Guest post by Virginia from D & Me.
The capacity for healing is a two-way street. The more we come into a true and trusting partnership with our horses, the more open they are to their own progress.
Equine massage is a great way to connect with your horse and to do a little therapeutic work while you’re at it!
Like people, horses hold emotional and physical trauma in their bodies. Through massage, they can slowly release tensions, anxieties, past and recent negative experiences, and stress.
(Here’s a link to some free videos about the Masterson Method if you’re interested: https://mastersonmethod.com/free-educational-videos/).
I hope my experience with Dorian will show you how profoundly healing such massage can be.
I’ve known Dorian for six years, and owned him for four of those. We’ve worked through a lot together–his extreme spookiness, the year he wouldn’t take a bit, the year he got banished to the “bad boy’s” pasture . . . .
Given all that, looking back on what happened that blustery, cold day in the round pen, it doesn’t seem so surprising. But at the time, I admit I was caught off guard and not sure how to navigate Dorian’s trauma.
In the early years with Dorian, I noticed he had two hard lumps on his neck–one on either side in the same position. They were so hard, if you didn’t know anything about anatomy, you’d assume they were bones–that’s how prominent and hard they were. But they didn’t seem to bother him, so I left well enough alone.
Only after I learned equine massage did I realize those were knots of tension and stress.
The techniques I use are a combination of the Masterson Method’s light touch—which is surprisingly powerful—and some deep tissue work, especially along Dorian’s neck. I also throw in some stretches and “T_Touch” (Here’s a really short video you can view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SoOfVpYfo; here’s a bit longer one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VvjKNGt0qw) You can also add in some light percussive work.
BUT—And I can’t stress this enough, be very aware that you can actually harm your horse if you don’t know what you’re doing, so before you start a massage regimen, please take some classes.
Here’s another YouTube video of a woman I like a lot, so you can see the way she works: https://www.youtube.com/watchv=UQSimMzNWqw&t=103s
But back to my story . . .
I’d been massaging Dorian for over a year when his trauma came to the surface. Dorian loves his massages. His eye blinks, head nodding, licking and chewing, yawning, and releasing stress in a myriad of other ways has come fairly effortlessly for him.
When I put a steady, sustained pull on his tail, he leans forward, loving the stretch. When I lift and extend his front or back legs then stand back, he goes through a healthy sequence of release after release.
For a while, the entire experience was nothing but pleasure for him and for me.
The day that changed we stood in the round pen under a cold sun with a stiff wind kicking up and engaged in our usual equine massage protocol.
A light hand along the bladder meridian left and right from the poll to the tail garnered a lot of sighs and release signals. I breathed deeply and he breathed deeply. We were in sync.
Things were going well as we moved through our usual routine.
Then I moved to the left side and ran my fingers deeply along his neck. He began tossing his head. The tossing grew higher and more vehement. I continued, though with a lighter pressure. But something had risen to the surface and it wasn’t going away.
He pinned his ears, shot me a whites-of-the eye warning and barred his teeth as his head came around to bite me.
In our years together, he’d never done any of these three ominous preludes to trying to harm me. In fact, he’d always been a perfect gentleman, even slowing or stopping if he felt me unbalanced riding bareback.
After a moment or two of not knowing exactly what was going on, my heart went out to him—he was obviously in a lot of distress. I wanted him to know he was loved and safe.
I stepped back and he turned to the rail, nuzzling it frantically. This wasn’t a contented nuzzling, it seemed more an unconscious act he didn’t seem able to control or stop.
I stood there in the wind, still not understanding what was happening.
Horses often communicate in images. So I stilled myself in body and mind, inviting any image or message to come to me. I wanted to understand what Dorian was going through so I could help him.
As I stood there, the image of his neck twisted came clearly to mind. Not his physical neck—he hadn’t moved from the rail—he was reliving the memoryof his neck being twisted.
He was in anguish, obviously re-experiencing some trauma that had occurred.
