Five Elements of Chinese Medicine


Each horse embodies common physical and behavioral characteristics of the Five Elements of Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM).

By understanding how Five Elements and their patterns relate to your horse, you can learn how to keep your horse healthy and happy on a deep, lasting level.

Ancient elements, modern horses
Thousands of years ago, CCM practitioners recognized that the body’s energy regularly cycles through five distinct natural phases, often called the Five Elements. They saw how each influenced the body’s organ functions, emotional stability and core body health. When a patient’s Five Elements were healthy and balanced, he glowed with vitality; when they were weak or unbalanced, he developed behavioral issues and physical ailments. These early practitioners developed an entire system of assessment and treatment based on the Five Elements.

This model has been practiced and refined over centuries and is highly effective for today’s animals, including horses. By applying the basics of Five Elements theory, you can ease common acute health conditions like lameness or colic. You can also improve long standing issues, from chronic coughing and skin problems to dangerous aggression and debilitating fearfulness. The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. In this article, we will take a look at Wood.

Wood: dynamic and dominant
The bucking horse described at the beginning of this article is a Wood horse. This means the Wood Element is predominant in this horse. Once you identify your horse as having a Wood constitution, you can support him with simple lifestyle measures to keep this Element optimally balanced.

The Wood horse usually ranks high in the herd and is often the first through the gate in the morning. He thrives on movement and becomes ill-tempered, impatient and irritable when confined or told what to do. His strengths are dynamic athleticism and powerful leadership ability. When this power is channeled into rigorous training and competition, the Wood horse glows with vitality. He tends to have a clear head, especially in a crisis, though many Wood horses startle easily on the trail. He makes a great partner in rigorous sport disciplines like racing, eventing or endurance.

Becoming the peaceful warrior
Wood horses embody the saying, “If you have to fight you’ve already lost.” When under pressure, Wood horses are more likely to fight back than take flight in panic. They constantly test their handlers to see who is boss. They demand clear boundaries and firm leadership if they are to respect human authority. Inconsistent rules undermine the Wood horse’s respect for his owner and lead to power struggles. But don’t mistake “firm” for an excuse to become a tyrant. These horses will not shy from a fight and can become dangerously aggressive when handled harshly.

What many people don’t realize is that horses with the Wood temperament don’t test you because they like being bullies. They just want to know whether or not you’re going to assume the role of boss. If a Wood horse finds you wanting as a leader they will try to fill the vacancy and become the boss themselves. To earn his respect as leader, stay clear, consistent, firm and above all be present. When you establish a stable, consistent hierarchy, you will see the Wood horse breathe a sigh of relief. This type of horse may still test you regularly to make sure you are going to lead, but he will become a faithful follower – a peaceful warrior – instead of an skeptical (and aggressive) underling. Stay steadfast and clear and it will get easier.

Fast learner – keep him stimulated
Training a Wood horse is easy once you establish a hierarchy with clear boundaries. He will be eager and quick to learn. Avoid repetition – his impatient nature will be frustrated by slow, methodical lesson plans. Keep it interesting and varied and consider integrating some competitive aspect to the lesson to keep him progressing smoothly.

For a successful training session, remember that the Wood horse may need to “get the buck out” before you begin. Honoring that very real need to move will make the lesson more fun for both of you and save you from starting the day with a fight. You will have a clear, willing, attentive horse in your hands instead of a bomb waiting to go off. Also, because this horse is impatient to get going, keep your pre-ride grooming to just the basics. Save longer grooming jobs or health care procedures until after your ride, when he is enjoying the afterglow of a good workout. This is a great time to do massage, stretching and acupressure too.

Supporting an athlete on every level
On a physical level, the Wood horse’s most important health need is lots and lots of turn out. Many performance horses are kept in small stalls and this deeply impacts the Wood horse. If you can’t arrange for adequate turn-out, make sure to schedule frequent free movement sessions – including rider-free runaround time in the arena.

