Friday, September 16, 2011

Comforting touches: Practice helps relieve stress in animals

Tami Parr
You've probably had a stiff neck that hurt so much you had to turn your shoulders to look around. Horses can develop "stiffness" in muscles and joints too, and there's nothing as comforting as working out the tension with touch point releases and gentle passive range-of-motion movements, said Tami Parr of Equine a.t. Parr of Beaver Dam.

"Bodyworks is what it's called," Parr said. "It's not always what people think."

The practice of bodywork may include some rubs and stretches as part of the process, but the difference is in the touch and response technique, she said. While a massage works on the muscles, the bodyworks approach begins by identifying tension points in the animal's body.

"What I do is move my hands along and look for a response from the horse. Usually I look for responses in the eyes, the face and from expressions the horse may have in response to finding a point of tension," Parr said.

Once a point is discovered by a blink of the eye, a tilt of an ear, or a shift on its feet, the point is held with gentle pressure until a "release" is felt or noticed. Release is often in the form of licking and chewing, a change in breathing or yawning. The applied pressure may be held and let go a number of times to get the horse to release.

Horses often develop injuries and muscle pulls and stoically continue on by compensating for the change with another part of the body. More weight may get shifted to one side or the other or the horse will move in a slightly different way to protect the sore spot.

"Over time, the horse can build layers of tension, and that can change the way it moves," she said. "As the rider, you'll begin to notice little things. Maybe the horse won't always pick up the proper lead, or they'll refuse certain moves."

As an example, Parr said a barrel racer came to her with a well-trained, experienced 8-year-old Quarter Horse. The rider asked the horse for circles and was instead provided ovals.

"As I worked with the horse to find any restrictions it may have had, I discovered a muscle spasm," Parr said. "We were able to work with the horse over time and got it back into performance condition."

In cases of a performance horse being used to race or jump or work, a bodywork session may become part of the overall training program. Other times, complete bodywork is needed only once in a while.

"I'll teach people a handful of common moves to help their horse and to extend the time between complete bodyworks," Parr said. "And knowing how to do some of these techniques helps bring a new depth to the relationship owners have with their horse."

Veterinarians also are beginning to find a role for bodyworks as a recovery tool for horses post-surgery and following other medical treatments. Using a bodyworks therapy is especially useful for horses on stall rest, she said.

"The horse standing in a stall day in and day out can really begin to build up tension, especially a horse that normally has a lot of exercise and activity," Parr said. "Bodywork for a horse on stall rest reduces muscle restrictions and stress. The process also helps release endorphins, a natural pain and stress-reducing substance produced by the horse."

Veterinarians have to focus on the immediate medical needs of the animal and often rely on Parr to deliver the time intensive hands-on therapy. When involved in a medical recovery process, Parr said she is part of the team, keeping notes, sharing information and watching for changes. She'll spend up to two hours focused on muscle and movement, noting restrictions and documenting progress.

"Owners should never use bodywork as a substitute for veterinary care," Parr said. "Bodywork is a comfort and movement therapy, not the kind of medical care provided by a veterinarian.

"Regardless of the situation, handling your horse with an eye for tension and restrictions can help improve the riding and relationship experience. Often preventing restrictions will remove roadblocks before they become problems."

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