I remained still, hoping to see more. And then it came. I saw a clear image of him as a weanling and a man with a hard rope around his neck, flinging him around and throwing him to the ground.
I don’t know when this occurred, but the image was violent and shocking. I can’t imagine his breeder or trainer would allow this to happen. But it was undeniably there in Dorian’s psyche, deeply embedded and clearly traumatizing.
I went to his side, trying to run my hand lightly down his neck to reassure him, but he flattened his ears again and continued his frantic nuzzling. I stood by his side and laid a light hand on his withers, murmuring my reassurance to him that no one would ever harm him again.
Then I was quiet, connecting with him at a deep level outside of words, letting him sense my love for him, my presence, my protection. I knew he could be healed.
After a time he allowed me to move up next to his head. His eye was still terror-filled, but he let me lay a hand on his neck and my other hand on the front of his head.
Horses, partly because they are prey animals, are incredibly intuitive. They always know what’s going on in our minds and hearts. Over the years, Dorian has come to trust me as much as I trust him. He knows I never lie to him.
So when I stood by him quietly, whispering and knowing for him that he could let that memory go, assuring him that it was a past he’d never have to endure again, he listened began to relax.
He lowered his head and curved around me, staying there quietly for the longest time while I continued to silently reassure him that he was safe. That he’d always be safe.
We were there a long time like that. Finally he slowly raised his head, and his sweet, soft eye took me in. I sighed deeply. He sighed deeply. Then I haltered him and we left the round pen for the barn.
I was enormously dizzy. I was glad of it because it meant I’d taken on a bit of that burden, shared it with Dorian and helped lead him out of it into the light where that horrible pain was—I hoped–washed away.
I sat in the shavings once I’d gotten him back in his stall, not saying a word. Just being there with him without asking anything from him. I wanted my presence to convey that he was loved and safe.
Once every so often he’d come over to me and lower his head, gazing at me with those eyes I love so much—such deep wisdom, compassion, and understanding are always there. Then he’d go back to munching his hay, relaxed and content.
After quite a long time, I decided to head home. Dorian seemed secure and busy with his food. I silently asked him if there was anything else I could do, or anything he wanted me to know before I left. He slowly turned and came over to me, lowering his head again. I felt thanked, and loved.
I gave him his carrots, kissed each of his eyes, and left.
I do a lot of somatic work, in one way or another, with clients in my Equine-Assisted Learning Workshop program and with Dorian. Sometimes it’s massage with the horse, and with my clients, it’s work that gets them grounded in their bodies in the present moment.
Essentially, being present in yourbody lays the groundwork for accessing deeper and deeper levels of authenticity and connection with yourself as well as your equine and your human partners. It’s a great path towards leadership, as well, as I’ve noticed with women entrepreneurs and other business clients.
And that’s essentially why massage is a wonderful way to connect with your horse. To truly connect physically with him means you need to be just as authentically present as your horse is.
You’ll be amazed at how calming and centering this is for you both.
And of course, this works best if you’ve already laid the foundation for a trusting partnership. Hanging out with your horse, not demanding anything of her, is something not many folks do these days (we’re so busy!)—but it goes a long way to communicating that you’re just as much there for your horse as you expect your horse to be there for you.
Take the time to simply be with your horse. Laying your hands on him in massage communicates more than you can imagine. Your gentle presence helps you both build a nurturing, trusting relationship that will undergird all the work in the saddle you do.
Oh, and those hard lumps? I can still feel their slight, raised presence, but for all intents and purposes, they’ve pretty much vanished.
Virginia Slachman, MSW, Ph.D., is a devoted advocate for retired racehorses; read about her journey with her own OTTB Corredor dela Isla (Dorian) here. A certified Equine-Assisted Learning practitioner, she’s the founder and president of Stride, offering workshops to people interested in personal and professional growth and change. She’s the author of six books, including Blood in the Bluegrass, her latest a novel set on a Lexington stud farm, released in November, 2019 (available here). For more information, contact her at 513-378-7705 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org