Equine Natural Movement:
Structural Integration for Horses
By Jacqueline Freeman
Joseph leans his body into his arms, smoothly lengthening tissue along the client’s hip to the thigh to the stifle and gaskin.
Stifle and gaskin? Joseph Freeman’s Equine Natural Movement (ENM) work is Structural Integration (SI) on horses.
A 1993 graduate of the Hellerwork SI training, Joseph spent the first few years of his career working on people. He found it rewarding but had a feeling that work was a stepping stone and that another future awaited him.
A Turning Point
One of his SI clients asked him to attend a course in Animal Communication given by Jeri Ryan, Ph.D. Dr. Ryan teaches people the internal visual and kinesthetic language of animals. The course changed Joseph’s relationship with animals. He felt the stirrings of a calling but didn’t know where to go with that feeling.
Later he attended a class given by Linda Tellington-Jones, the well known Feldenkrais® practitioner who pioneered perceptive somatic work with animals. Again he felt excitement about adapting his SI knowledge to work with animals.
As an experiment he started combining SI with information gleaned from other courses and books toward cats and dogs. They responded positively to his touch which encouraged him to move on to larger animals, horses. Hellerworker Mike McFarland had worked with race horses, so Joseph contacted him for guidance and ideas and Mike was generous in his support.
At the same time one of his clients, Feldenkrais practitioner Cara Landwehr from Enumclaw, WA, presented him with a request. Cara does holistic rehabilitative training with horses that have been emotionally and physically damaged. These horses have special problems and Cara was looking for a precise kind of help to treat them. She needed a sensitive person with animal rapport skills who understood equine movement and had a Structural Integration background. Certainly a tall order!
Cara asked Joseph if he’d try his hand with her horses. From the first moment he worked on her horses, he knew he’d found his calling.
Creating a Body of Work
Joseph helped Cara achieve the changes she needed with the horses and Cara encouraged him to pursue the work. He studied equine anatomy while Cara taught him equine movement.
In 1995, Joseph came up with the five basic SI sessions that sequentially unravel a horse’s fascial structure and bring the horse’s suspensory system of bones, muscles and connective tissue back into balance and alignment. He named the work Equine Movement (ENM). He describes his work saying …
“I work systematically with the fascial system, moving through the outer layers of superficial muscles, down to the deeper layers of fascia and intrinsic muscles, freeing up the planes throughout the horse’s structure. This allows a freedom of movement to emerge as the different layers begin to glide effortlessly over one another, bringing more potential energy and power to the muscles and rhythmic grace and smoothness to the horse’s gaits.
“Curiously , horses are not as invested in their body image as people. When horses feel freer movement, they readily adopt it. Even though horses are larger, the work seems to progress at a faster rate than human sessions. Coupled with an exercise program to support the structural changes, horses have steady improvement that lasts.”
The result is a five-session series with a designated purpose and specific body map for each section. Sessions 1-3 restore fuller mobility to each muscle. Sessions 3-5 integrate that mobility into the horse’s movement.
The Equine Natural Movement Series
Purpose: Build trust. Get to know the horse’s tension patterns.
Method: Release holding in surface musculature. Identify deep holding patterns that are the roadmap for a continuing series.
Purpose: Give the horse a better sense of stability so he’s more secure in moving on and off the ground. Bring out the power available in the horse’s hind end.
Method: Emphasize vertical line integrity in standing. Free up tendons and musculature of all four legs. Free up superficial and midlevel fascial restrictions in shoulders, pelvis, lumbar and hip joints.
Purpose: Integrate muscle groups that share movement functions.
Method: Begin to shift vertical line integration into horizontal plane. Work focuses on functional quadrants rather than individual muscles.
Purpose: Bring out fluidity of whole body motion.
Method: Connect front and hind ends through the barrel. Emphasize horizontal line cohesiveness.
Purpose: Reinforce changes after horse has practiced his discipline.
Method: Maintain flexibility of fascia while horse strengthens into an integrated movement pattern.
After a basic series, Joseph usually does two advanced ENM sessions over the next year.
People love their horses and take their care very seriously. Like any other professional athletes, when they find something that works, word spreads quickly.
Joseph primarily works with performance horses to help them achieve their full potential in competitions. Dressage horses improve their precision, competition jumpers get additional height and power, and western horses increase speed and dexterity. With athletic horses of this caliber, even a small change means the difference between a third and a first place ribbon.
Sometimes the results can be quite startling. After ENM, a palomino owner put her horse in a performance show. Her horse, normally not a big winner, won an unprecedented 21 events, every event they entered. The ENM series was the only different thing they’d done and she was quick to praise its effectiveness.
Gwen Blake, US Equestrian Olympic Team member, describes ENM’s effect on her training horses saying, “Joseph worked on several dressage horses in our barn. I have seen a distinct difference in how they carry themselves and how they have a more relaxed, willing work attitude.”
Hunter-jumpers can be high strung and often temperamental, something Joseph attributes to discontinuity in an imperfect structure. Kathy and Rick Countryman are well-known hunter-jumper trainers at the Countryman Stables on Bainbridge Island, WA. They wrote about ENM saying, “Joseph has worked with a dozen of our hunter-jumpers. Consistently, horses that are ‘too hot’ calm down. They stop their habits of pulling and collect under themselves easier. The horses become supple and limber, move better, are more comfortable and jump with better form.”
ENM is also effective with horses who need help getting back into peak condition after a history of unresolved old injuries. AFA certified farrier, Lisa Dillon, has a quarter horse who had a chronic imbalance. She says, “After an injury my gelding had movement problems that required therapeutic shoeing. I didn’t think he’d ever be able to overcome this. After sessions with Joseph he’s become more relaxed and supple, developed a better stride and an overall better sense of well-being and attitude. He no longer requires special shoes either.”
