Bodywork: Grounding the Horse Before You Start

By Marjorie Smith

Before I got into barefoot trimming, I did some massage and some Rolfing© with horses. I loved doing this work - the horses were so helpful as soon as they realized my intention was benign and helpful. Horses are body-oriented; they receive information and communication easily through bodywork. They would lean into my hands, just the right amount to release myofascial tension. It was a total, body-to-body partnership of balance and pressure, and I felt truly intimate with them.

My shift into barefoot trimming came because often the work on the horse would not "hold" - the improvement was not permanent as expected in Rolfing but would disappear within a few days. When I discovered that posture/ conformation and range-of-motion are greatly influenced by hoof balance, I decided that I could help more horses by encouraging the removal of shoes so that the feet could be trimmed more frequently than the typical 8 to 12 weeks, and more correctly. My Rolfing certification has lapsed though I still feel a connection with this type of work and learned a great deal from thinking in this mode.

Grounding as a principle

Rolfers make use of a principle that will add to the effectiveness of any type of bodywork that you do with a horse. It comes from Ida Rolf's assertion that "you have to make a space for the tightness to release into." For example, when your intention is to release a ‘knot' in the fascia, it's best to resolve tightness in the surrounding tissues first, so that when you get to the knot, it can melt away into the already released surrounding tissues. Attacking the knot without preparation of the surrounding tissues just doesn't work.

Extending this idea to any work on a horse -- which receives the work standing up rather than lying on a massage table -- it has turned out to be useful to "ground" the horse's entire energy system down through the legs to the earth, before focusing in on the specific areas that are bothering the horse. We can think of this in two ways:

1) in "energy" terms, grounding the painful or excess energy in a body allows tensions in the entire system to release more easily; and

2) on a more tangible level, tightness in the upper body (all the large muscle masses above the bony part of the legs) almost always affects the legs; the fascia of the legs themselves is tight and painful from muscular stresses above.

There are two ways I have used to ‘ground' a horse at the beginning of a bodywork session. If it's the first session on a horse whose legs have not been released before, I used the Rolfing method, which can take 10 to 15 minutes for all four legs. For a later session in a Rolfing series, or a horse I had worked on previously, I often used a TTouch leg release to ground the legs. This is a ‘lighter' and quicker method. It's a nice way to say "Hello" to any horse any time you are going to work on its body.

The Rolfing way to ground

While it's impossible to teach Rolfing in an article because it involves a "feel" and a whole-body strategy, I will describe the leg-grounding a little so you get an idea what I'm talking about. Bodyworkers who have learned myofascial release will understand what I'm saying. The horse's leg bones below the knee and hock correspond to the long bones in our hand and foot, and you can feel the same thing happen just playing with your own fingers.

Between the skin and the bone is a layer of fascia (actually several layers). Fascia is a thin-layer tissue that surrounds the whole body like a stretch bodysuit to hold everything together; surrounds each muscle to give it shape; surrounds each muscle fiber to connect the tiny parts into a whole; surrounds each part of the viscera to hold things in place. As an example, when you cut up a chicken there is a layer like plastic wrap, between the skin and the muscle -- that's fascia. Fascia has the same crystal molecular structure as diamond, but with water molecules distributed throughout so that it's flexible. When you overwork a muscle or other tissue, the water is squeezed out of the fascia and it becomes shorter/ tighter and dryer -- less flexible. This reduces flexibility of the body or limb.

Once fascia has gotten tight and dried-out, it cannot release by itself; there is no internal body signal to tell it to do that. By this I mean it gets tight only when overworked to the point of being 'stiff' the next day, which is why it's so important to build gradually to greater athletic output. Actually you can rehydrate to some extent by stretching, and much further by Rolfing.. It takes the right amount of pressure with attention/ intention from outside, to give the fascia tissue a signal to release and re-hydrate. Thus a bodyworker can release tightened fascia and ‘knots', or you can release parts of your own body that you can reach with your hands, with enough directional pressure.

Hold one of the bones in your finger between the thumb and first finger of the other hand, and press deeper than the skin but not enough to hurt. You are pressing into the fascia layer under the skin. If you hold the pressure you may be able to feel something ‘soften' or maybe move in some direction; this is the fascia releasing. This is the same thing we do with the horse's legs -- they're just bigger. Sometimes on a horse's legs you will feel little raised areas in the fascia like grains of rice. They will go away when the fascia releases.

The Rolfing grounding work on the legs begins on the lower leg and is applied as a deep stroking move downward to the ground; then it is applied higher on the leg and again is worked downward to the ground; and finally it is applied to the uppermost part of the leg and worked downward all the way to the ground again.

Holding to the principle of releasing at the ground after each downward move, while working your way upwards on sections of the leg, press your fingertips gently but meaningfully into the skin, sinking into the fascia layer. Starting at the fetlock, let the fingertips glide downward along and through the fascia to the coronet. When the fascia releases as you go, it will feel like your fingertips are moving through cold, hard butter that starts to melt from the heat of your fingers. If you are using too much pressure, it will hurt; a horse would flinch or take a step away from you. Sometimes the fascia is very tight and you just have to sit there and wait for it to release before gliding. Don't press harder; instead reduce your pressure a little (Photo 1).

