A Guided Journey of Attunement: Holistic Equine Bodywork

Oct 23, 2023

In the world of Equine Bodywork, there is unique approach that takes you right to the core of holistic healing and connection.

"BodyWork is all about the body, but it also has NOTHING to do with the body" -Josh Williams

It's not just about physical touch; it's about forging a deeper understanding, trust, and balance with the horse we are working with.

Let's explore the intricacies of equine bodywork, as seen through the lens of our Holistic Relational Attunement-based approach, through this guided journey of an actual recent session!

You'll find words that come from our bespoke methods that uniquely combines evidence based manual therapy with trusted relational attunement principles, along with blending BodyWork and GroundWork because 'Motion is Lotion!'.

People in our programs can find training videos and PDF checklists for all these methods, but don't worry, even if you are not in our programs, the principles and sequence featured in this article present ideas you can use right away in your own work.

Everything we teach, we WANT you 'steal' and start using right away because we know the positive impact it can have on program horses, and how those effects create a ripple effect that will help your clients sessions too.

The only thing we ask is that you let us know how it's working for you sometimes. You can post in the comments section of these articles, or if you are in the Academy for Equine Attunement, share and ask questions in the private community forum there!

Let's get this session started.

How to Start Before Starting

Picture yourself standing at the side of the horse, you have practiced your hand softening techniques and you've done your breathwork before engaging with the horse. 

If you have joined the 'Foundations of Equine Attunement' program, you may have even been practicing the 4 'Tactile Acuity Training Exercises' we get there that uses the neuroscience of touch to develop your sensitivity of 'feel' from the inside out.

If you don't have access to that, the meaning behind those exercises is that your brain is exponentially wired to your hands, in other words, you have 'touch superpowers'. The problem is, when you don't use it, you lose it. The good news is, you can 'train' this superpower with practice and specific exercises.  

You've completed our 3-V assessment process (visual-verbal-vibes), and now it's time to enter the nucleus of the Horse-Field and get hands-on!

Neck Work - Brachiocephalicus with Ring Finger

Your soft hand is positioned just under the brachiocephalicus muscle, your arm is placed kind of like an arm curl technique. The pinky side of your hand, with a gentle touch from your ring finger to first finger, explores this important muscle.

Your feet are pointing forward, not towards the horse (so they don't feel like you are 'walking into them', because we know from our other trainings that when we stand at the shoulder we are actually in the 'center' of the field of vision of the horse!). 

Your other hand is gently on top of the horses mane, feeling, guiding, and allowing the horse to 'Relax into Roundness.' We have several precise methods to do this, but when youf hand is on top of the mane/neck you can 'feel' tension or relaxation in the horse.

Your soft eyes, resting in an intentional peripheral gaze, are focused on the horse's face, keenly observing every blink, ear movement, and facial expression.

Key points from our Understanding the Horse MasterClass and Workshops:

Remember, we have two ways of seeing things: focal vision where we  focus intently, we may even call this a 'predator gaze', and the second is  peripheral vision, which is a key part of the language and culture of horses. When we use a 'soft eye', we are effectively stepping into our horses culture and setting up our nervous systems to enter a place of natural relational attunement. 

Now, back to the session:

This is the beginning of a journey, a dance of sensitivity and response. As you apply gentle pressure, you watch for even the slightest hint of the horse's reaction. When the horse communicates, you pause, holding your position, allowing them to process.

The pressure you apply becomes a level of connection, a bridge between you and the horse.

Your intention, brain, and hands are congruent and communicate that congruence through your horses body, brain, and spirit.

Take five deep breaths, releasing your pressure level with each exhale. You sink into a deep level of concentration as your pressure is divided into 5 subtle layers (more of numbers person, I got you, reduce your pressure by 20% each breath!).

Each breath you explore getting more and more subtle. Your horse and you are now in sync, in a silent conversation through touch.

You connection deepens as your pressure lightens. 

Your intuition is now in full presence, and directing your attention, pressure, motion, and intention.

