Giving a horse a massage, and helping to increase the horse’s suppleness by inviting the horse to stretch, is a great way to practice mindfulness. The presence of the horse, and the horse’s reaction to the massage and stretches, anchor you in the moment. If the rhythmic movement of the massage causes your mind to wander, it’s perfectly normal, just gently bring your concentration back to the horse and focus on your breathing.
Equine massage can have a profound effect on the nervous system of the horse. It can benefit a horse in many ways. It will increase range of motion, enhance muscle tone, relieve stress and tension, and also increase mental clarity required to focus on training and helps prevent injury. Massage will also improve the horse’s circulation which is what leads to more rapid healing of injuries.
During my Connect with Horses Mindfulness Meditation retreats, you will have the opportunity to massage one of my Friesian horses. Whatever you do, the horse loves the attention, so do not worry about getting it wrong. The massage comes first, to warm up the muscles of the horse, and then we do the (carrot-) stretches. I will first demonstrate on the horse and then it will be your turn, so it’s a good idea to read through the instructions and watch the videos below, in preparation.
“A horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care. Put your hand on the horse and your heart in your hand.” – Pat Parelli
QUICK GUIDE TO THE STROKES YOU WILL USE
Effleurage – this is simply large strokes, slightly more pressure than you’d use when just stroking a horse. It gets the blood flowing at the beginning of the massage and helps remove toxins from the tissues at the end of the massage.
Compressions – using the palm of your hand, place it on the horse, move your hand with fairly firm pressure in a circle and then lift and move along one palm space, so you work methodically along the whole of the back muscles, starting at the withers (when the mane ends.). Use down the neck and either side of the spine (providing its well muscled.) This is the main stroke for working deeper into the muscle and removing tension and spasms. This also helps with muscle elasticity as you are stretching the muscles under your hand.
Linear Compression – use the same pressure as before but follow the line of the muscle fibres – in a straight line – first in one direction (withers to hip) and then in the other (hip to withers.) It’s great for releasing tightness in the shoulders and back.
Tapotements – There are plenty of options here, you can do little karate chops (hacking), or clench your fist and do a pounding action – the secret is to keep your wrists loose and the rhythm steady.
Cross Frictions – using your index finger and middle finger, with quite firm pressure rub your fingers across the muscle fibres (see video below.)
Horse Stretching (Yoga and Pilates)
Carrot stretches harness the horse’s natural movement to enhance vertebral joint range of motion, build core strength and improve flexibility. Using a carrot, the horse is lured through three different motions including rounding (flexion), hollowing (extension) and side to side (lateral) bending. During each exercise, the horse moves under its own volition to gradually stretch its postural muscles and take each vertebra through a complete range of motion.
HOW TO DO THE STRETCHES
We use four stretches: the side-stretch to the hip, the side-stretch to the ground, the chin-to-chest and the between-the-two-front-feet-stretch.
Begin gradually and then slowly increase the degree of flexion by bringing the carrot stick a little further between the legs (with the between-the-two-front-feet-stretch exercises), closer to the chest (chin to chest) or further back toward the hind end with the side-stretches. Slowly perform five repetitions of each exercise. Step back and give the horse time to get back to a normal standing position between the stretches. At any time, a horse may move to maintain its balance. Always stand in a safe position relative to the horse and maintain enough space around you to be able to step back if necessary.
As I said, the horses love the attention (and the carrots!) so enjoy the experience and make the most of the time you mindfully spend with them. These activities are also excellent at building trust between you and the horse, when you have gained the trust of a horse, you have won a friend for life.