Equine Gratitude

November, 2019       

Thanksgiving is around the corner and the days are getter darker and quieter.  'Tis the season for wine, cheese, and counting blessings.  Although I find the #grateful craze, well, grating, the concept of recognizing and celebrating the good things in life is profound. 

An appreciative perspective seems to enrich one's well-being, and scientific studies suggest that gratitude can positively alter your brain chemistry.

Gratitude is one of the driving factors of what I do every day.  It was out of a sense of gratitude that MEND was founded.  We recognized the hard work of horses, and we wanted to offer a way to reward and even improve their efforts.  Horses that receive bodywork may or may not win their classes---there are far too many factors that add up to a win or loss.  But we believe that bodywork gives horses an edge.  It provides physical comfort and injury prevention.  This may encourage them to perform at their best and allow them to excel in the work that they do.  This is what good horse people truly value—the TRY, the investment, the partnership. 

Good relationships occur when there is mutual “grooming” in the form of gratitude.  We strengthen alliances when we listen to one another, say "thank you", or pat a colleague on the back.  Bodywork is a compassionate tool that not only alleviates bodily aches and pains, but also serves to bolster the spirit.  Healthy minds and spirits are key components of enduring athleticism.

I believe that gratitude is not uniquely human.  When I first started practicing equine massage, I was blown away by how each horse took a moment to acknowledge me when I got it right.  There was a thoughtful head turn, a gaze into my eyes, and often an attempt at mutual grooming. 

These behaviors are exhibited time and again at therapeutic bodywork sessions, and I am grateful when my clients show appreciation.  Fellow bodyworkers have joked that we crave this kind of acknowledgement—a nuzzle, a nicker, a gentle lowering of the head.  It reinforces the benefits of the work.

Sure, horses are happy when we feed them and leave them alone to graze, and there are days when a client shows "gratitude" simply by not kicking me to death when I attempt work on a tight hamstring.  But, hey, I appreciate that too! 

It is easy to argue that I am humanizing these animal encounters.  But humans are animals.  Since equine animals have been domesticated by human animals for thousands of years, doesn’t it stand to reason that we exhibit mutual manners?  Especially if we have done a good job of it?  I believe that if happy humans can feel gratitude for other humans and even other species, then happy horses can experience gratitude for us.  We can notice espressions of this emotion only when we allow it.


SYDNEY seems to enjoy his spa...

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I have encountered many examples of equine gratitude over the yearsI will share a couple here.  One big moment was with a 21-year-old horse named Valentino.  He was a prize-winning eventer from a good background, and I met him as a semi-retired lesson horse.  Val was a wonderful mount, but all hell would break loose when you tried to groom and tack him.  He would lunge and bite and scare the living daylights out of you.  

VALENTINO... not so keen on tacking up

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As a newly certified equine massage therapist I was curious to see if I could helpI was convinced that every horse displaying cranky or mean behavior was just sore and acting out.  I put my hands on him very carefully and he lunged at me as expected.  I stopped and waited and tried again.  Again, he came at me, ears pinned and teeth bared.  This pattern went on for a while until eventually Val accepted my hands and settled down.  When I found the right pressure and the right spot, he softened and relaxed.  When I inadvertently went too deep or too fast, he turned back into a self-protective monster. 

As time passed, we discovered a mutual connection.  I was able to finish up the session, leaving Valentino (the former terror) sleepy and sighing.  His defensive posture had softened, and he finally looked relaxed and comfortable.  Then he did the unexpected.  He began licking my hands like a dog! 

I had never been licked like that by a horse.  Horses have licked grain remnants or salt from my skin, but this was different.  This was a deliberate act of thankfulness.  I was stunned.  This threatening, angry creature was now lavishing my hands (the hands that had massaged him!) with puppy-like kisses. 

Note the myofascial restriction & atrophy in Val's thorax, especially saddle area...

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Another memorable moment of equine gratitude came from Sydney, a cute little chestnut quarter horse.  This 15-year-old enigma was lovely on the ground, but his work behavior perplexed everyone.  He would not go forward, and he was consistently rearing under saddle. 

Once again my “therapy” mind wanted to set things right, so I met Syd in his paddock and massaged his left side.  When I finished, he walked a few steps away and processed it—shaking, licking, chewing.   I told him I was new at massage and if he liked my technique I would continue to work on his right side.  I then walked a few feet away and turned my back, waiting for a response. 

Of course, I felt mildly madWhy on earth would I expect this interaction to have any effect on this horse?  Why would he even understand what I was trying to offer?  Am I naively anthropomorphizing this creature?  Am I a certifiable wacko? 

But before these misgivings drove me back into the barn (maybe 6 seconds), I felt something brush up against my side.  Sydney had come over to me as I asked.  But he didn’t just stand there.  He buried his head under my arm like a sinewy cat requesting a scratch.  This very specific action left no doubt in my mind as to what this horse was expressing: his very own version of equine gratitude.

This simple gesture filled me with human gratitude.  I gave him a big pat to thank him for letting me know how he felt, and then, as instructed, I went back to work on his other side.  

SYDNEY and his goat buddy... 

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