You feel connected and whole within yourself, and attuned to the horse.

Attunement is no longer a theory, it is a literal experience reverberating around you, and between you and the horse.

You continue this journey down the brachiocephalicus, enjoying the presence you have created, and allowing and feeling a sense of limitless space for trust and connection to unfold in ever widening rings of being.

Proprioceptive Foreleg Balance + Gray Area Stretch - Cervico Thoracic Release

Now we have build connection through communicating with your touch.

What this really means, is you have built trust. Now you can look for ways to expand that window of trust.

We do this by adventuring into the curious, even playful arena of balance and proprioception. That sounds fancy and complicated but don't worry, we are just going to pick up the leg like you've done a million times, with a few added intentional nuances. 

The common motion of picking the foreleg up to clean the hoof can become a dance of communication about balance.

As you gently lift the foreleg as if picking out the hoof, you switch hands so you aren't facing backwards like normal, turn your body to face forward. Toes are slightly angled out, because an attuned BodyWorker doesn't like getting their toes smashed by 1000+ point animal! 

Your soft, open hand cradles the hoof. We don't want the horse to feel there leg is 'stuck'.

Quick horse training tip:

Often by showing horses and open door, or a way out, they will choose not to take it. When they don't see a way out, things can get dangerous because they will seek and test until they find a way out. 

Now, back to the session:

As you guide the knee and stretch the leg, your goal is balance, finding that sweet spot that challenges the horse's proprioception without causing insecurity.

It's a delicate dance, allowing the horse to discover balance on their own, which creates connections between body and brain of the horse. As you help them find and strengthen their balance, their trust in you and your connection deepings. 

Quick question (actually two...):

When we are doing this technique, we are really focused on the leg we are holding up. The first question is, what exactly are you focused on? Like exactly what?

If you are like most people, odds are this brings up a 'gray area', something you maybe thought was clear until you really focus on it. This is GOOD, when we realize we don't know as much as we thought, that is a sign we are actually getting it!

So paradoxical because we are trained to feel we are only 'good' when we know everything, the truth is, the more you know the more you realize you don't know. This is called the dunning kruger effect. The point is, you should throw a party every time you find a 'gray area'.

Here are some tips on what to focus on:

  1. Is the horse holding the leg up?
  2. If they are, what muscles are holding it up, where are they?
  3. Are the muscles soft or stiff around the shoulder? Compare differences and make a note of it between right and left sides.
  4. Does the horse jerk the leg or does it feel kind of rubbery or even sleepy? Also compare differences.
  5. Is the horse shifting it weight (think center of mass, which looks like swaying body and/or moving the head)
  6. How long can you hold the stretch before the horse wants to move, what is the FIRST muscle/body part that moves, what is the SECOND and THIRD?
  7. What does the end of the stretch feel like, manual therapists call this 'end play', is it hard, soft, springy or unmoving?
  8. Is the horse breathing, can you see or feel the breath? Are you breathing?

That's the SHORT list, good bodyworkers don't always look like they are DOING a lot, but we are sensing a LOT. By being still, moving slowly, and not talking, we can sense more and more of these things.

If you get bored, you are losing focus. Not only are all the things on that list important, but you can start to ask how each thing is connected to or affects another thing. Then you compare right to left. You add layer up layer and dimension after dimension. 

Here is a truth bomb most manual therapists are hesitant to admit:

You skill and technique don't really matter, all this stuff we are talking about is actually designed to get your FOCUS and INTENTION on the releasing tension in the horse. More on that in another post for another day.

Onto question 2:

We are doing this not only to stretch but to get lots of information about the horses balance, proprioception, muscle reactivity, tension, and adaptive responses. 

So balance is obviously the key here, but WHERE is that balance happening??

I know right, another grey area most likely....

Is it happening around the leg you are holding? Is it happening at the shoulder, hips, back legs.....Where?

Holistically we can say all the above, and lets not forget that truly it all happening in the horses brain! That's why when we were trying to come with clever, advanced sounding method names, we use Neuromuscular Integration Method at one point. 

