Feature Article

Skin: The Boundary between Earth, Heaven and Horse

By Barbara Chasteen

Polo HorsePhoto 1. At 5 years, this polo horse looks battered and washed up.

How we manage our horse's skin affects body, mind, and spirit

The outer covering of a horse is often the first thing we notice - its beautiful color or stylish pattern of dark and light; the length and thickness of the mane and tail; the extra-white trim. We love to stroke a healthy horse's coat, whether it feels like sleek satin or plush velvet.

Still, the skin and hair of a horse are far more important than mere decoration. How we manage our horse's skin has a profound influence on our horse's health and performance. Lifestyle, diet, grooming, tack and covers, riding style and stress level all have an impact on his skin.

The condition of the horse's skin is important not only as a barometer of health and well-being. In order for us to use bodywork to help restore good posture and freedom of movement, the skin needs to be able to accept touch and manipulation. If it is extra tense, adhered to the underlying tissues, or dry and unresponsive, massage may be not only painful but also ineffective.

In this article we'll touch on what the horse's skin does for him, techniques for restoring a healthy, functional skin, and ways to keep his skin and movement free and flexible.

A closer look

The skin and its hair coat can express all the glory and joy of an ideal horse. On the other hand, it can reflect an unbalanced diet, high tension levels, old injuries, and nerve damage to the muscles or joints beneath it. (See Photos 1 and 2.)

Polo Horse
Photo 2. At 8 years he is back in the game, thanks to bodywork, herbs and homeopathy, plus respect and affection.

A healthy skin feels comfortable from the inside, with plenty of room to move and adjust to life's changes. The coat has an even, vibrant color; the texture is silky smooth. Dapples appear on a truly balanced horse, regardless of coat color.

Within an unhealthy skin, movement may be restricted or uneasy. The horse may look "stuffed" into his skin, as if it is stretched tight over the body, and he may be extra-sensitive to touch. The coat color may be dull, washed out or blotchy; the texture may feel rough and dry, or perhaps greasy. There may be white patches or strips where nerve function is compromised, and areas of scar tissue where the coat is twisted or missing.

Mane and tail hair are important for protection, balance and communication. Hooves, too, are extensions of the skin and hair. Their appearance and tone reflect the horse's nutrition, life and state of health.

The largest organ

The horse's skin, like ours, is his largest organ. The skin and hair provide waterproof, breathable protection and perception for the entire body. Like the lungs, the skin helps balance oxygen intake and carbon dioxide removal. It produces hormones, oils for protection and communication (through scent) and chemicals that support the immune system. Sweat glands help cool the body and also release toxins. In its origin and its function the skin can be considered an extension of the brain. It reflects and integrates the well-being of the nervous system. Constantly interacting with the environment, the skin helps adjust the body's tension level and posture as it responds to incoming data on temperature, pressure and other environmental conditions. The skin provides information about the body's orientation in space, and contributes to the horse's sense of himself, sense of being alive, sense of movement, and to successful relationships with other beings.

Polo Horse
Photo 3. To discourage biting insects, horses roll in dust and mud.
Photo by Karen Brown

The horse's skin has its own muscles over much of the face, neck, shoulders, torso and flank. Like any muscles, these can be relaxed, smooth in tone, ready to draw up or twitch the skin; or, they may be tense, adhered, and reactive. The skin is covered by hairs which provide protection as well as acting as sensory and response organs. Each hair has a nerve and blood supply, and its own individual muscle. The horse's coat responds to temperature, raising the hair when the weather is cold, and flattening when temperatures are warmer.

Guard hairs at body openings (such as the ears and nose) protect the interior of the body from external contaminants and irritants, or from invasion by insects. They also provide information about the immediate surroundings that the horse can't see, and thus are especially important for the area around the muzzle and eyes.

Skin and coat management

Wild horses manage their own coats. Moving freely on uncontracted feet over varied terrain, they have their choice of food or medicinal plants and minerals; they may choose to roll in grass to scratch and polish their coat, or in mud (Photo 3) or dust to discourage insect bites. They practice self-grooming by leaning against trees, or scratching on bushes; horses in herds also groom and massage each other with their teeth.

'Natural' horses also can be allowed and helped to manage their coats, by providing as much freedom as possible in a varied environment, access to healthy foods, medicinal plants and minerals, and thoughtful personal care. (Photo 4)

Skin responds strongly to emotional states. We've all had the experience of feeling our skin "crawl" when we are uneasy. We've felt the hair on our necks rise and even felt the skin over our neck and shoulders draw up when we feel threatened (even if just by a scary movie). A horse's skin also responds to emotions. One of the most effective remedies for tight skin is to create an environment in which the horse feels safe, comfortable and appreciated. A horse (like other mammals including humans) that has been hunched down or withdrawn due to an unfriendly environment actually expands and grows taller when he feels at home in his skin.

