Sunday, June 29, 2014

What is That Popping Thing? Part II

Regarding my previous post I'm going to add a comment from my friend Shelley that she made on Facebook. I was wondering also if it could be something else other than fascia too, though initially I had though something chiropractic because it is so near the C1-C2 joint of the cervical spine. Shelley was a military medic and is now an ER nurse.

""Rice Krispies" in the jaw/throat of people or behind their ear can be a sign that they have perforated their esophagus, tympanic membrane, or even blown a "bleb" in a sinus. Behind the human jaw it can also be that their Eustachian tube has blown (ever blown up a balloon and worked so hard you feel a blow-out behind the ears?)  Interesting to see if this continues to happen with Geir. Could be fascia, but making me wonder..."

This is a good reminder as to why if we have a question, or an issue does not resolve with our massage techniques over time, we always encourage our clients to consult a veterinarian if there could be a chance of a medical issue. 

Here is a story about a good example of this.  My old trainer, Karen has a client who has a wonderful horse that she is riding at low level Dressage, but he was off at least half the time so they kept having to stop training for a mysterious lameness.  She was doing regular chiropractic and massage work and she was using one of our top equine massage therapists in our area.  After a few sessions of working on him, the massage therapist told the client that she was concerned that the work she was doing was not sticking - that he would improve right after the massage and fall apart again soon after, and the massage therapist felt it would be prudent to consult a veterinarian.  So, the owner took her advice, brought a vet out and found out that her horse has a neurological issue - something that we as massage therapists are not at all trained to treat.  

There is no way for us as equine massage therapists to be able to diagnose issues such as neurological issues or even what Shelley is talking about that she sees in humans when such circumstances present themselves.  But we are trained to know when what we can do is not helping and that it might be time to bring in the big guns and see if there is an underlying medical issue.

I'm hoping because he has not been showing any other signs of pain or distress other than stiffness bending at the poll that there isn't anything serious going on with Geir.  But if after what I can do as a massage therapist, the "Rice Krispies" feeling continues I will be bringing out my vet to take a look at him.  And just to throw in a little "product placement" I use Ron Colton's team out of Snohomish and for those of you who live on the Eastside I highly recommend them.  But we are lucky to have a lot of good vets here in the greater Seattle area so there area  lot of good choices. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What Is That Popping Thing???

This is my daughter's pony, Geir (and yes, I know he is due to have his mane cut).  He worked pretty hard on Thursday with an hour of lessons early in the day, my daughter riding him with friends in the evening and a short training session after that in the evening.  So, yesterday I gave him the day off and checked his back and neck and gave him a short massage.

He had been having issues falling in to the left at the trot and not engaging that side as well, especially on corners.  Last week we achieved a huge release in his left shoulder and he is engaging the left side a little more efficiently, but of course there are still issues because he is now using his body differently than before so he's still struggling a bit for balance.  Thursday during his training ride he was hesitant to  bend at the poll, especially to the right and yesterday I found that when stretching to the right I felt a distinct "pop pop pop" in the area where the purple dot is.  Just to clarify, stretching at the poll to the right is actually a very small movement so it was surprising to feel so much popping (like Rice Krispies) from such a small movement.

This is the kind of stuff I love about being a massage therapist.  Invistigating "What is that popping thing going on?"  I can tell you right now just from knowing horse anatomy that it is in an area with a few different muscle insertions.  And where there are different muscle insertions there is a high probability of fascia getting stuck together.  Fascia (for those who don't know - skip these next few sentences if you already know what it is) is a connective tissue in our body that surrounds all of our muscles.  And it's consistency is a lot like Saran wrap.  The really good kind that sticks to the side of the bowl as soon as you press it against it.  If there is enough hydration and freedom of movement to begin with then the fascia slides over itself just fine.  But fascia also has the propensity to get stuck together and then you have what we would call in layman's terms "a knot".  So, imagine you have some muscle insertions that have gotten dehydrated and are about the consistency of a dried pepperoni stick, then you wrap those in some really good quality plastic wrap, and hold them together in the same position for quite awhile in approximately 99 - 101 degree conditions -
 you're going to get them all tangled up and stuck together.  That is what can commonly happen in our bodies and horse's bodies.  And to clarify, dehydration in muscle tissue doesn't always mean that the horse is not drinking enough water, it can also happen when there is not enough circulation getting to the tissue.

