Week 50: Learning Equine Massage
Lisa, my riding buddy, and I walk up to the horse stalls to bring out Lacey and Sando. On this warm December morning, we’re not here for our usual riding routine. Instead, we are receiving a generous Christmas present from our trainer, Jane: she’s brought in someone to teach a three-hour class in how to massage horses.
Lisa and I are joined in the massage class by Lizbeth, Jane’s assistant, who comes out here every weekday to help with the horses. She saddles them up for Jane’s rides, washes them, turns them out in corrals for exercise, and feeds them. Lizbeth’s husband, Leo, also works on the ranch, and together they have three kids — ages 13, 9, and 4. The middle boy, Mili, loves to ride Snoopy, one of Jane’s ponies.
Lisa’s two children, ages 7 and 4, are also here today. So, the group in total includes Jane, myself, Lisa, Lisa’s two children, Lizbeth, and Lizbeth’s three children. And the most crucial person here today, our teacher Brenda, is a certified equine massage therapist. Jane has known her for a while, but none of us have met her before.
Jane has just sorted us into pairs: Lisa and Lizbeth will each work on a horse together, Jane and I will pair together, and Lizbeth’s two eldest boys will work together. The younger children are more interested in games and piles of dirt.
As Lisa and I walk down the barn aisle, stalls on either side of us, we come to find Lacey lying down, taking a nap. While Lisa goes in to say hello, I run down to grab a phone camera — it’s rare to find one of the horses resting like this. They usually sleep standing up. Lacey reminds me of a giant lamb, the way she is sweetly folded up.
In 1998, Jane began to teach be how to ride a horse. That summer, the summer after second grade, my mom enrolled me in her horse summer camp at Middle Ranch. We kids went on trail rides, traipsed our ponies through ‘obstacle’ courses, learned how to groom a horse, and picked pomegranates from the ranch’s pomegranate tree.
Back then, and throughout the ‘00s as well, Jane had 15 or so school horses. School horses, while belonging to the trainer, are ones that students ride in lessons and on the trail.
Besides pure beginners enrolled in Jane’s camp, there was a whole group of kids and teenagers that took regular lessons from her. Some of them had their own horses. So besides Jane’s own school equines, there were 10 or so that were privately owned but still in connection with her training business.
After that first summer ended, my mom enrolled me in weekly lessons. I kept riding for the rest of elementary school, took a three-year break during middle school, and started again in the first year of high school. I had my own horse, Solomon, for those high school years. During that time, Jane’s business transitioned to another ranch, Thundering Hooves, where she is still based. Solomon died during my senior year and, soon after, I stopped riding.
Now, Jane has six horses. They are: DJ, an ex-racehorse; Lacey, the only lady; Snoopy, a pony she’s had since before I started riding with her; Tristan, a pony that was given to her after he bucked off one too many riders; Johnny, a small horse from Germany; and Sando, who I am convinced is Solomon reincarnated.
And speaking of Sando, I need to go get him. After I take a few pictures, Lacey stands up and I go two doors down to Solomon’s old stall, where now lives Sando, the horse I ride the most.
Besides having a very furry coat this time of year, Sando has a gorgeous tail. But his hair situation is not very balanced, for he has no forelock, the lock that usually graces a horse’s face:
I bring him out and lead him down while Lisa, with Lacey, comes behind me.
Both she and I separately started riding with Jane again in February of this year, after nearly a ten-year hiatus in riding for both of us. Interestingly, we knew of each other during our high school riding days, but we were never friends before this year.
By the time I started riding again in high school, Lisa had transferred over to training with Jane. We never spoke — she kept to herself, and I knew a lot of girls at the barn from my early days of riding. She was two years older than me — which, in the teens, might as well have been a decade — and had a gorgeous horse named Scottie.
Now, things have changed. We don’t have our own horses and we don’t pay to take lessons anymore. We come to help Jane exercise her horses, and in turn, we are able to practice our riding. At 27 and 29, the two year gap between Lisa and I is nothing, and we’ve become friends. I always like coming out to ride a little more on days I know she’ll also be there.
Sando and I arrive the cross ties, the area where the horses stand as we get them ready for a ride. Tristan is already waiting there, and Lizbeth’s two boys will work on him. When Brenda sees Sando, she immediately says, “He’s the stiff one.” And she’s right: at only 9 years old, this boy holds a lot of tension in his body.
I put him in the middle cross tie, and Brenda decides to use him as her demonstration horse. That’s good, because he needs a professional touch.
Brenda is about to embark on a mission to show us a series of techniques. She will demonstrate them one at a time, and then we students will apply them to Lacey, Tristan, and Sando — effectively giving him a double massage. After we’re done, we’ll switch to the other three horses, and instead of demonstrating, Brenda will watch us work.
Now for the technique. She starts at the pole of Sando’s head and runs her hands along his spine all the way to the end of his tale. This tells him that she’ll be working on his whole body. She does this three times.
As she starts going through the strokes, she tells us to look for signs of relaxing — chewing, licking, stretching, satellite ears, soft eyes, and farting among them.
