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Once widely thought of as bunk, many so-called alternative or complementary touch therapy methods such as chiropractic, acupressure and massage are now quite commonplace in Canadian stables and are increasingly included in veterinary treatment or rehabilitation plans. These holistic modalities focus not on specific symptoms or conditions, but explore how body and mind function together on the whole.
“The goal of all manual therapies is to influence reparative or healing processes within the neuromusculoskeletal system, which often includes pain relief,” said Dr. Kevin Haussler, Colorado State University Faculty of Orthopaedic Research Centre professor and chiropractic specialist, in the 2010 paper, The Role of Manual Therapies in Equine Pain Management.
Many relatively unfamiliar touch therapies are also gaining acceptance in the equine and veterinary communities. Horse Canada explores just a handful of these treatments and finds out from practitioners just how they might help your horse.
Note: Absolutely no therapy, no matter how seemingly benign, should be undertaken without prior veterinary advice. Nor should a therapy ever replace traditional veterinary care.
Bowen therapy, a system of non-invasive soft-tissue manipulation was developed by Australian Thomas Ambrose Bowen in the mid-1950s for use on racehorses, greyhounds and eventually humans. Ontario bodywork practitioner Elizabeth Sleight includes Bowen as one of many therapeutic modalities she uses on human, canine and equine patients in her business Finding the Magic Within. She originally sought Bowen treatments for herself in the early 2000s for pelvic issues she felt were affecting her horse. “Three sessions later and completely lined up, I was sold on the technique,” she said.
Bowen uses gentle “challenge and release” touches over specific areas on the body that mainly correspond to acupressure points, Sleight explained.
“The move works through the nervous system and brings awareness to imbalances in the body. Think about hurting your knee. You limp, which affects your ankles, hips, back, neck … the whole body. When the knee heals, the limp goes away, but some of the compensatory patterns remain. What Bowen does, very elegantly, is remove the compensatory patterns layer by layer. It shows the body where it is out of balance so that it can self-correct.”
Sessions usually last from 45 minutes to two hours. Horses often relax and will sometimes fall asleep, said Sleight. The number of treatments required depends on issues being addressed.
Primary Purported Benefits
- Pain relief
- Stress reduction
- Muscle-spasm release
- Relieves congested kidneys
- Stimulates lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, circulatory systems
Craniosacral therapy is said to balance and remove stress on the nervous system, the conduit for brain-body communication. The nervous system is protected by the craniosacral system, which consists of the bones of the head, the spinal column and sacrum (the vertebrae in the pelvis just behind the croup).
Within the craniosacral system, cerebral spinal fluid delivers nutrients to the brain, provides cushioning to nervous system, circulates nutrients and removes toxins. It’s believed this fluid moves in a rhythmic pulse called a cranial wave. Practitioners say they stimulate flow of the cerebral spinal fluid by removing blockages caused by scar tissue, muscle or soft-tissue tightness, for example.
“Many horses really respond to it,” said Sleight, who uses this modality in her practice. Placing light contact on parts of the body, she palpates for the cranial wave and releases restrictions primarily in the skull and sacrum but also on tight fascia (fibrous connective tissue that essentially holds the body together). These subtle touches encourage the body to heal itself, she said.
Horses can become very relaxed during a session and treatments typically run an hour, she added.
Primary Purported Benefits
- Temporomandibular joint (jaw) issues
- Head injuries, trauma
- Headshaking syndrome
- Facial nerve paralysis
- Spinal injuries
It’s believed reiki – “universal life energy” in Japanese – transmits energy from the therapist’s hands into the horse’s body to release blockages that cause physical or behavioural problems. It’s also a therapy Sleight draws upon. The horse leads the therapist in this spiritually-based treatment, she explained.
“Reiki is present in my hands. It isn’t a conscious thing, it is just there. When I meet a horse, it is that energetic connection that allows me to simply meet the horse where they are at. As I work, I find the places where they are holding and out of balance,” she said.
“Very gently, I’ll invite them to follow me into releasing through the fascia and nervous system. It’s hugely a matter of trust between them and me, as well as their owner and caregivers. I never force a release, I invite the release to happen.”
During a session, Sleight “reads” the body – fascia response, tissue tension, temperature, gut sounds, lymphatic responses, breathing inconsistencies and facial expression. Many times, horses yawn, sigh deeply and fall asleep.
A session lasts about an hour, but sometimes horses enter what she calls a processing state or “time out” before then at which point she stops to avoid “overloading the system with too much information.”
Primary Purported Benefits
- Relaxes the nervous system
- Addresses fear, anxiety from past trauma or abuse
- Eases pain
- Improves muscle function, flexibility, balance
- Increases energy
- Speeds healing
Tellington TTouch Method for Horses
The Tellington TTouch Method for Horses was developed by Canadian Linda Tellington-Jones and her sister Robyn Hood more than 40 years ago.
TTouch is a “gentle, respectful system of bodywork, groundwork and exercises under saddle that works with the nervous system to change postural habits and tension patterns that lead to difficult or uncooperative behavior and challenges,” described Mandy Pretty, Robyn’s daughter.
Pretty, who teaches workshops and trains horses incorporating TTouch and Connected Riding (a biomechanic-based riding system), added that owners are active participants in the TTouch process.
Physical, mental and emotional balance – or imbalance – are interconnected, she explained. “As we can influence one, we influence the others,” she said. “TTouch works to release tension and work in a functional posture so horses are more confident and trusting, which enables them to make better choices and act rather than simply react.”
A typical session begins with a general observation about the horse, their gait, balance and muscle development. A flat-hand, full-body exploration assesses the horse’s comfort being touched in different areas. Sensitivity or defensiveness may mean he’s holding tension, said Pretty.