Human and horse bodies are the most amazing mechanical inventions and what is even more amazing is how long we can live when we are the ultimate in planned obselensce.  I believe horses even more so than humans because they are so delicate and can become ill and die so much more easily than humans can.   It's because of this complexity of design that I find massage therapy so fascinating.  I imagine if I were to do my life over again I'd probably go to medical school to become a surgeon or medical researcher because the mystery of what is going on in there where we can't see under the skin is so fascinating.  It's a similar fascination I have with the ocean and this whole different world happening just beyond our reach.

What's even more exciting about learning about and making progress as a massage therapist is that the times of figuring out "what is that popping sound?" and then figuring out what to do to resolve it become more and more frequent.  Sometimes there really aren't any perceivable results right after a massage and my client will either say they feel "relaxed, thanks" and it's not till a couple days later they notice a big change, or the horse will seem their same stoic self through the whole massage and it's not until the next week I hear that the horse was calmer, happier and moving better.  But then there are times when changes are dramatic and those are incredibly cool.

Last weekend I was giving a friend of my husband's an impromptu massage because her shoulders were bothering her.  She spends a lot of time at a desk and like most of us, has one direction that she tends to lean when she's sitting deep in thought.  So, the first thing I noticed from my postural analysis was that one of her shoulders was significantly lower than the other shoulder.  It took well over a half hour of working just on her shoulders, but when I asked her to stand up again and she stretched out her shoulders she said, "Hey! I have shoulders again!" and when she stood still I was able to see that her shoulders were even height! Yay me!  Those kind of results are really cool and make this job very fun and interesting.

As for Geir, I took that photo so I could come home and look up in my anatomy book exactly what is going on in that specific spot.  My assumption is that the insertion points of two superficial muscles Brachiocephalicus and Splenius, possibly along with the deeper muscle Caudal Auricular muscles.  Of interest is that literally just below that spot is the Great Auricular nerve which I wonder if that much of an adhesion that close to the nerve could end causing some compression on the nerve and causing some nerve pain with certain movements?  Another thing thing I like about massaging horses is having to try and figure out what they are telling you by things they do (and do not) do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats ...

Yesterday I went out to look at a horse property with my family and we actually made an offer on it.  We still haven't heard back and the seller has 24 hours left before he lets us know so it's still up in the air, but it did get me thinking about things I haven't had to think about in the last several years that I've been boarding my horses and not keeping them at home.

The one thing that really struck me was keeping control of plants in the pasture.  The place we were looking at was not at all staged (something that's been on my mind a lot since we're preparing our house to be staged ... which means while it's on the market we may as well be living in a department store window ... but I digress ...) ... anyhoo, the field where the horses will eventually live was overgrown and I had to step over a lot of fallen branches and walk through tall grass and brambles and - damnit! A patch of stinging nettles.  Yep, the one time I think "Oh, it's been really dry and I'll just take a quick peak in the horse areas so I can wear my little city-girl slip-ons without socks."   While we were signing the offer paperwork and I was constantly rubbing my ankles where I walked through the nettles I was trying very hard to not worry that that might be a bad sign.

You would think that if a horse eats stinging nettles it will sting its mouth just like it stung my ankles, and after a little bit of research it turns out that is right.  I figured it was but you never know.  Cats and dogs are able to eat some nasty stuff that would practically kill us, but my experience with horses so far is that they are very delicate.  It turns out buttercups are poisonous, unless there isn't much other forage there isn't that much to worry about. Since they have a bitter taste and can cause mouth sores in horses, they tend to stay away from them.  Here's a bit of information about buttercups and livestock.

The other thing I wondered about because there was a chicken coop in the one pasture that was actually move-in ready for horses was "Can horses and chickens safely live together?"  The answer turns out to be no, because horses can get salmonella from chicken poop just like people can and they are, once again, so delicate that it could easily kill them.  Plus they can't throw up.  Something I've always been jealous of horses for, that they can't throw up.  Although last time I had food poisoning I probably would've hated it if I had not been able to throw up.  Although throwing up twelve times in one night was pretty excessive, I probably would've felt worse if I hadn't.