Humans usually stretch before or after a workout, but when most of us ride horses, we simply get on and go. The so-called warm-up is usually walking the horse around, as is the cool-down. And besides being physically beneficial for the animal, she says, massages bond horse and rider.
Brenda goes on to say that we humans treat massages as a luxury, but they’re a necessity. Amen, sister! Besides promoting relaxation, they help circulation, remove toxins, and release muscle tension. And horses, as athletes, need that.
I know from my own bodywork interest that the body holds everything — if stress, tension, anger, and anxiety aren’t released when we feel them, they don’t finish processing on a physical level. That means that they stay within the body, eventually finding a place to lodge and call home. Plus, as prey animals, horses are quite energetically sensitive and can thus pick up feelings easily.
Brenda starts with massaging the neck. After showing us each technique on Sando, she gives us time to try the same technique on our horses — one person on each side. My horse is Sando, and he seems quite happy to be pampered.
After showing us the neck techniques, she moves to his front legs, and then his chest.
After we practice each movement during our turns, Brenda then moves to Sando’s back, his hindquarters, and finally his hind legs.
What she’s been showing us is a warm-up that, when slowed down, doubles as an after-ride cool-down. Because we’re learning and asking questions, it takes almost an hour-and-a-half to go through the massage step-by-step, but Brenda says that it would normally take just 15 minutes for someone to run once through this.
We eventually finish the massage part, but we are not yet done with our learning. After riding, horses will be warm, and this is a good time to stretch their muscles — which is different than using massage techniques.
First, she shows us ‘carrot stretches’ — stretches that a treat-endowed person can use to turn the horse’s neck left, right, up, and finally down.
I like learning the stretches more than the massage techniques. I think that’s because with them I have a reference point: I can feel when the horse is stretching properly. With massaging, I have a hard time knowing if what I’m doing is effective for them.
Sando The Stiff Horse has greatly benefited from the entire massage. He’s a very affectionate lad, and he loves this whole ordeal. This openness to it means that his body is relaxed during the treatment, and with a relaxed body he is able to benefit from it fully. Indeed, over the course of the neck stretching, we hear several spinal adjustments from his neck.
Brenda moves on to stretching the front and hind legs and, just as I think we’re done, there’s another surprise in store — one that I forget about, because I don’t have…a tail!
We’ve all heard of a tailbone, the last bone in the back, because we have one. But we don’t have tails, and I’ve forgotten an obvious fact: the spine extends into the tails of animals who have them. If it’s done properly, stretching the tail can helps the spine correct. So gently Brenda pulls her weight on Sando’s tail, and his spine pops with one last adjustment.
Now we are done, and I take this happy horse back to his stall. Every time I take him out, it’s to work, so I can understand how this has been a nice change for him. Imagine leaving home only to work!
After we have put the first three horses away, we have a snack break and then bring down the next three. Things move at a faster pace now. The wind picks up and the older children lose their attention.
This time, Lisa and I work on Johnny, a cute horse who tends to be nervous and tense. He is also the foodie of the lot. I can relate to that.
The wind blows, knocking a paper packet over. As it blows in the wind, Johnny, legs quivering with fear, looks like he’s about to bolt. Neck high, ears forward, he looks all around, alert, ready to take off at the slightest disturbance the wind might bring.
I don’t think he actually knows how to relax, and I can’t imagine him knowing what to do with a massage. Brenda tells us that sometimes, when they’re nervous, just standing next to them is the best we can do.
So we put our hands on his back and center our own selves.
As we do, Brenda recounts a horse who would not let her come close to her, even though the owner had hired her for an equine massage. Brenda was patient with the mare, and never overstepped the horse’s boundary. She stood only as close as the horse was comfortable with.
Over time, Brenda says, she warmed up and became less suspicious. Now the same horse loves massages — when Brenda stretches her front legs, the horse looks like she’s in downward dog. Her point is that it’s important to only go so far as will benefit the horse, and that they will let you know where their boundary lies.
Johnny doesn’t have a boundary so much as that he’s so tense, just standing with him for a while is the most effective way to ground him.
Which works — after some time, he starts to lower his neck, and Lisa and I do a very slow massage that is meant to settle him more than warm him up. At the end of our time, Johnny is actually semi-relaxed.
After putting him away along with DJ and Snoopy, we humans take a group picture and wrap up. Brenda quotes a famous equestrian trainer: “If you want to truly give your horses a gift, get them a massage!”
For me, it’s really nice to be with these animals in a different way than riding them, which can be stressful. I ride horses because I like being around them — it is their energy, not the sport, that brings me to them. I love that today I’m able to spend relaxed time with them on the ground. And for them, it’s an enjoyable, different activity that changes up their normal routine, what to speak of giving them physical relief.
These creatures are amazing. They are intuitive, responsive, forgiving, and reflect back to us so many things about ourselves we probably never would have seen. They are partners, not slaves, in allowing us to be on their backs.
Just as we exchange gifts with the beloved humans in our lives, trying to return the gifts these guys give to us is equally warming.
In fact, I wonder…who did Jane get this Christmas present for anyways?