Equine Massage treatments can release stress and improve movement.
By S. E. Morris
With a soft voice and gentle hands, Jill Deming begins massage treatment on her latest equine patient. Her calm demeanor transfers to the horse, and her session to relieve fascial restrictions and increase mobility.
Deming, of Fredericksburg, Va., is a certified equine and canine massage therapist, specializing in therapeutic massage, myofascial release, craniosacral therapy, and animal Bowen. She is a member of the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork and has been performing bodywork on horses and dogs for the past 15 years.
“I include two modalities in my work: craniosacral therapy and myofascial release,” said Deming. “Both forms of these therapies address the dynamic layer of tissue called the fascia.
“Craniosacral therapy is a gentle and noninvasive modality,” she explained. This therapy, also referred to as CST, includes gentle pressure and light manipulation of the bones in the horse’s skull, spine, and pelvis. Proponents claim CST increases the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which releases stress and improves movement.
Myofascial release (MFR), a form of “soft tissue therapy,” according to Deming, relaxes muscles and improves blood flow and lymphatic circulation. The fascia and its corresponding muscles are the focus of her massage treatments.
“A good way to think of fascia is the stretchy, translucent layer you find when you cut into a chicken,” Deming described. “Fascia is connective tissue that is similar to a body stocking located just underneath the skin. It extends from the brain to the hooves and gives horses their shape. Actually, if horses—or people—didn’t have fascia, they’d be nothing but a bag of water!
“Fascia also contributes to the health of the animal by increasing transport between the cells, moving nutrients into the cell and toxins out,” she added. “An injury, the traumas of daily life, exercise, and performing can all result in restrictions in the fascia. Left untreated, these restrictions build up and can result in ill health.”
Deming begins her sessions by asking thorough questions and taking copious notes about each horse, including current or past injuries, diet, shoes, teeth, vet visits, and daily workload, which enables her to design a treatment that is horse specific. Her technique is to start at “trouble spots,” then proceed physically around the horse as she works on the back, hind, shoulders, and neck, ending with the face.
She uses one of her tools, a handheld “cool” laser, to “calm downan inflamed area before beginning bodywork.”
“The laser helps the cells to increase blood flow, which in turn increases the healing process,” she explained.
Her other tool, a sturdy plastic stepstool, is carried from stall to stall to reach horses’ backs and is “a novelty for barn cats to sleep on, and some horses drag it around their stall,” she said.
Deming displays an innate ability to find old injuries and stress points, and focuses her healing hands on each area.
“It’s like physics,” she said. “The energy bounces around in the horse and has to settle somewhere, and I find that energy point and work to relieve the associated stress or pain.
“The energy needs to be released in a reverse cycle than how the stress was caused,” Deming explained. “Also, the horse moving during the bodywork is good [and] demonstrates the healing process.
“The shifting the horses do is part of the therapy; it’s kind of like a dance,” she laughed. In addition, Deming looks for certain behaviors from the horse, such as shaking its head as a “reset,” blowing out, dropping the head, and shallow breathing, all which can signify a release. Deming constantly monitors the horse and will vary her techniques to provide the relief to her patient.
“And, sometimes the release is in the tissue, not the behavior,” she clarified.
“For example,” she continued, “there is often a feeling like bees buzzing under my hands” while working on the horse’s hind muscles. After a significant length of time focusing on the area with massage, “the bees have quieted.”
“It’s counterproductive to antagonize the horse with bodywork; this is to be a stress release,” Deming added.
She related a story about one horse, a mare, “who didn’t want to be touched” when Deming began her therapy session.
“It took me a little while to fi gure this out; we thought she was being difficult. But it became very clear when took she took my stool and just trampled it. Fortunately, I wasn’t on it at the time…”
However, the majority of Deming’s equine patients enjoy her massage treatment and enjoy time spent with her.
“At some level the horses know we’re trying to help them, plus the fascia work feels good—that release from the massage,” she said.
“The horse’s owner or caretaker is the ‘head’ of the wellness team for the horse and therefore has a responsibility to conduct research and stay informed on all aspects of horse care,” she continued.
Therapeutic massage is “a critical component” for horse well-being, Deming stated.
“There are so many benefits from massage,” she said, including blood vessel dilation, which allows blood to flow more freely and increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients reaching the bone and soft tissues while encouraging the removal of waste products such as lactic acid.
“Massage has been shown to reduce the output of the stress hormone (ACTH), protecting the body against the ravages of stress,” Deming added.
“Also, blows, strains or wounds can cause fibrous tissue adhesions beneath the skin, which can impede the proper movement of muscles. These adhesions can be broken down by massage, resulting in freer movement,” she said.
“There’s just so many ways for the horse to benefit from massage,” Deming stated.
Deming noted how the field of bodywork has “grown and blossomed” in the past few years.
“When I started, there was basically sports massage, and that was it,” she continued. “Now, there are a variety of different types of bodywork, [including] all types of fascia work, such as craniosacral therapy and myofascial release, along with structural integration, Bowtech™, equine touch, acupressure…the list goes on!”
Deming plans to “delve” into fascia work, including its connection with tensegrity, which Deming defines as “a structural principle regarding bodywork and the fascia,” and meridians.
“The process never ends—there’s always more to learn,” she said.
Deming added, “I never want to be done with a treatment; there’s so much I want to do to help these fabulous animals.”
For more information about Jill Deming and Integrated Animal Therapies, visit www.jdanimals.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (www.facebook.com/IntegratedAnimalTherapies). Deming recommends contacting the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork (www.iaamb.com) or the International Association of Animal Therapists and Healers (www.iaath.com) for information on school listings and programs on equine massage.