So, move the chicken coop, and dig out all the nettles before I bring my horses again, and thankfully, the area is so well forested there weren't very many buttercups.  But there are still a lot more plants I'm going to need to learn about and make sure are safe for the horses.  Here's a link with a list of toxic plants plus (thank God) photos of them if you don't know what they are.  What's interesting is apples are on the list - but not the fruit part of the apple, the seeds and leaves and bark.  I did not know that, I just figured that since the fruit was fine the rest of the tree would be fine.  But good to know, keep your horse out of the apple orchard.

My other big change will be there is currently no arena on the property (or near the property) so I'll have to get used to riding in a field until we can afford to build one.  I tested that out riding out in the field adjascent to the farm next door to where I keep my daughter's horse, Geir.  I actually really liked working on walk/trot and lateral work out in the sun in the middle of a field surrounded by nothing but rows of crops and the occasional little bird who would hop out from under a plant and scare my fat little pony half to death.

I'm looking forward to a whole new realm of horse ownership, having them live at home with me. My daughter is pretty excited about it too and is even saying she can't wait to move to a farm, even though it will mean having to switch schools.  She's starting to say she hopes she can find more friends who have horses too once we move to a farm.  It's very cute how a girl who was born in the city and never even saw hay until she was two years old (and then she was afraid of it) is now hoping to make more "country friends". 

That just reminded me of a conversation she had with a new friend her first day of preschool daycare (back when we lived in the city) when she was three years old.  They were talking about what they were worried about and my daughter had been worried there would be cows at the preschool.  In fact before we left that morning she had asked me with genuine concern, "Will there be cows there???" and I had to promise her a few times there would be no cows.  And as I was leaving her there that first day I overheard her new friend saying she had been afraid there would be dogs there, and my daughter said, "I'm not afraid of dogs.  I have two dogs.  I'm afraid of cows.  But only a certain type of cow.  A man in a cow suit type of cow."  And with that, I will say good night!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Horsey Biomechanics Stuff

I was at my job with human massage therapists the other day and I said something about equine massage -  I think it was a remark I said off-handedly that one of my clients had a stress pattern in her back that would cause her to have difficulty with her left lead canter depart (you know, say, if she was a horse) and one of the other LMP's asked, "How can you tell if a horse likes getting a massage?"  It was an interesting question because I've been working so much more on horses than people in the last year that I automatically think that often horses show a lot more emotion and give you a lot more feedback than people do.

Horses do not have a lot of frontal lobe activity, which is fortunate in many ways for them because it means that they don't have the self-consciousness that we do.  They don't worry about being judged for what they are feeling and they don't think twice about expressing those feelings.  They don't worry about how they look or if they are acting within a scope of dignity.   They just react to how they feel in a completely honest manner, no matter what that is.

Some of the ways horses release tension is yawning, licking and chewing, chewing on something close to them, stretching, sighing, and farting.  A couple days ago I was giving my daughter's pony, Geir a massage and I found a very sore, tight spot on his shoulder.   He's pretty stoic so the most I usually get from him is a sigh or some farting and on a rare occasion he might stretch a little bit.  But after I managed to loosen up that stress point on his left shoulder, he practically jumped straight up in the air,  let out a loud whinny, then started dancing around in place.  I closed out the massage and took him to the arena to see if he would roll.  You'll notice he did a lot of rubbing of his left shoulder on the ground.

Today during our training lesson it felt like he was completely discombobulated.  Usually he leans to the left, but today he started leaning to the right to the point where he ran me right into the fence a couple times to the right because I wasn't on my game keeping him straight in that direction.  Usually, I'm trying to encourage him to stop leaning to the left so I had to quickly change some riding habits to help him balance.   I'm not sure I'd say it was an improvement, per se, but it was definitely a change.  He may have opened up that shoulder, but as my trainer, Kellie pointed out, the compensation patterns are still there and now if he is able to use his body correctly in certain movements, there will still be muscles he has not been using correctly that are weak and could become quickly sore.  So, it was a very interesting ride today and luckily by the end of it I felt like I was helping him balance a little better and move a little straighter.

