One of the first questions I’m often asked once someone finds out what I do is “Do the horses like it?” It’s usually followed closely by “How do you know whether they like it?” Generally speaking, most horses enjoy their massages very much. It’s not unusual for a horse to be wary for the first few minutes, long enough for the endorphins to start flowing and the horse to realize that what you are doing feels really good (usually about 10-15 min the first time).
As far as how you know whether they are enjoying it, each horse is an individual. Some are quite introverted and all you see is the ears drooping gently, their eye softening and the smallest of nose twitches accompanied by deeper slower breathing. Most horses also lick and chew, stretch into the manipulations (often making them more effective in the process) and yawn at times of a release. It is also very common for a horse to try to mutually groom the therapist (or the owner standing near the horse’s head) during a treatment. They instinctively try to return the favour as they would if another horse was grooming them. There are also some very extroverted, expressive horses who move around a lot during the massage to ensure that the therapist really addresses the areas they want worked on. This sometimes involves moving the head up and down or leaning into the hands to attain the desired pressure or chewing quite enthusiastically as a tension release. Some horses become so relaxed that it is necessary to wake them up to make sure they don’t fall down – their eyes will close completely, lip will hang down entirely, head will start to nod and they may even drool.
Of course, as anyone who has ever had a therapeutic massage knows, not all parts of the massage feel great at the time. If you have ever had trigger points released on yourself, you know that before the fantastic feeling of tension melting away, it just hurts… Sometimes a lot. Additionally, just as with people, horses all prefer different levels of pressure during a massage. The rule of thumb is that horses who have less muscle mass (often young, older or convalescing animals) will tolerate less pressure, but many other horses are just sensitive. While they can’t speak, horses can certainly communicate dispelasure at your actions quite clearly. The reaction is generally mild to start, but can escalate if the therapist does not pay attention. Quite often a warning is just a glance back with ears slightly back or a swish of the tail. If that’s igrored, they proceed to move away or lift a hind leg. A bite or a kick is a very strong reaction and not something a horse will do often, but they can certainly resort to it if the therapist is ignoring the early signs. If the horse gets irritated, it’s not a bad idea to regroup for a moment, give them some wither scratches, take a few deep breaths yourself and try something different for a few minutes. No matter how hard you try, certain horses will not love every manipulation, and that’s ok. The fact that they do react is very important, it is always better to know that a certain manipulation in a particular area is too painful, than to cause more discomfort by doing too much.
Once a horse has had a few massages, they generally relax very quickly. Many horses will take a deep breath and start to close their eyes before I even begin the massage. Puts a smile on my face every time!