Photo 1. Rolfing (myofascial release). Begin at the fetlock and move down the pastern to the coronet. Do front/back in one stroke, and side/side in one stroke. (my hands are pushing against each other to get enough pressure.)

Photo 2. Next do the cannon. Here one hand does the front, the fingers and thumb of the other get into the groove behind the tendons.

Photo 3. When I get to the pastern, I continue with lighter touch till I get to the coronet again.

Photo 4. The forearm has muscle in it. Here I begin at the top, in front, using the flat of my fingers as my 'tool.'

Photo 5. Same stroke, down the back of the forearm.

Photo 6. For the sides of the forearm, I work the muscle with my thumbs on one side of the leg, pressing against my fingers on the other side.

When you have done all four ‘sides' of the pastern, from fetlock to coronet, then you can move higher up to the cannon, again starting at the top of the next higher section of leg (the knee) and moving, as the fascia releases, down towards the fetlock. Along the sides, it's good to get your fingers into the groove between the bone and the tendons; this feels good to the horse. When you get to the fetlock, continue at a lighter pressure to the coronet; it will help the energy flow down to the ground (Photos 2 and 3).

Then move up to the forearm, starting at the elbow and moving down to the knee, then again more lightly to the fetlock and on down to the coronet. There is muscle in the forearm, and this will feel different to your fingers. Forearm muscle has rather thick, tough fascia that may be slow to release (Photos 4, 5, and 6).

When you have done all four legs - slowly and patiently - the horse is "grounded" and you can continue with your strategic work in the upper body. Occasionally the legs are so tight that it takes an entire 40-50 minutes (the maximum amount of bodywork that a horse can usefully receive in one session) to do them. If so, the legs needed the work and you would not have had any lasting effect if you started working in the upper body. I found that when the entire first session was given over to grounding the legs, the work went much better on the second and third sessions (three being a typical Rolfing series for horses).

Using TTouch to ground

The Tellington-Touch approach to grounding the legs is called "leg lifts" (as in lifting the skin, not the leg). This method starts at the top of the leg and you work your way downward -- but with an upward motion at each hand position. This is also a "feel." You can learn it by practicing on a human friend's legs -- be sure to do both legs or your friend will be walking around feeling "crooked" afterwards. Get your friend to do your legs, too, so you know what it feels like to the horse, and to learn "how much is too much."

Cup both hands so that they lovingly surround the top of the leg (or as much as you can reach around). The pressure is much less than with Rolfing; you only go softly into the skin layer, not firmer into the fascia layer. The idea is to gently "slide the skin up" around the leg, slipping it upwards over the muscle or bone, like a pant leg -- maybe only 1/8 to 1/4 inch (3 to 6 mm.) -- until you can feel that the skin has moved as far as it can without uncomfortable stress. Your intention is on "holding and loving this handful of the horse"; there is no force involved, just relieving the skin of the pull of gravity for a few moments (Photo 7).

So: lift gradually to a slow count of 8; hold at the top of the lift for a slow count of 8; and gradually let the skin down to the starting point, to a slow count of eight. You can do a rhythmic singsong: "Lift, 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 -- Hold, 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 -- Down, 2,3,4,5,6,7,8" and gently let go of the skin. Move your cupped hands down to the next section of leg skin below where you just worked, and do again. When you get to a joint, do a skin lift at the joint too. When you get down to the coronet, finish with a "tap-tap" on the hoof wall with the cupped fingers of one hand; this calls the horse's awareness gently down towards the ground (Photos 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Again, horses are more receptive and can make better use of bodywork when they have been grounded first, using TTouch leg lifts.

Grounding really works

This practice of "grounding" a horse's body energy before doing any other massage or fascia work on the body is an actual phenomenon. When I was learning to Rolf horses I would sometimes forget to start with the legs -- and the upper body work just would not go satisfactorily until I remembered to go back and do the legs.Photo 7. Ttouch. Begin at the top of the forearm. Hold and lift the skin, with a medium 'loving' pressure. Lift slowly for 8 counts, hold for 8 counts, release slowly for 8 counts.

Photo 8. This is the 3rd lift; I am almost down to the knee.

Photo 9. A lift of the skin at the knee feels good to the horse.

Photo 10. Below the knee, the cannon is narrower than the forearm; my hands are nearly flat for this lift.

Photo 11. After another lift at the lower cannon, now I am doing a lift at the fetlock joint.

Photo 12. My hands wrap around the whole pastern for a lift here.

Photo 13. To finish, tap the hoof twice, firmly, 'tap-tap' to bring the horse's 'body-attention' all the way to the ground. Then proceed to the next leg.

"Grounding" the legs can be useful in its own right when a horse is generally upset or nervous in his environment. Don't try if you are in danger while you work on him; but if he's medium-nervous, it's a way to teach a horse how to calm himself, or to communicate to him, "I mean you no harm, you are safe here." Another way, for example, is teaching him to lower his head.

For more information:

For information on Rolfing, see the Rolf Institute website, www.rolf.org, and the Guild for Structural Integration, www.rolfguild.org. These two schools teach the work of Dr. Ida P. Rolf, which she called "structural integration." There are lists of practitioners as well as information about training.

For information on TTouch, see www.lindatellingtonjones.com.

About the author:

Marjorie Smith has two horses which she keeps barefoot and trims herself, gives some bodywork on occasion, and takes for walks and rides in the "natural horsemanship" way.

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