“We look for the smallest levels of anxiety or discomfort – a flick of the ear, change in respiration, pawing, facial expressions,” she said, explaining TTouches, which are gentle, clockwise circular motions, lifts, slides and strokes, move both the skin and tissue, affecting fascia and cells.
“Horses will obviously relax and soften in their expression and posture. High-headed horses will generally lower their heads and release their backs and shut down or introverted horses will become more engaged and interested in the activities around them.”
Groundwork exercises then encourage balance, flexibility and focus. “One of the great things about TTouch is that it takes the relaxation and release from the bodywork session and uses groundwork to show a horse how to move in a more functional posture so they eventually need less bodywork,” said Pretty.
Primary Purported Benefits
- Promotes horse-human bonding, communication
- Calms nervous, spooky horses
- Alleviates resistance
- Improves attitude, overall behaviour
- Speeds healing and recovery
- Helps prevent shock in first aid and healthcare situations
The Masterson Method
Developed by Jim Masterson, former equine massage therapist for the U.S. endurance team and other international-level clientele, the Masterson Method is described as “an integrated, multi-modality method of equine massage.”
Mark Fletcher, a Yukon-based Masterson Method coach, practitioner and owner of Mountain Equine Bodywork, said it’s an interactive process between practitioners and the horse. “The Masterson Method is a form of equine bodywork where we learn to use the response of the horse to our feel to relieve and release accumulated tension in key junctions of the body that most affect performance,” he said.
“Horses communicate 90 per cent by body language and once you learn to read the language of the horse and his response to light bodywork, it’s pretty remarkable what you can get done.”
Horses are “the ultimate sensory and movement machine,” said Fletcher. “They’re also DNA-programmed to brace against, disguise and guard against intrusion. And they’re specialists at hiding pain because they’re a herd and prey animal. They’re very sophisticated at that because they’ve been on the planet for 60 million years.”
To work around the animal’s internal and external brace mechanisms, Fletcher said various light-touch and movement-based techniques focused on the poll, neck, shoulders, withers and the sacro-lumbar area bring a horse to a state of relaxation. “He will have no choice but to relieve tension,” he said.
Signs of release can be as subtle as a quivering lip or a whisker twitch to more significant indications such as yawns, large shakes and stretches, he said.
“A lot of this type of work requires patience. It takes time sometimes for the horse to process and let the tension go,” he added.
Primary Purported Benefits
- Improved mobility, comfort, performance
- Relaxed attitude
- Enhanced relationship between owner and horse
Equi-Bow incorporates a blend of techniques based on Bowen, craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais (all systems of gentle movements believed to improve body-brain connections) and other modalities.
“Equi-Bow works as a neuromuscular repatterning technique by sending messages through the body to the nervous system via light touches,” explained Cheryl Gibson, who co-developed Equi-Bow Canada alongside Simone Usselman-Tod. “Equi-Bow is unique because it provides maximum impact with minimum input for the body to receive and process.”
One of Equi-Bow’s main advantages is rebalancing the nervous system, said Gibson. “Much like humans, horses may exist in an unrecognized state of almost perpetual anxiety, which adversely affects their entire system.”
Practitioners use their hands in rolling-type movements on specific areas of the body to “inform the nervous system” and bring awareness to areas of restriction.
“If a muscle, tendon, ligament or joint is not functioning efficiently, the brain takes note and helps the body change to become more ‘efficient,’” Gibson added. “All of this is accomplished by recognizing the fact that bodies are set up to heal themselves and need a minimum amount of input to start and maintain the healing process.”
A horse usually receives three approximately one-hour sessions, one week apart, to start. “We want to initiate the body into a new state of awareness, which often happens during first session,” she said. “The second session, about a week later, solidifies changes and then the third session may be week three or may be extended later in time when the owner feels changes are slowing down.”
Horses have a number of responses to Equi-Bow sessions including: increased gut sounds, yawning, stretching, plumping-up of tissue, blood vessels enlarging, release of tension in the muscles, eye softening, relaxed demeanor and urinating, Gibson said.
Primary Purported Benefits
- Relaxation, release of tensions
- Improved ‘posture’
- More optimal movement, straightness and stamina
- Softening of scar tissue and adhesions
- Improved respiratory, digestive and other body system function
A Touchy Subject
Equine touch therapies certainly aren’t without their detractors and with little scientific proof of efficacy it can be hard to justify why and how these therapies might help our animals.
The “methodological quality of most studies is poor, which often prevents definitive conclusions and recommendations,” said Kevin Haussler in the Review of Manual Therapy Techniques in Equine Practice (2009). He added, “In horses there are too few controlled studies to support most anecdotal claims of effectiveness.”
Information on their use in humans is lacking too. For example, the U.S. government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, has this to say about reiki: “Several groups of experts have evaluated the evidence on reiki, and all of them have concluded that it’s uncertain whether reiki is helpful. Only a small number of studies of reiki have been completed, and most of them included only a few people.”
And a “systematic review” of scientific literature on Bowen techniques for humans concluded it “may provide a noninvasive and affordable complementary approach to improvements in health.” But goes on to state: “Scientific evidence is not well documented. Further research is needed to systematically test this modality, before widespread recommendations can be given.” (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2011).
No matter what current science says or doesn’t say, the use of touch, as Haussler said, “is arguably one of the oldest and most universally accepted forms of therapy to relieve pain and suffering.” If your horse enjoys a hands-on therapy, you believe he’s benefitting and your veterinarian gives it the thumbs-up, then why not?