What if I told you that with patient, conscientious placement of your hands on specific areas of the horse’s body, you can bring about profound change in his physical and mental well-being? Want to know the secret? The internet-like web of fascia beneath the skin.

Fascia is the connective tissue that “holds everything together”—it wraps around, attaches, and stabilizes muscles and internal organs, communicating with all parts, while providing structure and organization. But here’s the thing: Fascia also is a reservoir for emotional trauma and tension. This means that when you help a horse find a physical release in a “stuck” area of strain or stiffness, you invite psychological healing, as well.

In her book Is Your Horse 100%?, equine bodywork professional Margret Henkels explains in the simplest terms how various placements of your hands on your horse’s body can change how he looks and feels, all by altering the fascia.

Photo by Patti Bose

Conformation is not only the horse’s inborn natural ability and structural appearance, it is also his ability and structure in real time. Conformation structure includes how the horse stands, how efficiently he uses his body, and whether all the parts are functioning completely. The horse’s entire being is included in conformation. When a horse is born genetically well balanced and capable, yet loses his ability by three years of age, he is no longer perceived by us, or himself, as a fit and capable horse. The athletic gifts of good conformation become lost to him and us. He knows he should be able to do his work, but he can’t. He’s confused by this loss of ability. There may be little or no active pain, yet he can’t move well.

This lack of fitness then brings him anxiety and defensiveness; insecurity is extremely dangerous for a prey animal, which is why imbalance and cellular memory of injury causes so much difficulty for him. We humans are the same (although we’re at the top of the food chain these days). We all know of a rider who has “lost her nerve” after an accident, or perhaps it’s an athlete who has the ability yet cannot access her gifts fully. This is the result of the body’s cellular memory, or Soma-Emotional Recall, which we have defined as trauma held in the fascial tissue itself. While science often ignores emotional energy as unimportant, it is indeed a factor in fascial health.

Photo by Patti Bose

Now you can see how a horse’s conformation is affected by the state of his fascia. As areas of strain or injury progress, whole sections of his body lose their shape and function. Shoulders have a “hollow” look. Hips lose their muscle. The neck almost wastes away due to the compression of tight fascia. This overall slow compression due to a single-strain event progresses eventually to a place where the horse “just can’t do that anymore.” A left lead at the canter can’t happen. Or, collection goes from being “difficult” to do, to work we don’t attempt. A once-fit horse becomes consistently lame. A balanced, fit horse can competently move through extreme stresses such as jumping or racing, but a horse with compensations cannot even stand square. Worst of all, fascial adhesions continue to tighten, creating even more compensation patterns. He has no way to be comfortable again. Drugs may dull the pain, but they won’t restore movement.

Photo by Patti Bose

This slow but progressive loss of fascial balance throughout the horse’s body seems to appear suddenly. One day, we realize our horse doesn’t look good. He’s unable to easily stand square, his shoulders and hind end aren’t muscled well, and his back dips. He’s hard to tack up because he hurts. Correct lead changes are impossible. We don’t canter anymore. He is inconsistent in his performance. Finally, the horse is cranky and irritable. We are not having much fun together. Is a new horse the answer, we ask ourselves? If we love our horse, we tend to accept the limits and learn to do less with him. The cycle of looking for “fixes” begins.

There’s a solution to this loss of fitness. Just as we know people who have recovered full fitness from all kinds of accidents, the horse can recover, too. The Conformation Balancing and fascia fitness process leads to dramatic improvements when we follow the visual clues and learn to look carefully at our horse’s shape and stance. We look past good breeding and pleasant features as our eyes learn to see, and as our hands feel his body, we find areas of hardness, stiffness, and pain. These are the blockages to easy movement and full muscle development. For example, hidden pockets of tightness prevent a shoulder from building sufficient muscle to fill out high, hollow withers.

The fact of the matter is, the visual signs of a “used-up horse” are nearly always temporary problems. 100% ability is in your hands.

This excerpt from “Is Your Horse 100%?”, by Margret Henkels, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.