You’ve just gotten a new horse, the details don’t really matter, it could be your dream horse, a rescue, or maybe you inherited your daughter’s horse when she moved out. You begin with the obvious things. Does the farrier or vet need a call for a trim or a float? Do you need tack or blankets to fit your new equine? How is the change in location and feed agreeing with your horse’s digestion?
Let’s look at moving to a new home from the horse’s perspective. Whether it’s an improvement in conditions or not, after a (stressful) trailer ride to who-knows-where, the horse gets off the trailer and is in a new place. Everything is different! Different sights and sounds, different horses—what happened to those other horse buddies?
How do you imagine the horse is feeling? Curious, afraid, worried, excited, happy . . . there are as many possibilities as there are individual horses. But what these responses have in common is stress, even happiness and excitement can be stressful from a physiological point of view.
When horses (and people) are stressed, we are using our Sympathetic Nervous System, better known as the place of Fight/Flight/Freeze. When in this part of our Autonomic Nervous System, all resources in the body are marshaled on behalf of survival. That means digestion stops while we stand by to fight or run away fast at a moment’s notice. It’s tiring to be on emergency standby all the time, isn’t it? Yep, and for your horse, too. Extra cortisol and minimal digestion sounds like potential for colic, too.
Offering bodywork to a new horse may seem counter intuitive, but there are some excellent reasons to do so.
- Our tissues store physical stress such as fatigue and trauma and mental and emotional stress, fatigue, and trauma. Shock is a big one. Bodywork helps our bodies release and relax. Notice I said ‘our’? That’s because this is true for people too, and dogs and cats and other mammals with similar nervous systems.
- Bodywork can be deeply relaxing, assisting the body into the Parasympathetic Nervous System—the counterpart to the Sympathetic Nervous System. Better known as the place of Rest/Digest/Relaxation, the PNS is the place of healing and learning. That means if we are healers or trainers/teachers we can be more effective if we understand how to help other beings relax and settle enough to learn and heal. I know I talk about SNS/PNS a lot, but I am continually surprised by how many people do not understand this fundamental aspect of how our bodies work. Once we know this, we can learn how to help ourselves and our horses return to the Rest/Digest place when we bump into Fight/Flight/Freeze. It isn’t that we should never be stressed. Many things in daily life create stress, but small amounts of stress are easier to manage (unless we have a backlog). The point is to have a responsive nervous system and not get stuck in either one.
- Besides the benefits of releasing fascia and muscles, bodywork releases endorphins. Endorphins are those happy hormones we feel after vigorous exercise, or sex. That relaxed and settled feeling we have comes from endorphins. What a nice counter balance for a new horse worried about their new environment.
- Riding in a trailer is stressful and tiring for a horse. They have to continually adjust their feet to keep their balance in the moving, stopping and accelerating trailer. That is after being asked (forced?) into a small dark box for the promise of a couple of carrots.
- Bodywork is an opportunity for a hands on assessment of your horse. Where is she/he reactive or protective? What feels tight or different to palpation? Your bodyworker will offer a different view than your vet or trainer. Not better or worse, but an additional perspective.
- Want more reasons? You can read a list of the 15 physiological effects of massage/bodywork here.
A few years ago, I worked with a lovely mare named Lily who had been shipped across the country on a one month trial. Her wise, not-yet owner asked me to do a series of bodywork sessions with her. I will never forget the first day I met her. She had been there less than a week. She was worried. Really worried. She had no idea where she fit, what her job was, or if she was home or somewhere temporarily.
While some horses learn to take this in stride, I believe it is stressful for all of them.
Bodywork can release endorphins, lots of endorphins, and each time I worked with Lily I saw her settle bit by bit into her new life with a new person. We were addressing some specific issues, but the bodywork supported her physically, mentally and emotionally as she adjusted.
Some questions you might ask about your new horse:
- Did he/she leave a bonded buddy or herd?
- Is trailering extra stressful for her/him?
- How long did she/he live at their last home?
- How does he/she do with change?
You might be thinking about how all these reasons apply to having bodywork for your horse anytime you take it somewhere – to a clinic, a trailer ride to the vet, or at a competition. Good thinking! You might also be considering that you could do some bodywork yourself. More good thinking! There are many reasons I encourage and teach horse owners to do simple bodywork with their horses. Bonding/connection and regular hands on attention are two big ones. With some practice, you too can help your horse to release endorphins and relax. Your horse will thank you!