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So what could happen if a horse encounters pain in the course of an equine bodywork session in which you are the practitioner and the horse is not restrained in any way whatsoever, meaning they have a choice? What is the horse likely to do? Stay or walk away? What would you be more inclined to do or refrain from doing? And perhaps more importantly, why would you even consider an equine bodywork session without any restraint on a horse with whom you have only conducted two previous sessions, during which they have clearly shown that they are experiencing pain while restrained with a halter and a lead rope held by another experienced bodywork practitioner? Why present the horse and yourself with the challenge of choice?


Equine bodywork at liberty

Over the years Vicki and I have increasingly moved towards offering our own horses a choice in their interaction with us. In that we view it as a gift to the horse, The Equine Touch, the equine bodywork modality which we practice and teach, is also premised on the concept of choice to some extent. After all, you do not force a gift on anyone. Added to this is the fact that we depend on the horse to help us help them during our bodywork sessions.

Andrew sharing The Equine Touch with Farinelli at liberty

Andrew sharing The Equine Touch with Farinelli at liberty

Given this background, it seemed quite natural for us to conduct equine bodywork with our horses at liberty. Whether it was with Pip or Anaïs in Europe and Gulliver and Farinelli in Australia until last year, it just seemed so easy and natural to do. Even where the procedures involved lifting the fore or hind legs, sometimes over my thigh, there was no thought of danger on my part. Mutual trust, it would seem, is the secret to such cooperation across the species divide.

Our old boy, Gulliver, also loved The Equine Touch until he left us

Our old boy, Gulliver, also loved The Equine Touch until he left us


Equine strangers

The situation is different with relative equine strangers though, isn’t it? There may be a connection between horse and human and, as such, a commitment to try and trust. But would it not still be too soon for full mutual trust to have developed? So in such a situation could it not be dangerous to conduct an equine bodywork session at liberty?

Potentially, yes. Adopting an analytical approach steeped in rational conscious thought, this can be the only unequivocal answer. So why do it then? Perhaps it is because horses and humans are not merely cognitive beings. We are also sentient and our innate approach to the business of being is experiential. Is this not why we choose to heed the advice of some people but not others even though the latter’s explanations are far more rational and convincing?

Anaïs helping me help her with Pip in the background

Anaïs helping me help her with Pip in the background

This is where our intuition comes in, is it not? When we engage in an equine bodywork session with a horse, we feel into each other even before there is physical contact. And this is what happened during our last visit to the CyD Santa Maria horse sanctuary (see https://asociacioncydsantamaria.es/ for more information and to make a donation). Vicki had hurt her arm and back, so, while she was capable of holding a horse, she was out of the running as an Equine Touch practitioner that afternoon. There were two horses that we wanted to help but they were still relative equine strangers to us.


Why not at liberty?

At a fairly advanced age now, Fumi had to retire prematurely from an active show-jumping career many years ago due to pain and discomfort whose immediate source could not be diagnosed, and whose existence he subsequently revealed to me in the course of two recent Equine Touch sessions. A third seemed to be called for. When we arrived at the centre, I looked at him and then at Vicki. He is a big boy and she is a wisp of a woman … with a somewhat compromised body, I reminded myself. Why not…?

Vicki and Soberano have always shared The Equine Touch at liberty

Vicki and Soberano have always shared The Equine Touch at liberty

The idea just seemed to present itself so naturally. Why not conduct the session at liberty? There were a number of very rational reasons for answering this question in the negative but what I sensed in the moment was the question, ‘Why not?’ It felt right, so I started and Vicki simply sat down on a low wall next to us. Clearly the idea seemed to sit well with her too. The body scan and leg checks proceeded without incident, as did the hindquarters. In fact, Fumi was lapping it up.


Spontaneous and intuitive

Then we got to the withers and he started bobbing his head up and down as expected. Clearly, I needed to ease up a bit, so I waited until he calmed down before proceeding with a series of moves just above the shoulder blade. That’s when Fumi swung his head around in askance, as it were, and then the bobbing resumed. Ease up, I thought as I moved to mirror the moves on the other side, the more reactive one. This time his head swung around fairly fast. I immediately froze but left my hands where they were, as I felt his muzzle nudge my hip. No malicious intent but very evidently an indication of preference.

Sharing The Equine Touch with Fumi

Sharing The Equine Touch with Fumi

As I edged into the neck procedure, I found myself feeling more intently into his energy than I had ever done before, almost sensing an impending swing or bobbing of the head before it occurred. Increasingly, I found myself able to head some of them off by adjusting my own energy to accord with what I was sensing in him. It was more a case of spontaneous rather than conscious awareness and response, feeling rather than rational decision-making. But with hindsight I did notice that my moves were becoming more refined and sensitive, spontaneously and intuitively addressing what the horse was presenting rather than simply doing as I had planned. Of course, this is what we normally try to do but it seemed to get easier at liberty as the session progressed.