Then we wanted something simple and accessible so tried 'motion is lotion method', LOL, but everything does happen in the brain in reality. One way we use this in our session is rememberingn that 80% of nerves are AFFERENT, meaning they move informational feedback from the body back to the brain.

As bodyworkers, this is awesome, because we can dramatically change the horses congitive control of their body just by bringing attention to body parts, because 'attention' is actually connecting the brain (attention) to the body (joints/muscles).

Playing with balance and proprieception is an elevated way to do this.

For our purposes in this session, and because I want you to take home information you can really use, we are going to answer question two now:

Balance is happening in the OTHER LEG. You'll notice one side is more balanced the other when you have that leg picked up and are stretching it, just know that the balance you are sensing is actually coming from the opposite leg, and take notes during the session cause you won't remember most of what you feel (at least I don't).

O.K., back to the session:

As the horse finds balance, you gently lower the foot, stretching the cervico (neck)-thoracic (shoulder) area and freeing the brachial plexus (what causes nerve impingements). You seek a slow, controlled descent, as the horse's muscles engage in an eccentric contraction.

This is the science of exercise physiology, applied kinesiology, biomechanics, and anatomy in action. This is the art of balance, strength, and connection, unfolding in each gentle movement.

Because so much is happening here, it explains why we call the section of our training programs that we teach these stretching techniques 'Not all Stretching is Stretching'. It's because the techniques of stretching are really proxies that provide us all kinds of other information, if you get some stretching done, cool, consider a bonus. 

Stretching is highly overrated in the exercise science and biomechanics world (I know this because I have college degrees in these topics and worked in labs studying these things). 

Stretching is best done as part of cool down process, FYI. We use stretching for balance and propriecition training, and so can you!

Where the art and science of this work connect with the golden thread of consiliency, relational attunement comes alive under your hands and in your whole body, connected to the horse!

It is, hands down, one of the best feelings on earth. 


Let's go deeper, and explore even more layered dimensions of subtle communication.

Sometimes, one leg feels less reactive, as if the horse's awareness has drifted away. In such situations, you use your free hand to awaken the muscles of the shoulder, rekindling the connection.

This is the art of awakening, through the science of cross fiber friction and/or tapotement; allowing the horse to re-associate with that part of their body safely.

In industry speak, this is a practical form of ‘Somatic Integration’, good stuff!!

Trust builds, the horse is fascinated at our ability to communicate to its body in a way that builds awareness and balance, which always leads to the most valuable currency the horse knows, the veritable holy trinity of Safety, Comfort, and Care. 

TRT (Tension Release Timer) Along the Spine - Brain to Body

We also seek comfort in our own body, we don't want to hurt our back and stay bent over with the horses foreleg too long.

We move slow, we take our time, but we also get in and get out. It's all about balance on all levels!

If you need to rest your back, or feel complete with the leg stretches, return the spinal column.

A fun anatomical fact is that every nerve that reaches literally any part of the horses body can be traced back to the spine! It is the effective conduit of life energy for the horse. As such, it's a pretty great place to focus your bodywork. 

Standing at the horse's side, your hand forms a V shape, gently sinking into the spinal groove on each side, just behind the withers.

As you move slowly down the spine, your intuition guides you to areas of tension.

The horse communicates through subtle signs, and you respond with perfect timing. How? You pause, you exhale, you lighten the touch, you wiggle a little bit...Anything that communicates to the horse works, and that means knowing horse language and culture.

We have extensive MasterClasses and virtual Equine Wisdom Workshops that explore this topic from many angles for all levels, so if you are in our programs, check those out and ask questions in the community.

If you don't have access to those yet, a simple take home message is that equine language is non-verbal (duh, I know!), but it IS body language based, and it IS nervous system based. 

It is why we work on our body position so much, why we do breathwork and hand softening exercises, it is, in fact, the most important aspect of horsemanship. 'Speaking horse' on the horses cultural and language level, builds relational attunement. 