So - balancing your horse.  This is a question that I've been mulling for the last few days.  I'm fascinated by horse biomechanics so I was looking forward to asking Kellie what her answer to this brain teaser is because I wasn't sure if I was coming up with the right solution.  I had heard from a friend that when riding a lesson horse who has an eerily similar imbalance as Geir that her instructor had told her to balance the horse by leaning her weight into the opposite stirrup of the direction the horse was leaning and close the other leg on the horse.  This is something I have commonly heard but I started really thinking about it and I thought, "Now, if I was walking leaning to the left because it hurt or I was too weak to stand up straight, and someone put something heavier on my right side  to pull me up straight, I would brace myself more to the left in order to compensate for that weight, instead of allowing myself to be straight - seeing as it would either hurt or I wouldn't have the physical strength to maintain the straightness."  It's not the first time I'd heard using a weight aid to "pull the horse back over into balance".  In fact, I had been doing it myself until Kellie told me not to.  It sounds good on the surface.  That's what you would do with a static object if you were using weights and pulleys to get something straight.  But biomechanics differ from other types of mechanics because muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints can become stuck to the point that you can't just push or pull them into the position you want them in because it will either result in pain or it will result in injury to the tissue and derail any attempts at work.

Unfortunately, I could not figure out on my own how in the world you get a horse straight if you're not "pushing or pulling**" the horse into balance, so I had to ask Kellie.  She worked with me on riding so that I was encouraging Geir to use the weaker part of his body and engage his left side instead of just falling in.  I needed to keep myself balanced in the middle of the saddle, in the middle of the horse, and just ask him to use his body more efficiently.  Of course that did not mean that he instantly started engaging his left shoulder and holding himself straight, but it meant that for a couple steps after my queue he would engage his left shoulder and I would have a moment of feeling him go straight and balanced.  But he's not strong enough yet to maintain it so it will take awhile and lots of work.  Once Kellie told me that it seemed so obvious I don't know why I didn't think of it.  But I guess if it really were that obvious then I wouldn't hear about so many instructors telling people to use their weight to pull the horse over to balance them.

On that note, I've been rethinking what I want to do in the grand scheme of my equine massage business.  At first I thought I wanted to do rehab boarding and perhaps that is something I would like to eventually do.  But right now I'm thinking I would like to combine riding lessons to teach people how to ride in the most effective way for them but also in the most effective way for their horse's biomechanics.  Peggy Cummings has a good instructor program I'm thinking of applying for in 2015 that might be a good adjunct to my equine massage.  It would be nice to not only be able to help people with their horse's physical issues and help keep their horses in top shape for performance, but also to help the riders use their bodies more efficiently when riding so hopefully the horse has one less strain on them during performances.  It will be a long road of education but I think even the process of the education will be really exciting and interesting.

**I've found the words "Push" and "Pull" are red flags for me when describing an action in riding.  Those words usually don't convey the true essence of riding which is directing the body movement of the horse.  They often end up describing a way of man-handling the horse (no matter how subtle it may look) which results in awkward movement and possibly damaging biomechanics.  I'm not saying every time those words are used that is the case by any means, but when I hear those words in a description of a riding technique I like to dig a little deeper and make sure what's being described is not the latter.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neurons Looking in Mirrors

Before I go any further, I wanted to say that from now on I'll be posting a link to a forum on my professional webpage if anyone wants to go there to discuss subjects that I talk about here.  You're also welcome to comment here and as for the forum you're welcome to start any topic you'd like regarding horses and the sport of riding (in whatever discipline).  Here is the link if you have something you'd like to weigh in on.  I think healthy debate and discussion is important to continuing to learn in life and I encourage anyone to share their thoughts.  I just ask that you be considerate and respectful and understand that just because you're sure you're right, doesn't mean that a person with a differing opinion isn't equally sure they're right.  But there is so much to learn when we're open to hearing from everyone - not just the folks we agree with.

That said, I had the coolest experience the other day at the pony school I've been working at for the last year.  I took one of my favorite school horses, Pal, out to the pasture to hang out with his friends after a lesson, and realizing I had about a half hour of free time, I decided to stay in the pasture and give him a massage.  Before he came to the school he'd apparently had an accident that crushed his sacrum so he's been very happy about having his back worked on and I have found some scar tissue in that area and some tight muscles from compensation.