Aware that the session was making more intense demands on both of us than the previous times with a restraint and a handler, I started to step further away from Fumi during the observation pauses to give him space to process his experience. This would also give him the opportunity to walk away if he found the session was becoming too intense. He had a choice

What Fumi did after I finished his neck blew me away.  He exercised his choice. First, he spent some time blinking, licking and chewing. Then he stopped, looked at me a few horse widths away to his right, then slowly lumbered over and gently nudged my arm. Could we get on with it please? Really? Was this what he wanted? Or was I just fooling myself?

Fumi - very clear about his requirements and could I please get on with it

Fumi – very clear about his requirements and could I please get on with it

No, to judge by his response after we started doing his back, I was not. Again, after bobbing his head a few times he turned to me to continue. So I did. The end of the back would normally mark the termination of the session, unless there were any areas of concern that required special attention. There were: the back, withers and neck. And there were umpteen procedures I could consider to address them. But what did Fumi think? After standing calmly for a few minutes while processing the session, he again turned to me and moseyed over to nudge me once more. Time to continue. And so I did.



I had a list of procedures that I wanted to do with Fumi, although I was aware that we simply would not manage all of them in a single session. The procedure that I wanted to start off with is what Equine Touch founder Jock Ruddock has highlighted as the one to really come away with from an Intermediate course: shoulder and girth. And it worked like a dream. Although still a bit iffy around the top of the shoulder by the time I had finished this glorious procedure on both sides, Fumi was as calm and content as a cat basking in the sunlight. And it was suddenly as clear as that very sunlight to me that it was time to stop and end the session.

Our next stop was Indigo, an elderly gelding who had been on the receiving end of misfortune before finding refuge in the sanctuary. I had shared The Equine Touch with him on about four occasions, and knew that he was a junkie in the making. What I did not know was just how much this bodywork modality meant to him. Halfway through the session, which I also did at liberty, it turned out to be feeding time and I thought I would lose his focus to the hay before him. Little did I know.

Indigo teaching me the importance of The Equine Touch

Indigo teaching me the importance of The Equine Touch

When I got to Indigo’s upper shoulder and neck, and needed his head up from his feed, he raised it without a protest. He especially appreciated the series of moves across the atlas which I introduced into a fairly creative combined body balance. After standing still and blinking for several very long moments, he looked around for me. I had moved well away from him to give space to process. Instead of dropping his head to his feed, as I thought he might, he left it and walked determinedly over to me and presented himself for the remainder of the session. Clearly, Indigo knew more about The Equine Touch than I knew about him.


Cradling the head

These two horses also encouraged me to hold their head the same way I do with our own horses, while performing some of the procedures involving the head and upper neck. I had already noticed in a previous session that Fumi was not wildly excited by being held with a hand over the nasal bone. He revealed this again during our liberty session when I attempted to hold him there.

Gulliver taught me neck-cradling

Gulliver taught me neck-cradling

Instinctively or so it seemed, I reached under his head to crook it in the fold of my holding arm, leaving him free to lift his head should he choose to do so. Instead, Fumi simply allowed me to cradle his head in the crook of my arm, while I carried out the moves with my other hand, relying on spontaneous, intuitive rather than conscious awareness to guide me. His relaxation was palpable.

When I went to Indigo, I did not think twice about conducting the session at liberty and neither did I hesitate to hold his head in the same way. Both seemed so natural. He simply melted into my arms and relished the moves that came.


The challenge

So what is the challenge of choice? It is the call to overcome our well-rehearsed fear, not so much of horses but rather of relying on the integrity with which we seek to help horses. In my limited experience horses recognise and acknowledge the energy of genuine care and concern in the human no matter what approach they consciously adopt. As part of an equine bodywork modality which stresses integrity in all we do and our intent to help the horse, such energy can help horses to take as much risk with us as we take with them. The resulting interplay which enables horse and human to help each other during an Equine Touch session can produce a synergy which is beneficial to both species.

For my part, I find that choice on the part of the horse makes me far more sensitive to their needs and whatever else they express. With the horse’s guidance, I am able to work far more accurately in terms of location, technique, focus and intensity. There are also intangible benefits for both the horse and the human. Empathy on the part of the human is empowering to the horse, allowing the latter the freedom to express themself. And it is precisely that self-expression which can serve as both inspiration to and information for the human.



Little imagination is required to understand that undertaking equine bodywork at liberty may involve risk of injury to either the human or the horse, or even both. In the normal course of affairs we might rely on tools of restraint and or instruments of coercion to control the horse in order to ensure safety. Personally, I prefer to establish a connection with the horse, as it is far more secure than either, in my experience anyway. In addition, I am much better able to help a horse when there is a connection between us than when there is not.

As such, my rule of thumb for deciding whether or not to engage in equine bodywork at liberty hinges on the existence of a connection between the horse and the human. If I do not feel that there is such a connection, I will not even consider the possibility of equine bodywork at liberty.

Ultimately, each practitioner needs to make their own decisions about safety. One thing is very clear to me though and it is this. If the human does not feel safe, how can we expect the horse to do so? And if the horse does not feel safe, can we really help them?



Equine Touch

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