Understanding Bowen-based equine therapy

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Understanding Bowen-based equine therapy

A look at Bowen-based therapy and how this gentle bodywork technique can be used to restore balance in horses.

When people talk about “Bowen therapy for horses” they are generally describing a light-touch bodywork technique that sends messages to the horse’s nervous system with the aim of restoring balance within the body. But no two equine Bowen-based modalities are exactly alike. Most light-touch modalities, such as Equi-Bow (Canada) and Equine Touch (New Zealand), blend Bowen-based techniques with principles from other forms of bodywork. However, what does connect them is the way in which they communicate with the horse’s nervous system in order to achieve neuromuscular re-patterning.

Neuromuscular patterning simply refers to the way the brain and body talk about movement. Equestrians often discuss a horse’s “way of going”. This is a reference to the horse’s habitual patterns of movement, which are based on her physical circumstances (such as conformation, discipline, hoof balance or imbalance, injuries, tack fit, etc.). When a horse is not in balance, regardless of the reason, she will adopt compensation patterns in order to use her body in the most efficient way possible.

There are times when this ability is crucial to survival. For example, a horse who has sustained a hind end injury may adopt a compensation pattern in order to function with limited mobility and allow the injury to heal. However, if the body becomes “stuck” in this neuromuscular pattern even after the injury has healed, that pattern is no longer the most efficient option. In this case, a practitioner using Bowen-based techniques will want to reset the feedback loops between the brain and the once-injured limb so that a new neuromuscular pattern can be established. The practitioner will also want to address any other areas of the body that may have been compensating for the horse’s inability to use the injured limb.

How do Bowen-based techniques communicate with the nervous system? 

In order to understand how the Bowen technique communicates with the nervous system, you must first understand some basics about fascia. If you’ve never heard the word “fascia” or aren’t quite sure what it means, think about that thin white film you see on an uncooked chicken breast. That’s fascia! Fascia is found throughout the body from head to toe to tail in varying thickness and composition. Superficial fascia is thinner and more elastic, allowing muscles to glide across one another. Deep fascia is thought of more as fibrous fascial sheets that provide strength and support.

Fascia is responsible for maintaining the body’s structural integrity, providing support and protection to muscles, bones and organs, and even acts as a shock absorber. If you consider that the body’s skeletal system is held in place by the muscles, and the muscles are supported by fascia that essentially functions like a form-fitting pair of pantyhose, you can see how fascia plays an integral role in musculoskeletal health.

But that’s not all. Fascia also features a vast network of intercellular communication through which the nervous system can be accessed. Bowen-based techniques send messages to the nervous system by utilizing a powerful tool called piezoelectricity.

Piezoelectricity literally means “pressure electricity”. When practitioners make Bowen “moves” they are deforming the fascia and its deeper soft tissue, which creates a piezoelectric charge. The charge sends a message to the nervous system to reset the feedback loop to the area the practitioner is working on. The most superficial layer of fascia sits just below the skin, which means excessive pressure isn’t necessary to create a piezoelectric charge. This is why Bowen-based bodywork modalities are commonly referred to as “light-touch”. This is also why it is critical that practitioners have a thorough understanding of equine anatomy in order to isolate specific areas of the body with which they want the nervous system to communicate.

Sympathetic vs. parasympathetic

The nervous system has a division responsible for shifting between the sympathetic “fight or flight“ state and the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. For horses, this means the ability to go from calmly grazing to instantly running from a predator, then back to grazing once danger has been evaded. This shift between sympathetic and parasympathetic plays a vital role in a horse’s overall health.

However, just as horses can get stuck in inefficient neuromuscular patterns, they can also become stuck in the sympathetic or parasympathetic state. Horses stuck in the sympathetic state are sometimes labeled as “hot”, “sensitive” or “unpredictable”, while horses stuck in parasympathetic may be called “lazy”, “bomb proof” or “stubborn”.

Bowen-based techniques can help restore balance to this system so the body can undergo cellular repair, create new neuromuscular patterns and rehydrate fascia.

Which horses can benefit from Bowen-based bodywork?

Bowen-based bodywork can benefit horses of all ages, breeds and disciplines. Not only is it capable of restoring balance to a horse’s nervous system and musculoskeletal tensegrity, it has also been proven to increase circulation (as per thermographic imagery – see images above), with clear clinical evidence also showing improved lymphatic drainage. Bowen-based bodywork has also been shown to promote emotional wellness. After all, horses who are free from physical discomfort are more capable and willing partners regardless of whether they are entering the show ring, hacking out on the trails, or playing an important role in a breeding program.