Pal is so happy about massage I didn't bother to tie him up and just gave him a massage while he stood in the pasture.  It wasn't long before I noticed his three friends he lives in the pasture with had come to stand around us in a circle.  One of the them, Chip, has had a few massages from me, Charlie has had one and Blaze has never had any.  In fact, Blaze is fairly new and I really don't know him at all, I've never used him in a class or ridden him myself.  But all three of them stood around us in a circle, facing us, and soon they all started to have sleeping eyes.

After a few more minutes all three of their heads started to drop and they would sway a little back and forth as they were dozing off.  Then Blaze started yawning, this big huge yawns, then stretching his back and neck.  Pal seemed to be the one least enjoying his massage!  He would sigh and lick and chew and stretch, but Blaze was yawning and farting and stretching all over the place.

When I was done with Pal's massage I walked over to Blaze and he scooted toward me with his mid-section and began turning his head and tossing it in the direction of his shoulder.  So, I massaged his shoulders for a few minutes and he stretched and contorted so much that I had to push him over a little so he didn't accidentally fall over on top of me.  Then I went over to Chip to check his back, but before I could Charlie came up and bit him in the butt and chased him away and very boldly placed his neck in front of me.  I stood there for a minute just looking at him, wondering if I should reward such rude behavior on his part to Chip, so he turned his head to look at me, nickered and then shoved his neck up against me.  I rubbed his neck for a few minutes, then realized I needed to go get ready for my next student, so I said good-bye, walked past him to get to the gate and he trotted in a big circle so that he could come in just in front of me and stand between me and the gate and shove his neck toward me.  I told him no, moved him away and he looked very sad and wandered off.

It got me thinking about how empathetic horses are to what is going on with their friends.  It makes sense that they would be able to tell when a friend is happy, scared of in pain.   If there is a predator or a friend is sick they need to be on guard, or if a friend has found something good to eat, it is beneficial to the herd that they also are aware there is something good to eat within access to all of them.  But I didn't realize it would apply to something as man-made as massage where a horse is experiencing relaxation by something human (a predator) is doing to them.  That the other horses would also relax and that Blaze even released a lot of tension in his body just standing next to his friend getting a massage was pretty cool.  I can honestly say standing next to a person getting a massage doesn't seem like it would do much for me other than make me a little jealous I wasn't getting one myself.  But I've never had the experience of that helping release tension from my own body just by being next to someone who is relaxing.

I have not done much research on it, but apparently, horses have mirror neurons just like humans, although I imagine (and I will look this up eventually) that they have a whole bunch more than humans do.  Mirror neurons are what cause us to understand by subtle (often consciously unnoticed) body language and voice inflections how people are feeling and what they mean.  It is also referred to as Theory of Mind and it is a comparitively new area of study in neurology.  One noticeable symptom of autism is the lack of mirror neurons so that a person on the autism spectrum has difficulty being able to instinctually know what people are feeling or implying just by their expression or voice inflection.  That difficulty ranges from slight to severe depending on what scale of the spectrum the person is on.  Sheldon on The Big Bang theory is a good example of someone who struggles with Theory of Mind issues.

It wouldn't surprise me if horses do have a much larger supply of mirror neurons than humans and that would explain why they are such important creatures when it comes to therapies for folks struggling with a wide array of issues, from recovering from trauma, to learning disabilities, to mental disabilities.  I've seen how much horses can help a couple of my students who have special needs or severe learning disabilities and it's more amazing than I could express here.  The difference in the student's demeanor and their ability to learn difficult motor skills or concepts for them is far more improved when working with a horse than I would've originally thought.  Perhaps it's the mirror neurons that make horses so special as a species?  It's something I'll definitely do more research into.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Do Horses Fake Lameness?

I find this a very interesting question, and like most people I believe that I know the absolutely correct answer.  But I am going to try to talk about it from both sides, or as much from the other side of my opinion as I can.  Kind of like how Seth Mnookin talks about the anti-vaccine field of thought in his book The Panic Virus.  Even though he is pro-vaccine he did do a good job trying to understand what would cause a portion of Western society to be vehemently opposed to them. 

If you Google "horses fake lameness" you will find numerous message boards with hundreds of stories from people saying they have had first hand experience of their clever horses fooling them.  If individual observation were scientific evidence then it would be a solid fact that horses can fake lameness or illness in order to get what they want.  Many people say that the people who don't believe it exists have just never seen it so they just don't know any better. 