On the far end of the scale are horses whose injuries have also affected them emotionally. Horse breeder, Kitty Mac, runs the Triple W Ranch in Ellensburg, WA. Kitty’s 4-year-old quarter horse suffered debilitating injuries after tangling himself in barbed wire a few years earlier. “Dat Hickory” had great bloodlines but due to his compromised movement was unable to compete and bring in the awards necessary to make him a highly desirable breeding stallion. Trainer Cara Landwehr worked with Hickory during his rehabilitation. She tells this story:
“As a result of his injuries, Hickory developed tight movement patterns to protect his hindquarters and compensate for painful muscles and tendons. Even after those injuries healed, Hickory initiated about 80% of his movement from his forehand rather than his hindquarters. He had tension and apprehension about being handled anywhere in a broad area around his lumbo-sacral junction and was unable to stand balanced on any three legs so handling his feet was difficult.
“Both stifle joints were weak and wobbly and tended to lock. He wouldn’t allow me to handle his tail for the first three weeks he was in my charge. He didn’t know where his hind end or his feet were. He’d stomp and kick in the trailer which told me he didn’t know how to stabilize himself and didn’t know precisely where his feet were so he felt unsafe there.
“Although kind-natured he was also reactive. While not a bad horse, he was prone to temper tantrums and dramatics and became easily unfocused. He had trouble learning new things and then remembering what he had learned. After the ENM sessions he made amazing progress in two major areas:
- Bio-Mechanical: Once his muscles were no longer bound up, he was able to use them correctly. This cut a lot of time off his rehab program and enabled him to progress faster than I could have hoped. When he took a step, he used himself correctly so he got maximum benefit out of the gymnastic and strengthening exercises. He used to have trouble engaging and lacked energy. After the series he really discovered his engine! He became able to do better lateral and engagement work. For a trainer this is a HUGE payoff. A horse making faster and easier progress with minimum wear and tear is a win for everyone!
- Spirit: As Hickory’s physical balance improved, so did his mental balance. I believe these two things go hand-in-hand. Releasing the locked tension in his body helped him relax and enjoy learning again instead of holding onto the old fears he had when he was in pain. After ENM he began to have TONS of energy and started moving in very athletic ways. His workability, self-control and manners all improved tremendously.”
Horses Teach Touch Skills
“Horses are great bodywork teachers,” Joseph says. “If you do a stroke without being in rapport, if it’s too fast or deep or something’s not quite right about it, they’ll give you immediate feedback with their mouths or feet.
“They force you to become aware of everything you’re doing. Whatever energy you bring to them, they reflect back to you. They won’t put up with deep bodywork that’s less than perfect so you really have to refine your quality of touch and presence. If you love them while you work they will give you the moon, but if your mind is elsewhere they’ll snap you right back to attention.”
Horses are quite perceptive once they understand what ENM can do. They can also be quite participatory. Rolex, a very intelligent Westphalian dressage horse, would let Joseph know where he needed work. Joseph was working on the horse’s shoulder once when Rolex turned his head, pulled his lips gently over his teeth and gently pressed them against Joseph’s shoulder. Rolex used Joseph’s shoulder to show where he needed attention. Joseph moved to the corresponding spot on Rolex and found it was indeed tighter than the surrounding area. When Joseph moved to the other side, Rolex did the same thing but in a different part of Joseph’s upper arm, again a place that Joseph moved to and found fascial restriction in.
Animals and Complementary Care
Attitudes about animals are changing and many people in the horse community are becoming more open to alternative modalities. Interest sparks when their horses suddenly become more adept and alert. After seeing the effects of ENM on their horses, owners often ask about getting structural work on themselves. Because his practice is full of horses, Joseph refers humans to SI “people practitioners.”
Occasionally an owner has noticed after the ENM sessions that the horse moved with balance and precision, but after being ridden, the horse backslid and reverted to old movement patterns. When not being ridden, the unbalanced pattern wasn’t there. These riders were alarmed when they suddenly realized their loyal horses were contorting their bodies to compensate for the riders’ unbalanced time in the saddle. Most of them quickly requested work on themselves so they wouldn’t cause any further harm to their beloved animals.
At the completion of a Structural Integration training, each practitioner is qualified to begin their SI practice. Most people take that knowledge and parlay it into a successful SI career but some people forage into the unknown by taking the work into specialized areas. Each time someone takes the work into a new arena, the field of knowledge expands for everyone.
Joseph’s deep love of animals has found a richly rewarding avenue of expression. The work he’s developed offers people new ways to create health for their horses as well as themselves.
He also feels a responsibility to educate people about being compassionate with their animals. Through the hands-on work he’s able to experience an interspecies communication few people are aware is available. His skilled hands, calm and patient manner and deep love for horses and other animals are important elements. But the most telling of all is that horses enjoy working with him.
Joseph and I went on vacation shortly after he started working with horses. We stopped by a local hunter-jumper show. No one was in the barn during show time but the horses were in their stalls. As we strolled through, a horse at the far end of the corridor leaned out of her stall and started whinnying, vigorously tossing her head up and down.
I asked if he knew that horse. Joseph peered down the long corridor with a nickering horse at the end of it and said he doubted any horse he worked with would be at a show so far away. The horse continued her excited display, whinnying in Joseph’s direction. Just then the mare’s owner came around the corner and said, “Oh, hello, Joseph. I see Sally remembers you!”