Getting the Feel

Sara placing a few strands of Molly's tail between the pages of a bible.

By Catherine Bird

One of the things that students find foreign when learning to massage a horse is getting the feel of what is under their hands. It is not something everyone can feel automatically but it is possible with practice to be able to feel effectively. When you are feeling your horse you need to be able to distinguish what is normal from what isn't to determine what could be causing your horse discomfort. Once you begin to develop a touch and feel with your horse, this will become another way to communicate with him. It will also enhance your relationship. It is important to compare both sides of your horse before panicking and thinking your horse has an abnormal muscle development. When your feel develops you will find you can begin to get an idea of what has happened to your horse in the past. 

Exercises to develop sensitive hands

Feel as many horses as you can. They can even be found in the centre of a big city like New York.

When you begin to touch your horse you may have to turn off your rational mind for a moment so that your hands can begin to assess from a more intuitive and feeling space. One way to do this is to stand with your horse quietly. Place your hands on his shoulder and close your eyes. Take your time and become aware of how your horse feels under your hands. Sense his movements and how his body responds to your touch. Then begin to explore. A word of caution - this is not an exercise to do alone or with a horse that is not trustworthy. It is wise to have someone standing quietly holding your horse so you stay safe.

Take the time to touch your horse both before and after work. A muscle that has worked and is pumped with blood will feel very different from a cool, relaxed muscle.

Find a Bible or dictionary with the old fine pages. Use a hair from your horse's mane and place it between the pages. Start with one page over the hair and run your fingers over the hair and feel it under the page. Then turn another page over the hair and repeat feeling the hair. Initially you may feel the hair under only six or seven pages, but as the sensitivity in your hands develops you will find the number of pages you can feel the hair through will increase dramatically. When you are feeling confident or want to continue developing your sense of touch, try this same exercise with your own hair.

No horse? Practice on your own body. Your thigh is a great body part to practice on while sitting in front of the television. You can practice all sides of your leg. The quadriceps in the front of your thigh offers a good, wide muscle to feel. You can feel it when your leg is stretched out in front or when you are sitting cross-legged. If you are lucky (!) enough to have some cellulite, it will give you another type of tissue on which to practice developing your feel. (This exercise you may have to explain if caught by other family members!)

A good-sized, firm cushion or pillow will also help you practice any 'pumping' or tapotement techniques before you attempt them on your horse.

Your dog may be a willing model to practice on as well and will have a different feel. He will be more sensitive to firm pressure, so remember to use a gentle pressure on your dog. He is not as large as your horse and may bite without warning if you hit a sore spot. He will be a guide as to what angle to apply fingertip pressure. When applying pressure you use the pads of your fingers; you will find if you are pointing too directly it feels like a poke, and your dog may give you a quick growl or grimace.

Book yourself in for a massage with a professional therapist who treats humans so that you can feel what your horse may be experiencing. You will be surprised at how many sore muscles or spasms you may have in your own body. Try different styles of massage on your own body as it will help you understand how your horse feels if you poke him a little too hard. If your budget stretches far enough it would be beneficial to compare different styles of massage. A Swedish massage, for instance, will bring about different responses in your body as compared to a Sports massage.

How different tissue feels

Sara touches Buddy's shoulder with her eyes closed as her father holds the lead.

One of the most common muscle complaints you will find is a muscle in spasm. This occurs when the muscle is stressed while in use and when it contracts, some of the fibres remain stuck. These fibres have restricted blood flow to them and are often unable to free themselves. What eventually ends up happening is the fibres surrounding these fibres join with them and create what feels like a lump of tissue.

One of the most common places you will find one of these lumps or spasms is in front of the shoulder blade where the neck joins the shoulder. Now as you develop your touch you will begin to notice some of these spasms or tissue changes feel harder and more resistant to your touch than others. The ones that are hardest and less responsive to your hands are most likely the ones that have been there a long time. A spasm that has been developing for a week will ease out within minutes whereas a spasm that has taken years to develop may need several massages to restore healthy tone to that tissue.