This horse is often athletically gifted, but there are still weaknesses that need support. He may have overall muscle tension, tendon injuries, or eye ailments. He will also be inclined to poor hoof growth, cracked or shelly hooves or other problems that require special attention. Keeping the Wood Element balanced is strongly recommended because these horses do not make the best patients. Extra measures like supplements, herbs, acupressure and bodywork are important to consider.

That time of the month?
Wood mares may have all the qualities and issues described above, plus a few of their own, especially when in heat. During that time they may act like the stereotypical “bitchy mare”. Either that or they will show the reverse pattern – estrus may be the only time during their cycle when they are friendly and easy to handle. In either case, a dominant and difficult mare needs help to stay stable. Hormone therapy can help change behavioral symptoms but will not fix the cause of the issue – an overactive Wood Element. In fact, instead of healing the problem, hormone therapies can actually exacerbate the core imbalance in a Wood horse. An acupressurist or acupuncturist can design a program of herbs and/or acupoint treatment to even out the Wood imbalance and keep your mare smiling instead of pinning her ears.

Considerations for the aging athlete
Even after you have retired your old campaigner, don’t forget that an aging Wood horse still needs support to stay healthy. He may not be as vigorous as when he was two but he might be easier to handle. Nevertheless, Wood horses are prone to becoming grumpy old men and may need extra acupressure or acupuncture to age gracefully. They will also maintain the Wood Element’s physical vulnerabilities, so pay attention to the body’s “weak links.” Note that retirement can be hard for this horse. He often rebels against the limitations of an aging body because in his mind he is still ready for action. Keep him busy with gentle work so that he feels engaged and useful – this horse dislikes boredom. And remember that turn-out is one of the most important health measures that you can provide.

Does your equine sound like a Wood horse? If so, support the Wood Element with these tips to keep him happy, healthy and balanced. If his temperament is different to the one described here, stay tuned. Perhaps he’s a Fire, Earth, Metal or Water horse. We’ll meet these horses in upcoming issues.

The Wood horse at a glance
Physical characteristics
Common ailments:
Tendon and ligament injuries, muscle soreness and stiffness, hoof issues, eye conditions, poll and neck tension, hip or hock pain, right sided problems, heat cycle aggression in mares, springtime ailments, “stallion” behavior, even in geldings

Favorite sports: Track racing, jumping, barrel racing, endurance, anything vigorous and challenging

Tips for success: Regular massage for muscle tension; stretching for the tendons and muscles; proper warm up and cool down; as much turn-out as possible; excellent hoof care; springtime detoxification program; herbs, acupressure and acupuncture to keep energy balanced and flowing; massage and acupressure after working out, but not before

Emotional characteristics
Emotional strengths:
Leadership, clarity under pressure, strategic decisions

Stressed by: Confinement, overbearing or weak leadership, inconsistent rules and boundaries, repetitive work, lack of physical challenges, sentimentality, slow activities, retirement

Balanced by: Firm, consistent boundaries; clear, competent leadership; challenging physical work; varied work; gentle kindness

Vulnerable to: Overwork; fighting first and acting questions later; pushing too hard; overexertion, especially in competition

Responds to stress with: Aggression, impatience, frustration, anger, pawing, kicking, biting, pinning ears, testing the handler, using force, explosion

Learning style: Benefits from challenges, competition, lots of movement and/or speed work, variation in the lesson

Tips for success: Be present and lead this horse by being firm and kind at all times


Susan Tenney, CMT works internationally as a teacher, writer and practitioner of Shiatsu and Five Elements Acupressure for animals. She blends massage, acupressure, stretching, movement exercises and lifestyle modifications to improve animal health and performance. Her clients have included the Swiss Equestrian Team and two gold medal-winning United States Equestrian Teams. She is the author of Basic Acupressure for Horses and a growing line of laminated mini-posters on a variety of acupressure topics. An enthusiastic teacher and lecturer, Susan offers lively clinics for animal owners and professionals in Europe and the U.S. and leads a certification program in Switzerland. www.ElementalAcupressure.com

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