The Power of Touch (May 2015)

The Power of Touch…

Touch is incredibly important to life….. so important it can be literally life saving! You may have already seen the story of the Australian mother who gave birth to twins and was told that the second twin was still-born. She cradled that little baby for two hours, skin to skin, and although doctors were sure that their efforts to resuscitate the little one had not worked, and repeatedly told the mother that small movements she was feeling were reflexes in death….. yes, you guessed it… the baby was alive and is now a perfectly healthy four year old….. if you want to check out the story, then just type Jamie Ogg into the internet!

There is plenty of research available which shows that touch helps humans suffering various conditions such as depression, or children with ADHD, but is it also so important to our horses too? I would argue Yes it is!

What happens when we make physical contact with another living body?

In humans, physical touch through massage stimulates the release of the strong bonding hormone oxytocin. It also reduces the presence of ACTH which acts to stimulate the release of stress hormone cortisol when in high concentrations. This happens for both humans involved, so both masseuse and patient benefit from contact.

In horses, there is less research based evidence, but anecdotally it can be seen that physical therapies stimulate a strong relaxation response as well as an improvement in the symptoms shown when in work. Research in the effects of stroking dogs and cats has shown a reduction in blood pressure in both animals and humans and it is reasonable to extrapolate from this research that there are similar relaxation mechanisms occurring in horses too.

Why is this important to us and our horses?

These days, when we are rushing from one activity to the next, it is easy to forget how important a bit of contact time with our horses really is. When was the last time you spent more than a few minutes flicking off the worst of the dirt from your horse’s coat, in order to ride? Was it really the last time you had to spruce up for a show, or do you have a regular ‘grooming’ time? Old fashioned ostlers would spend considerable time grooming and in contact with the horses in their care. Twenty years ago, when I was training for my BHSAI, we spent all afternoon grooming the horses in our care, and this was a key and integral part of the horses’ care. Nowadays I am aware of a much tighter grooming schedule in my world and that of everyone else, but I have the advantage of knowing how to negate this in the most time effective way.

For our horses, gentle touch in favoured areas can be extremely enjoyable, particularly where horses are stabled for much of their time and in very limited contact with other horses. Seeing other horses and being able to physically interact are very different situations, and if your horse is kept out of physical contact of others, then you owe it to him or her to offer an alternative source of contact.

How can touch improve performance?

Some horses are like machines, but many are not, and the relationship between horse and rider will define how well the horse performs. A horse who trusts his or her rider will undoubtably give a better, more focussed performance than a horse who is unsure. This is most apparent when taking young horses to their first competitions, but can be seen in horses of all ages and sizes. Sometimes the rider doesn’t need to be familiar to the horse, if the rider’s natural confidence and ability is sufficient for the horse to respond to the rider, but in situations where the rider is not so confident, the horse will tend to respond with similar nervousness. While the fashion in recent years has been to use various groundwork and horsemanship exercises, all of which are perfectly feasible if applied correctly for the individual, the simple role of touch contact in the development of relationships has been glossed over. Spending time ‘being your horse’s friend’ can reap great rewards when you move to the role of ‘the boss’ in the competition ring!

So what should you do?

It’s easy….. touch your horse! Find the areas he or she prefers and scratch, rub or massage those areas. As a guide, the key areas are often those places that horses will mutually groom when living as a herd, so withers, rump and crest of neck are good places to start. However, for some horses, the head, under the chin, the sides of the chest, and the tummy can be equally pleasurable. Do this for at least ten minutes before tacking up, then go for a ride and see how your horse responds. For those horses who are like ‘machines’, you might only notice a slightly more relaxed horse, but for spooky, feisty, switched-off or unresponsive horses, there can be quite a marked difference in how they behave….. after all, don’t you feel more amenable towards someone who wants to be friendly than the person who is only interested in you doing what you are told? While our horses don’t have our higher cognitive skills, as herd animals they are certainly tuned into social interaction for the benefit of all…..so why not give it try?