Touching

Pony
Photo 4. Because she couldn't tolerate human touch, this natural horse has had no grooming (except occasional mane and tail combing) for over two years.

Beneficial touch on the skin such as conscious grooming and massage raises production of hormones and immune cells, physically releases tension in the underlying cutaneous muscles, and stimulates relaxation and energy flow through the nervous system. However, some horses find touch uncomfortable.

A horse's coat may be adhered or 'stuck' to the tissues beneath because of general pain and tension (such as in Photo 1 above); scar tissue from a specific injury or surgery; and swelling (edema or fluid retention) from an injury or an unbalanced diet (for example, a diet containing too much alfalfa).
Note: A horse who has profound psychosomatic problems related to touch, like the mare in photo 4, may need a broader and deeper quest for healing than these simple suggestions.

Groom for health

Basic grooming can provide mental, physical, and physiological benefits, and also improve your relationship with your horse. One professional horse woman whose 30-something pony glows with health wrote: "....what I'm doing when I groom.....I just want to spend time with her. Touching her all over, talking to her, thinking about her also gives me time and opportunity to check over her body condition, look for bumps, scratches, lumps, etc."

Grooming for health can provide all the benefits of a good general massage. I have seen people using brushes to groom their horse as they would to scrub the side of a barn. Their horses become tense, braced, and reactive or even combative during grooming, tacking up and even riding.
Instead, use a healing intention, comfortable tools, and awareness of the horse's response. Experiment with using the gentlest tools - even bare hands, cotton mitts or a shoe brush - that will get the job done. Your horse will tell you through her expression, body language, and anxiety or relaxation level whether your grooming is too aggressive, or the beginning of a great session together. Even high-pressure show grooming can be altered to keep the horse's well-being in mind.

Massage

Begin exploring your horse's skin in an area where you both feel safe. An excellent starting place is in the soft hollow at the center of the neck just where it meets the shoulder. From there you can work your way up to the head and face; then along the back and croup. When your horse tells you it is safe, explore her legs and torso.

As you move your hands along the skin, notice the tension level and temperature. Does the skin move freely over the underlying tissues, or is it stuck? (See Illustration) Does it feel warm, soft and sleek, or cold, dry and rough? Is the color deep and alive, or dull and shallow? Are there white patches and scars?

Scar tissue is an emergency response to injury. It is laid down as a random patch for a breach in the skin or the muscles beneath. When the injured tissues are stabilized and healed, scar tissue is no longer needed. It impedes movement and energy flow. Deep brands or scars can shorten muscles and ligaments causing crooked posture or even lameness. Scar tissue and damaging brands can be reduced and even eliminated, using massage and healing (not caustic) herbal or homeopathic ointments or gels, or by using homeopathy.

Pony
Illustration - cutaneous muscles and common areas of adhesion. Skin muscles: 1, face; 2, neck; 3, shoulder; 4, torso. Common areas with tightened skin: A, face; B, shoulder; C, low back; D, hip

To heal scar tissue, I have used with massage several topical applications, including homeopathic preparations in a gel base and homemade homeopathic tinctures in olive oil, usually at a 1X - 4X potency. For example I've used Ruta grav and Rhus tox gels from Ed Sheaffer, DVM in PA; Boericke & Tafel's gels - Sports Gel (with Ruta, Rhus, Bellis, Hypericum) which has been most effective with dissolving scar tissue; Triflora (with Symphytum, which repairs connective tissue); Califlora (Calendula, healing for the skin); also other quality homeopathic and herbal products such as Stiff'n'Sore gel with Arnica; and I am getting incredible results with Amazon Herbs' Recovazon. There are others. And I have used homeopathy (internally) during rehab as well.

Your exploring touch has already begun to change the skin. However, go back to an area you're interested in for more focused work. For 'stuck skin' find the edge of the adhesion and press gently with your palm or fingers (on the face you may want to use just one or two fingers). As the tissues warm and soften, you can move along with them, then shift to another area nearby.

To work with scar tissue use short, gentle strokes at the edge of the scar and the area around it, bringing increased circulation and mobility. Instead of thinking about "breaking up" or "destroying" the scars, intend to stimulate the body's ability to clean and rebuild the area and restore healthy relationships among neighboring structures.

