I have worked with hundreds of riders and horses for over a decade and in that time, I have learned many things but, the most profound insight I have learned is that the horse feels everything. So the answer to the question posed in the title is a resounding “Yes”. Your pain is affecting your horse and may actually be hurting him.
The musculoskeletal systems of the human and equine body are complex. When we put the two systems together, that complexity increases. Each body is designed; among other things, to bear its own weight and convert energy into movement. When you put these two complex bio-mechanical systems (bodies) together, you have two highly interactive and interdependent systems. I will talk more about this in a minute, but first I want to tell you about the most pervasive, and arguably the most important structure within each of these bodies: Fascia.
Fascia is a three dimensional web of connective tissue that runs from just underneath the surface of the skin all the way down to the surface of the bones. It goes through and around every muscle, organ and joint and connects directly to the central nervous system through the meninges – a tough sheath of connective tissue that encapsulates the brain and spinal cord.
Understanding fascia and how it works is crucial to understanding how to manage pain. Blood vessels, lymphatic vessels and nerves are all interwoven through the fascial layers. Whenever we injure a muscle or break a bone, we are also damaging layers of fascia at the injury site. While bones knit and muscle heals, fascia may not heal correctly. Often times after an injury, fascia will over-correct. This can take a number of forms, from tightening down and restricting motion, to developing adhesions and sticking to nearby structures. In its healthy state, fascia is smooth, flexible, slippery and soft. When fascia is damaged it can become dry, hard, and rigid. Damaged fascia can reduce function, limit movement and cause pain.
We riders are an accumulation of years of injuries, fascial restrictions and compensations. The injuries heal, but many times the damage to the connective tissue or fascia is not addressed. Repeated injuries to the same area of the body can cause an accumulation of fascial adhesions. These can appear near the surface of the skin, or more often they are located quite deep within the body, affecting muscles, organs, nerves and blood vessels. Fascia can also become restricted in areas remote from the site of the actual injury because of its three dimensional, web-like structure. Because the fascia is connected to the meninges, it can affect the normal function of the central nervous system. Fascial restrictions can cause reduced range of motion, reduced strength, limited flexibility and pain and other dysfunctions.
We work through the pain. We tough it out and get back in the saddle as soon as possible, often before we are healed. When we are injured, we often change our position in the saddle. We tend to tense and guard the body, and this tension is transmitted to the horse’s body. If we have back pain, we may shift our weight and sit more heavily on one side of the saddle, or we may lean out of position: either too far forward or too far backward to take pressure off of the back. We may weight one leg more heavily than the other to take pressure off of a sore hip or knee. These compensation patterns take us out of symmetry and balance and remember, the horse feels everything.
All of these compensations within our body are now being translated to our horse’s body. The horse feels the unbalanced weight and will adjust his body to create a position that feels balanced for him, but it is not balanced. It is not symmetrical. Left uncorrected, this situation will eventually ‘teach’ the horse to be crooked to compensate for the imbalance in our body. As the horse compensates, his body is subject to asymmetries that can result in fascial restrictions too.
Often times our horse comes into the equation with his own asymmetries that are the result of fascial restrictions. Our horse comes by his fascial restrictions the same way we do – it is a normal result of an active life filled with accidents, injuries, adjustments and compensation patterns just like our own.
The good news is that fascial restrictions and adhesions can be released from deep within our body and our horse’s body. There are several ways to release fascia and a combination of approaches works best.
The best method of do-it-yourself fascia release is stretching before and after working. This means stretch exercises for you and your horse. There are a number of excellent books available that outline effective stretches for horses and riders. The important thing is to find a system that works for you and that you will consistently do! A regular stretch program for you and your horse can prevent further damage to fascial layers and can help lengthen and stretch soft tissue and prepare it for work, thereby reducing the risk of possible injury.
When you are already suffering from chronic pain, it is important to look at getting effective bodywork done on yourself. A qualified massage therapist trained in fascial release techniques can help both you and your horse release the restrictions that contribute to reduced range of motion, lack of flexibility and pain. And it is vitally important that you both receive bodywork!
It is optimal to find a bodyworker who is trained and skilled in working with humans and horses. I say this because your body and your horse’s body mirror each other, and having one practitioner working on both bodies simultaneously will generally yield better results faster since each body provides clues to what is going on in the other. If this is not possible, investigate and hire the best professionals you can find to do the fascial release work for each of you.
Lisa Machala LMT is the owner and operator of Michigan Equine Therapy. She specializes in fascial release and CranioSacral Therapy to help her clients and their horses feel and perform at their best. Lisa is the creator of Painless Riding in 8 Weeks. Please visit www.MichiganEquineTherapy.com to learn more about her programs and services.