their attention goes to something ‘out there’ whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, I let them know I saw it too, and ask them to come back and be with me. Their engagement in the process of bodywork is also part of the healing.
It’s obvious, but worth saying that horses are all individuals, with their own experiences, sensitivities, ways of communicating. Some process quickly, or are very sensitive, while others process more slowly (deep thinkers), and are less quick to become flooded as their tissues release. It seems to be a combination of who the horse is innately, but also how they have been trained and treated.
In closing, enjoy a brief video of relaxation and release with Gia, a lovely Swedish warmblood mare. Gia yawning 2017