A fun fact is that BodyWork is by far one of the best ways to get good at equine language and culture, without the task overwhelm that often comes with more advanced groundwork, longeing, or equitation practices. 

I am fully biased as the Equine BodyWork guy, but I have seen this work for hundreds of people and horses, and I stand by this fun fact every day of the week!

O.K., back to the session:

We are working along the spine, in my case I have my hands in a V shape, think 'Spock' from Star Trek (fellow Trekkies unite, who else LOVES 'next generation' as much as me?)

You can, if you are new, short without a stand, or just want to focus on one side at a time, you can also use your hands on one groove of the horse, cross and do the same on the other side.

I like to get both sides at once because sometimes horses have limited attention spans for equine bodywork, and I look for easy ways to shorten sessions that don't involve rushing.

As you are working the spine, your touch transforms into a TRT method, a gradual release of tension as you both breathe deeply. 

When do you stop and do your TRT (TRT is where you release your pressure by 20% on every exhale, for 5 breaths, which means you have released all pressure after 5 breaths)? You pick a spot to do TRT based on the horses responses (blinking, tension, twitching, looking, any sign the horse has tension there), and you double check you 'feeling' tension, meaning the muscle literally feels tighter/harder, with the horses response.

This isn't always as simple as it seems. The 'shutdown horse' will not always respond even when you can literally feel tension. In this case, follow your gut, follow your intuition, and follow you own sense of feel. Sometimes the amount of time it takes to do the TRT method (5 slow breaths), the horse will start to connect with that body part.

This goes back to brain science (80% of nerves are communicating from the brain to the body), and it also helpful to employ a trauma informed lens here. The horse may react negatively when the 'reconnect' with this body part. They have been hiding and ignoring this area for a good reason, it's probably really uncomfortable! Who knows what memory is associated with this. 

Proceed with curious caution, empathetic awareness, and never take anything personal!

Stick with the horse through the process, whatever that looks like. When that tension starts to release, when you are associated with the good feelings that come with that, you are building trust and connection.

Your touch is now synonymous with the release of tension, the horse might give you a gentle nudge, you see an expression of relief in the horses eye that melts your heart. 

TRT for Old Injury

Horses carry with them the memories of old injuries, and the TRT technique helps them reprogram that stored tension. This process of somatic integration is vital, as it allows the horse to move beyond the traumatic memories and establish a new relationship with their body.

This new association is imprinted with your own presence and attunement, a sacred bond is now formed that extends beyond the realm of the body and even the world as know it.

You have now entered the timeless dimension where authentic healing and trauma release can happen. 

This is when you will start to get healthfully addicted to equine bodywork!

If you think about it, what is tension?

Is it some outside force acting upon the body? If it is coming from within the body, why is it there?

Good question with no clear black & white answer. There is to much nuance, and far too many variables involved. 

Let's set acute injury aside for a moment, most 'tension' you will find will be 'old' tension anyway. Acute injury is a whole other protocol, and not in the scope of this article.

I look at this kind of tension as stuck energy. Why is the energy stuck?

Here is a little truth bomb a lot of pro's won't admit, but the truth is, we may never know. On a more philosophical level, I don't think we need to know. It's more of a recognition that 'figuring out' that helps the horse. 

Figuring out is a slippery slope. A lot of my peers perform mental gymnastics explaining the complexity of patterns involved, it can get pretty wild....Bones in the palate are now controlling the sacrum, or some psychic message is being conveyed. Sometimes they may be right, often I think they are on a tangent, in my opinion.

The point is, why does it matter? The only things that matter is when we can help them release the tension.  

How do we release it? We teach dozens of methods that are all different roads to the same result, freeing blockages that lead to tension. YouTube has thousands more. 

But the best, easiest way is probably the TRT, explained in this article.

Give it a try, and see how it goes (let us know in the comments with this article, if you aren't in the Academy, I'd love to hear from ya).