Some massage techniques that are especially valuable for working with the skin are acupressure, myofascial release and trigger point myotherapy. If you haven't studied these techniques, trust your own instincts and experiences. Good massage is like good petting: warming, freeing and soothing for receiver and giver alike.

Conscious movement - centered, balanced and relaxed ground work and riding - is the finishing touch for promoting healthy skin and balancing the nervous and lymphatic systems. Stretching, which also stimulates these systems, is best done after the workout.

Challenges to the domestic horse's skin

  • DIET - Deficient diet (lack of mineral balance common in modern feeds, for instance); excess alfalfa causing edema and constant muscle tension
  • TOXICITY - Built up over years of input such as vaccinations, drugs, hard work, trauma, biocides (fly sprays, fungicides, etc.) or artificial food ingredients; stagnant toxins affect well being, performance and appearance.
  • TACK - Affects the skin both by direct pressure, and by causing pain. Some examples: tight band around nose, behind or in front of ears, or over poll; tight girth (also restricts breathing); uneven or painful saddle pressure; tight or rubbing breast collar; constant crupper pressure. Cribbing collars not only can force the horse into a chronic extended posture but also may cut off nerve and blood circulation to the face, ears, tongue and other areas. If the horse is shod, the shoe may be too small, restricting circulation to the hoof and affecting the entire body.
  • RIDING TECHNIQUE - Spurring with each stride or for long periods bruises skin, discolors hair, and adheres the skin to the underlying muscles of torso and abdomen.
  • GROOMING - Grooming aggressively or mechanically can affect a horse's comfort and sense of trust; it may aggravate injuries.
  • BRAIDING - Over-tight braiding can create direct dysfunction in the musculoskeletal system, even to the point of lameness. The tail muscles are anchored beside and within the anchors for the hamstring (thigh) and gluteus (rump) muscles. A horse with a tightly braided tail may continually twitch or wring the tail, and even be unable to use the hindquarters for forward movement. A tightly braided mane can prevent the horse from arching the neck and thus from rounding up and "coming through".
  • CLIPPING - Some horses become anxious when they lose their ability to feel objects approaching their nose, eyes and ears. A full clip can leave them vulnerable to chilling or sunburn. Body clipping, sometimes necessary to avoid overheating in the Metabolic Syndrome horses, needs to be thoughtful. A partial (trace) clip (such as the lower neck, belly and part way up the sides) can be adjusted to these and working horses' needs while allowing them to be protected from weather. Clipping of the ultra sensitive guard hairs around the nose and eyes should be avoided.
  • BLANKETS - Blanketing can have profound, negative effects on the horse's physical and mental health as well as her ability to move freely and have balanced gaits under saddle.

Overheating from heavy blanketing creates stress in the digestive system - a huge mass of several hundred pounds of intestinal tract, over 70 feet long, at 100+ degrees. Plastic sun- or insect-sheets can create excess surface heat. We need to dress our horses for their own needs, rather than from our human perspectives.

Blankets are binding at withers and shoulders. Poor blanket fit, or blankets that slip out of place, causes the horse to cringe away from the irritation, resulting in shoulder blades turned tightly inward, and hunched withers. The horse often is forced to walk with short steps during the time he is blanketed. Both these postures affect the ability of the horse to lift through the back and extend the front legs when he is asked to work.

Itching from overheating or irritation can create psychological and physiological problems that are reflected in dysfunctional behavior. Body-clipped horses can seem to be "jumping out of their skin", and even appear "off" when working, from the combined effects of short clips and continual blanketing, especially from mesh or open-weave designs, as each hair (with its nerves and muscle) is irritated when it catches in the openings. This "hair shirt" effect might show up as irritable or spooky behavior in general, weaving or cribbing, and erratic or aggressive behavior during lungeing or riding.

"Crazy" A more serious condition occurs when the horse becomes unable to respond to requests, or learn (that is, change its behavior in response to stimuli). This condition can appear when a horse is repeatedly put in a situation in which he or she is highly uncomfortable, yet no action on the horse's part alleviates the discomfort. (An extreme example is a halter horse wrapped in plastic and shut into a trailer in the sun to induce sweating.)

When You Touch Your Horse's Skin, You Are Touching His Heart
Touch between two beings such as horse and human is a fundamental way to communicate. It can be health-giving and restoring, playful, stimulating, comforting – or not. Be aware of how your touch and management choices affect your horse's magnificent skin. Hoofprint

 

About the author:

Barbara Chasteen, BA Zoology, has studied equine anatomy, biomechanics, bodywork and rehabilitation for almost 20 years. A teacher, writer and illustrator, she lives with and rides her four horses in Northern California.

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