I'd never thought about it myself until about five years ago.  I had a fresh off the track Thoroughbred, just four years old and very hot and very sensitive.  The first time I had my farrier in to do her feet, she went lame right after he put on her right front shoe.  She was my "delicate little flower" and even the smallest pain was extremely upsetting to her and would melt her 16.1 hh's, 1100 pound body into a quivering pile of goo.  After the farrier left she could barely walk and tried leaning against the wall of her stall until she finally gave up and laid down.  I was horrified and called my farrier back out to ask him what had happened.  Upon looking her foot over he announced, "She's very dramatic.  She knows she's supposed to work (in our training) this afternoon so she's faking it to get out of it."  Then he left.

My instincts told me that didn't sound right so I called my trainer's farrier.  He came out and looked at her foot and said she had what's called a "hot nail" - a nail that was put in too high and was causing her pain.  He said not to be too harsh on my farrier because it was in what would be considered a perfectly legitimate spot for most horses, she just had small, sensitive feet and for her she would need the nails to be a bit lower than the norm.  He took the nail out, put one back in a bit lower and she was back to her old self and extremely relieved.  I was glad to hear my farrier had made an honest mistake, but I still fired him because he told me my horse was "faking it" when she wasn't.

I have since said in conversations among horse people that I don't believe horses "fake it" to get out of work.  A little over half the time the other horse people laugh at me and tell me I don't have enough experience with horses to know what I'm talking about, or tell me I should educate myself before saying such silly things.  So, I did go ahead and educate myself.  I picked up a copy of Evidence Based Horsemanship because I thought, what better way to understand a horse's brain and how they think than by reading the scientific studies of a neurologist.  Granted this is only one book and I would like to read a lot more research on how horse's brains work, but I still found the information to be valuable and convincing.

I won't go into everything they talk about in the book regarding parts of the brain and brain activity, but I will say that horses to not have the cognitive ability to plan schemes and deceive.  What they do have the ability to do is learn from experience.  So, if you continually reward a horse for a certain behavior they will learn to continue to do that behavior in order to receive their reward.  This is the most basic example of how horses are trained.  It is possible if your horse bucks and you get off and put him away, and then he does it again and you get off and put him away again, his brain circuits will equate bucking with a pleasurable response - and if you keep doing the same thing over and over again he will start to buck every time someone gets on him after awhile.  But that is not because he consciously thought, "Hey, this is great. I've totally got her wrapped around my finger!"  It is because the horse instinctually (like us) seeks release from pressure and will do the thing he is rewarded for over and over again to find that release from pressure.  That is a huge neurological difference from the cognitive ability to "fake injury" in order to get off work.

In a round about way we are also seeking a release from pressure when we are suddenly faced with a horse with a mysterious lameness we can't explain.  We go for the easiest explanation which is "he must be faking it to get out of work" - suddenly, right then we are released from the pressure of the stress of not knowing what is causing our horse to show signs of injury or pain.  So, we are much more similar in our actions with our horses than we realize.  Only we have the cognitive ability to step back and look at our actions and problem solve through planning and analysis instead of just going on our base instinct to be released from pressure (especially if that release is by closing our eyes and believing something that isn't true at the expense of another).  When people stop being willing to put the effort into planning and analysis to find out what their horse is truly trying to tell them, it is not the horse who is being lazy, it is the horse owner.

I have not run into this in my massage work on horses yet.  Thankfully, every horse owner I have worked with has been a wonderful, caring and well educated horse owner and I've been blessed to be able to work with their horses.  I imagine that one day I may have a client who says they think their horse might be faking it, and I hope that I will have the ability to explain to them how that isn't actually possible (despite what folks have observed on the outside) and encourage them to look deeper for the real answer.

And on that note I would like to give a little shout-out to the fact that I had the wonderful opportunity to work on a horse today after she was ridden in a Peggy Cummings Clinic.  Not only did I get to watch my client's horse move while working, but I also got to be present for some really excellent riding instruction.  That's one of the things I love most about this job is that there are so many incredibly knowledgeable and fascinating teachers in so many different facets of the horse world and there are so many opportunities to learn endless cool stuff.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

My First Real Horse Client!