Rear Proprioceptive Balance

It's been an amazing journey thus far! What next?

You are considering re engaging with the proprioceptive system of the horse in a playful and curious way.

How can we plug into this state of balance with the hind legs? 

Standing at the horse's hip, you use your forearm to cradle the sacrum area while gently grasping the hamstring.

Your soft, balanced approach creates a gentle rocking motion, not unlike a bamboo tree gently swaying in the tradewinds of a subtropical breeze, connecting the muscles of the sacrum/hip to the hamstrings.

Your motion comes from your legs, your feet grounded to the center of the earth. You gently push with sacram hand, and gently pull with the hamstring hand.

You get lost in the rhythmic sway of proprioceptive awareness with the horse. IF they horse is quite and willing to do this with you, it very meditative and wonderful. Not all horses are ready for this, be willing to let it go or try something else. 

We recommend moving to groundwork if they won't let you practice this technique.  A little walking, pillar, and/or shoulder in can get their brain engaged. Then you revisit the technique. You do this anytime the horse seems like the need to move.

It's simple, you just let them move, and return to the technique. Toggling like this between groundwork and bodywork is what sets our methods apart, and what helps the horse the most. 

When you are able to tap into this special flow state of shared proprioception, it feels like the laws of physics are below you now, you lose sense of time, and space. It's a dance of balance and trust, building both physical and emotional connections.

Neck Brace Release

Relational Attunement that is grounded in solid, ancient, and credible horsemanship and horse training principles is the secret sauce, and can help horses heal in the most effective way possible.

Now that you have connected and transformed the horses relationship with its body and balance, and helped them release stored tension and trauma, let's consider the horses response to human cues.

Horses have more often than not been trained to lean into brace, which is to say, they have learned to brace. As horse trainers first, this is such a bummer to see, but the art of horsemanship is mostly lost to the world, and bracing into pressure is the new normal.

(quick side note: if you are working with OTTB, this is 100% of the time an issue you are going to help the horse work through, because horse racing is all about the horse bracing into the bit while running forward)

The fine art of horsemanship has been lost to the pressures of competition and human ego. The feelings of partnership, attunement, and sensitivity required to communicate without brace are all but lost to the world.

Horses often lean into the upper neck pressure, in what seems to be an attempt to release tension. But sometimes, what seems like release is, in fact, a state of bracing. It means not all the licking and chewing and moving of the head and neck are actually releasing tension, it can be an expression of tension!

The common jaw stretching, tongue rolling, and mouth motion that we often celebrate in bodywork as signs of tension release, feel intuitively like a subconscious, reactive bracing in this case.

In such moments, you stay with the horse, creating gentle pressure on the neck with your forehand, while guiding them towards a balanced posture using the ‘Relax into Roundness’ methods.

It's a journey from brace to softness, a path towards trust and relaxation.

The horse learns to find this softness and balance on its own, associating your presence and energy as a guide.

It's a process of discovery, patience, and trust-building.

Your patience and servant leadership mindset finally lead to a softening, you release and step away.

You mindfully practice a few rounds of box breathing while your horse enjoys a state of relaxation it has yearned for, and is now experiencing! This is where a little is a lot. 

In Closing:

In the world of equine bodywork, it's not just about techniques; it's about creating a deeper connection through building trust, and balance with the horse.

Our Holistic Relational Attunement-based approach is a testament to the beauty of this journey.

As you set out on this path, remember, horsemanship start from within, you're personal growth and self discovery are integral to being the best helper, partner, and advocate for the horse.

Healing is a two way street! It's a journey of love, connection, and a shared language of trust.

Give yourself the space, time, and self love to do the inner worked needed to succeed. 

The joy is in the journey, have fun with this, stay curious, and get excited about failure because that means your are progressing on your path. 

When things get frustrating, and they DO get frustrating, ask yourself "how can I turn this frustration into fascination?". 

This is relational attunement, and when you discover and experience it in the horse-human relationship, you will find it transfers, and transforms every facet of your life!