With any type of spasm your aim is to get the blood to flow again in this region. Deep finger pressure and stretching of the tissue alternated with effleurage will help loosen this area and then the circulation can be restored.

Tightness in tissue is another thing you will find. Often when an area is strained you will feel tenseness or a banding effect under your hands. This will be localised to a string of fibres tightening up and feeling like a tight elastic band under your fingertips, or you may find a sheet of myofascial tissue tightened across a region.

The best way to address this sort of tissue is to find where you get the most resistance to your touch (the tight tissue with the least give when you press it) and then place digital pressure upon it. This does not have to be heavy pressure and it is best if you apply just enough pressure to get some resistance from the tissue and hold. Once that layer releases, you can build up the pressure to the next level and again hold until that layer releases, continuing until you have removed all tightness. 

Swelling will hopefully be obvious to you. It can come in various sizes and can be as a result of an injection site or impact causing a haematoma, or an allergic reaction. It will feel similar to a balloon filled with water when you touch it.

To deal with swelling you can apply a draining technique. With the lightest of pressure you can draw out from the swelling into the surrounding tissue like a sunburst, just going around in a circular fashion. If your fingers were pencils you would end up with a drawing that looked like a child's sketch of the sun. If the swelling is on a leg you can place the webbing of your hand about the swelling and slowly pump over it. This is also done with the lightest of pressure because you are working the lymphatic vessels just below the skin.

If a swelling has not been able to drain naturally and has hardened you need to break up the stale lymph; you will find this hardening feels different from a spasm. It is difficult to describe this difference, but you will often find this sort of lump is more encapsulated and not following the lines of fibres in striated muscle as a muscle spasm does. With this sort of hardness rapid finger friction over the area will help the body break up the hardened lymph and stimulate drainage to remove it via the lymphatic system.

Let your horse teach you

Your most valuable teacher when learning to develop your feel will be your horse. He will quickly guide you to what feels good for him and what disturbs him. When you work with your horse observe his reactions. Be guided by him when you feel something odd to your touch. You will soon learn what sort of muscle spasm hurts. It is important to approach your horse with respect while you are developing your touch. If you rush the process or poke him in a harsh way you will soon be the recipient of his disdain.

If you find an old, stale tightness or one that has been restricting his movement he may place his weight against you to indicate he wants you to place more pressure on this area. He may also move forward to guide your hands to a tighter area he wants relieved or move away quickly if you are too enthusiastic with your new skills.

Remember you will be touching your horse in a way he may have never experienced before. It is interesting when students who are adamant that their horses do not kick or bite discover, as they inadvertently touch a sore spot, their horses are capable of biting or kicking.  You must use all due care and always remember that your horse is a live creature under your hands and may have soreness yet to be discovered.

What I find rewarding is when a horse begins to instruct me on what he likes. Many of my clients will turn and nibble places on their bodies that they want rubbed. If I am placing pressure on a tight area they will lean into me or match my weight with theirs. Others will stretch into a release of tightness from the withers, or move slightly to get you to put your hands slightly in a different spot to the one you are working. Learn to read your horse's requests and you will find you both work as a team when its time for you to learn how to feel his body.

Be patient with yourself. Some people are lucky to be born with the ability to massage, while others have to practise and dedicate a lot of time to getting the feel. If you persevere your understanding will grow.

If you are unsure of what you are feeling or it does not respond to your touch you can always call on a professional therapist. Most are willing to show you how they work as they massage your horse and help you understand his muscle health. Make your intention clear to the therapist and explain you want to be able to help your horse as much as you can yourself. You will find them only too willing to assist you with this goal.

Ultimately it is your horse who will benefit from all this attention, and he will reward you with a more understanding relationship.

Catherine Bird

Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally.

PO Box 670. Randwick. NSW Australia

About the author:

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients have included the NSW Mounted Police, Olympic level competitors, and horses in all disciplines as well as backyard pets. She is the author of Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy, which is one of a series being developed and she offers the Equine Aromatherapy Correspondence Course worldwide. For more information see, and, or email Catherine directly at