I went to massage school for humans about a hundred years ago (OK - not quite, more like back in the 1990's last century) so giving humans massage is second nature for me.  But I didn't begin following my dream to work with horses until Spring 2013 when I took the leap and signed up for equine massage school.  At first I had no idea what I was doing and felt like there was no way that working on these half ton (or in some cases a full ton) creatures was ever going to work out for me.  But now, just a year later and finally having all my licensing squared away, it is starting to feel second nature to me.

One of the things that has held me back from working with horses is that when I was twelve years old (that really was about a hundred years ago) I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.  In all seriousness, it has not been a hundred years, it has been thirty-five years and needless to say there is some pretty serious joint damage now and I have the occasional "symptoms" (ie: fatigue, all-over-achiness, depression) flare up now and then.  But I bring this up because I was surprised to find out it has not stopped me.   There are certain range of motion movements I can't do with my arms and hands because of the joint damage in my elbows and wrists, but I can compensate for that and still get the job done.  And I enjoy working with horses so much that it is worth it to find ways to compensate.

School took about nine months before I had enough education to try to get an endorsement on my license, then it took several months for the Department of Health to figure out how to actually apply an endorsement on my license (even after I read the R.C.W. to them).  Finally after dozens of phone calls and months of go-arounds I finally found someone who knew how to do it and I recently became an official, professional equine massage therapist.  Luckily, all that time has given me an opportunity to work on quite a few horses before I actually got paid so I felt more comfortable working for my first paid client today.

One of the things I love about massaging horses is how expressive they are.  You always know where you stand with a horse and they are not shy about letting you know if you're doing something right (or wrong).  Kicking and biting is a very obvious way to know you're doing something wrong - or in many cases you're not even doing something wrong, it's just painful, or a scary new sensation, or it set off a reflex that made the horse want to move their leg quickly.  It's also an occupational hazard and after just a year now of doing this I'm happy to say I'm starting to be able to recognize the tell-tale signs that a kick, a stomping foot, or bite is coming and I've gotten quite adept at scooting out of the way or swinging my elbow back so the horse bonks into my elbow instead of nailing me with his/her teeth.  Still, I am well aware that in some ways this is much more dangerous than massaging humans.  But then I also never have to worry about a horse making an inappropriate proposition to me either which makes it all the more worth it.

After my first paying client I went to work on a rescue horse being fostered by a friend and an example of ways one learns to stay out of the horse's way is that at one point while I was working on the origin or the horse's ascending pectorals, and she was reacting to this by stretching her front leg and then stamping it down (partially to deal with the discomfort and partially as a stretch during the muscle release) - but I found myself standing on one foot with the other tucked behind my leg so it was out of the way of her foot.  She had never had a massage before and when I had initially palpated her back, the discomfort was so high she lifted her head from her hay, turned quickly around and stomped out to her paddock and dodged me for a few minutes when I tried to approach her.  She did finally acquiesce and we found a pressure that did not disturb her, but helped loosen up her back after that, but when working on her pects, stretching her leg out seemed very important to the release and what would in normal circumstances be considered poor behavior was important in this case to her ability to relax and let me work on that area.  So, I had to stand on one foot.  I've never had to do that with a human before.

But the best part is when horses have a release of tension they do all sorts of cute silly things.  One of the big ones is they fart or poop, but they also yawn, and stretch and contort their bodies in all sorts of funny ways, and they snort and sigh and make weird wiggly faces with their lips.  When I find a spot that is really tight and am succeeding in working it out, often they'll lean up against me to the point where once I had to push the horse back over because he felt like he was going to fall on top of me he was leaning so far into me.  The sweetest "thank you" I've ever had from a horse was a big, black Quarterhorse named Beetle who I worked on when his back was all seized up and when I was finished he gently put his head over my shoulder and tried to groom me.

I'm very lucky to have a profession like this.  And although it makes it practically impossible to afford disability insurance and life insurance companies hate me, I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.

This is a photo from B. Kate Stables on Vashon when I was learning to do a stretch on one of their horses.  One of my excellent teachers, Lola Michelin is in the background.  I was so scared to learn this stretch but now I'm so used to doing it, it's really no big deal.