Nowadays, there are countless holistic therapies that can be used to improve the health and well-being of your horse. My top five therapeutic modalities are acupressure, myofascial release, craniosacral, stretching and nutrition.
I include nutrition among other holistic therapies because the demands of athletic activity increase nutrient demands. A deficiency of specific nutrients affects muscle relaxation and the body’s ability to remove wastes from the interstitial fluid, causing stiffness of the fascia tissue. (The fascia is like a net or mesh structure and is the major connective tissue that holds the body together and establishes its shape. For example, a deficiency of magnesium causes muscle tightness. Simply put, when there are mineral and vitamin deficiencies there is a lack of Qi (energy) production. Without good nutrition and supplements, the body’s tissues remain tight and filled with toxic metabolic waste by-products.
The other four holistic therapies are interrelated and can be applied in conjunction with one another. For example, the flow of Qi along the meridians (channels) happens within the fascia and interstitial fluids surrounding the muscles and under the skin. When this tissue tightens, it reduces the “range of motion” of the muscular skeletal system and may apply pressure to the nerves that pass through it, causing pain and impacting the function of the acupressure points in the skin. It also restricts cellular metabolism and the flow of Qi. So when we relax muscles, loosen the fascia and encourage the Qi to move, we restore healthy physiology and increase performance!
A four-step integrative program
This program incorporates a variety of modalities. (If you don’t have acu-magnets, skip the second step.)
Begin by warming up your horse. Hand walk him for five to ten minutes to establish a kind and casual demeanor. This gets the Qi and blood circulating.
2. Combining acupressure and craniosacral
• Apply Acu-magnets at Yin Tang and atop the Sacrum or on the tip of the tail. These acupoints stimulate Qi flow along the spine and nervous system, and open the vertebrae.
• If your horse enjoys having his face touched, you can spend a portion of the “cooking time” lightly brushing the areas between/above the eyes, and between/around the ears. There are dozens of acupoints in these areas that when stimulated will relax your horse.
3. Combining stretching, myofascial release and acupressure
To get the best results when stretching your horse’s legs:
• Keep the hoof close to ground level.
• Hold the stretch for 120 seconds so the fascia tissue responds.
• Apply less tension than with a normal stretch. You can find the amount of tension needed by extending the leg to the point where the tissues are naturally resistant.
Front Leg Stretch: By moving the hoof towards the tail, the top of the scapula (next to the withers) moves towards the head and the bottom of the scapula (point of shoulder) moves towards the tail. This impacts the tissues along the neck, back, behind the scapula, and the deep pectoral muscle.
Hind Leg Stretch: By moving the hoof out and behind the body, the stifle and hock joints extend, applying tension on the fascia surrounding these joints. As well, the pelvis will tilt to one side, applying slight twist-tension in the lower back, stretching the latissimus dorsi muscle on the opposite side, and impacting the thick fascia layer on the back. The pelvis tilting and croup flattening will stretch the psoas muscle.
Shelf of Ribs and Torso: These acupoints impact your horse’s emotional state, and relieve tension in the fascia of the intercostal muscle (used for lateral flexion). After you have worked the area along the shelf of the ribs, you can move your hands towards the withers and lower back to work on the fascia beneath the saddle area.
Knee/Hock Joints and the 12 Major Meridians: The repetitive motion from exercise can deplete the fascia of joint fluids, causing stiffness and pain. There are six meridians on the front legs with very influential acupoints located at the knee. By cupping the knee joint and pulling upward, you can open the fascia that surrounds the joint capsule, and the fascia that extends down the leg into the fetlock. This technique can be repeated on the hock, impacting the remaining six major meridians on the hind legs.
4. Craniosacral and tail pull
I wish I had a tail like a horse, because I’d get the awesome benefit of the tail pull. Unlike humans, where the spinal cord is anchored to our second or third lumbar vertebrae, the horse’s spinal cord is anchored to the sacrum. When you pull on the tail, the ligaments that connect the tail to the sacrum allow you to indirectly put tension on the fascia tissue that surrounds the spinal cord. This tissue extends the length of the spinal column and surrounds the brain! Many horses have headaches from tight fascia (in humans it is sometimes called a migraine). By applying tension for 120 seconds or more, you can stimulate the fascia to release inside the skull. Many horses will lower their heads to apply more pressure and really get into the experience. Caution: apply pressure slowly and gently. Horses that are resistant may have a bad headache or backache and the initial tension can be painful.
Try one of these holistic therapies on different days and watch the horse’s response for what he likes. Each takes only a few minutes and a couple of times a week will give you good results.
Van Harding of Equine Equilibrium is a horse therapist serving the Los Angeles area. He was Chairman of the International Equine Body Worker Association in 2004. He has a BFA , MFA , Certificate in Equine Science and is currently in pursuit of his doctoral and license in Oriental Medicine and Natural Health for all species. Having recovered from a stroke, his emphasis is on the nervous system, behavior and physiology. For more information, visit www.equine-equilibrium.com.