Achieve Balance with Rolfing

Achieve Balance with Rolfing

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on Rocky

by Jim Pascucci  


Many recurring performance problems in horses (as well as riders) can be difficult to understand and even harder to treat through conventional methods of training or health care. What may at first appear to be a problem of stride length or impulsion can often be traced to chronic tensions in the soft, connective tissue that holds bones and muscle together. A therapeutic method called Rolfing can release these habitual tensions and free both horse and rider for higher performance. 

Just underneath the skin is the superficial layer of a 3 dimensional web of connective tissue, the fascial system. All of the body's organs, blood vessels, nerves, muscles and bones are encased in "pockets" of fascia. It is fascia that determines the body's form, the orientation of bones, the direction a muscle pulls and the body's movement patterns.

Fascial restrictions can develop through athletic training and overuse, poor posture, injuries and movement habits. Because the fascia has a "plastic" quality, its shape can be changed by the repetitive application of low energy forces. For example, always mounting the horse from the near side can result in chronic torsion in the horse's fascia as well as establishing a repetitive movement pattern in the rider. This limitation becomes evident when the rider attempts to do an off-side mount.

Rolfing is a holistic approach to working with the body's fascial connective tissue.

A restriction in the superficial fascial layer feels similar to wearing tight clothing. It is difficult to move freely and you want to wiggle out of it. (Have you ever put on a pair of tight riding pants? Before you smooth the fabric, the bunched-up pants feel like they are an irritant that is restricting your ability to move). Restrictions in the deeper layers may be experienced as chronic tension or strain, lack of energy, or a general feeling of dis-ease in the body.  Because the fascial system is contiguous within the body, effects may be felt far from the actual imbalance, just like the bunching of a pants fabric at the knee may be felt as a tightness in the waist. Strains in one place may result in actual positional shifts in structures elsewhere.

Unfortunately, once an undesirable shape or pattern is established it will tend to be reinforced as the body tries to avoid irritation and pain by "favoring" the fascial strain. The results are less flexibility and fewer choices for both horse and rider. These repetitive low energy "injuries", which can even be caused by poorly fitting tack or riding out of balance, result in reduced range of motion (ROM). Flexibility and performance suffer and the ground for an acute injury is prepared.

When a muscle's fascia has shortened, its position may change and its ROM becomes lessened. This "muscle hypertension" may result in pain as it continually pulls on its bony attachments. The horse's stride may shorten to compensate and a new movement pattern is incorporated into the nervous system. (You can experience an example of a habitual pattern right now. Just move your watch to your other arm. How much thought does it take to re-write your nervous system's "program" to find out what time it is?)

The fascia must be relieved of its restrictions in a deliberate and gentle way.

Tight fascia can also cause fatigue, due to inefficient movement. The fascia surrounding individual muscles determines the direction of their pull and allows them to slide across each other. Although the nervous system is capable of recruiting one muscle for work while others remain inactive, an imbalance in the fascial sheath may cause muscles to bind to each other. This binding results in more energy being expended in movement. Fascial shortening around a joint can even cause it to rotate resulting in "conformation flaws".

Just as negative patterns can be established, positive ones can too. However, a new training regimen alone may not be the answer. The fascia must be relieved of its restrictions in a deliberate and gentle way in order to open up the possibility of a new way of moving. This is where Rolfing can help.

Rolfing structural integration, or "Rolfing" for short, was developed by Dr. Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D., a Biochemist who graduated from Columbia University in 1916. Dr. Rolf's articulation of the importance of the myofascial system revolutionized thinking about the body. After 50 years of research, study and application, Rolfing structural integration was made available 25 years ago as a course of study through the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration. Since then, many new therapies have emerged which can trace their roots to Dr. Rolf.

Rolfing is a holistic approach to working with the body's fascial connective tissue.

A Rolfer is trained to see imbalances in a body and to feel the "strain patterns" in the fascial web. The Rolfer uses hands, knuckles and elbows to help free fascial strain, allowing the body to lengthen and come into its natural balance.

Rolfing can release habitual holding patterns.

However, Rolfing is not simply a deep massage. Rolfers work tissue in a unique way that is not at all like massage. It is very slow work, and very specific. It actually changes the structure of the body by helping it return to its natural shape and alignment-- bringing it into balance where freedom of motion can be realized. Nor is Rolfing chiropractic. Rolfing relieves soft tissue holding through direct contact with the fascia, systematically working the appropriate layers. 

Rolfing, more importantly, works toward balancing the body, freeing it in a specific order to allow balance. Feeling the restriction and applying the correct 'tool', depth, and speed to keep contact with the restriction until it resolves is what allows that balance to return.

               Once balanced, the body's soft tissues and bony structures work together to provide a tensional lift. To experience this now, try using your neck muscles to pull your head down into your shoulders without raising your shoulders. Now relax. Your head will naturally rise back up on its own (without muscular effort) through tensional lift. The Rolfed body has tensional lift. Its movement is fluid and powerful, muscles slide across each other easily and efficiently.

Feeling the restriction and applying the correct 'tool', depth, and speed allows balance to return to the fascia.

The Rolfing program that has been designed for human treatment consists of a series of 10 sessions, each approximately one hour long and spaced a week apart. The Rolfing series that I have developed for horses consists of up to 5 sessions. In both cases, the first session(s) open the superficial layers of fascia. Dramatic movement changes can be experienced once the superficial layers are open. The work then proceeds to the deeper layers assuring that the body is being organized and reintegrated as the work progresses. The body can then stay corrected with proper usage and maintenance.

Rolfing is a powerful therapy for performance issues caused by soft tissue imbalance. However, it should not be considered an alternative to veterinary care. It is a supplement to veterinary care and good horsemanship.



The words Rolfing and Rolfer are registered trade marks of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration. Only individuals certified by the Rolf Institute may use them. To find a Rolfing Practitioner in your area contact the Institute at 800-530-8875 or at

About the author:

Jim Pascucci, Advanced Certified Rolfer, has been featured on Fox TV's Pet News, performed live on National TV at Chelsea Equestrian in New York, and has written numerous articles for magazines. He teaches Equine Myofascial Integration (based on his adaptation of Rolfing to horses), Equine Massage for Horse Owners, and The Horse Person Journey (a meditation program with horses). Jim has offices in Loveland, Denver, and Boulder, Colorado for people, as well as his horse practice. He has worked on horses as far away as Nova Scotia.


For more information, visit the website, Jim can be reached at 303-581-0530.


About Rocky:

"Rocky was trained for Arab Western Pleasure and bought by my wife," says Jim. "Rinpoche rides and trains him when he is teaching in Colorado. Rinpoche trained Rocky to allow him do archery off of him. Rocky is, along with my horse, Yves, one of the 'models' that I used when figuring out my equine Rolfing process. I would Rolf them and monitor the results. If the results stayed for more than 2 months, then I figured it was worthwhile. In Rocky's case, he used to toe out rather severely and Rolfing corrected it - that was 5 years ago!"