Equine Craniosacral Therapy – a Conversation with Shea Stewart and Ryan Hallford

Almost two years ago, Shea Stewart (www.stewartranch.net) formally introduced me to the world of equine craniosacral therapy. I posted my initial impressions here. As many of you know, Shea and I have recently been working together to construct an equine craniosacral curriculum that builds on the existing model by adding new insights emerging from the human biodynamic paradigm. So far the feedback has been very positive from class attendees. The following is a transcription of an informal conversation between Shea and I about working with horses and the growing value we see in the biodynamic approach.

Ryan: Shea, I would like to start our discussion by asking a fundamental question about why craniosacral therapy seems so well-suited for horses. Overall, I have found the transition to working with members of the equine world surprisingly easy. Most of the horses I have worked with really seemed to embrace the work. In your opinion, what is it about their organism and psyche that predisposes them to favorable experiences with this type of therapy?

Shea: From a physical point of view, a horse’s cranium has an integrated web of blood supply and nerve branches right below the surface of the skin. These delicate tissues easily get tight, impinged, or compressed due to the nature of how we handle our horses with head gear. When muscles and fascia get tight from pressures placed on the cranium, these soft tissues can actually pull on the plates of the skull and sometimes even distort their shape. Due to the anatomy of the nervous system, this tightness and or distortion can disrupt the neurological communications between the brain and the cells, tissues, and the organs of the body which then affect postural balances. Craniosacral therapy is the only modality that addresses the compression in the plates in the skull that lead to so many physical and emotional issues in horses.

Shea Stewart in class

When we as therapists enter our quiet and grounded place to allow for healing, we are connecting to the vibration that horses naturally live in. Meeting them in this neutral space allows them to freely take in the therapeutic benefits, in contrast to other methods that may be imposed onto them. Even if the other method is therapeutic, it can induce a state of worry or fear. Some of these methods can be frightening or painful. The quiet and subtle work of craniosacral therapy allows them to let down and do some very deep unwinding of strain patterns, and this often has a lasting effect.

Ryan: Wow, I really relate to your statement about quieting and grounding ourselves as a way of “connecting to the vibration that horses naturally live in.” I didn’t really realize how noisy human nervous systems are until I started touching horses for sustained periods of time. They seem to be more capable of perceptually synchronizing with slower biological movement than people are. It really is beautiful how connected they are with the earth and the world of natural movement around them. I was thinking the other day about how patient the horses are with us. We do very insensitive things to them in the name of domestication, and they are continually adapting to our input … physically and emotionally. We seem to be the cause of many of their health problems! But craniosacral work allows them to experience a different kind of relationship to humanity as a whole. Would you agree?

Shea: Yes, horses tolerate so much. We have relied on horses for our own survival up until recent times. I think there is a very special relationship that people have with their horses that they don’t have with other animals, or even with other people. There truly is a unique bond. Sometimes I wonder if they are here to heal the human race! That is the only reason that I can think of as to why they tolerate so much of what we put them through.

I believe that horses are the most intuitive of animals, us included! I have been proven correct time and time again that they can feel our intentions … whether it be in riding, working on the ground, or doing craniosacral. They know when we are settled inside, they know when we are present, and they know when we know. They are truly tapped into a greater source that we have to work so hard at tapping into. Some of them are more reserved when I begin a session, but there is always a moment where they open up and acknowledge me. The second visit is usually fun because they have a sense of recognition in their eyes and some will put their head next to me and fall asleep. It’s like they are saying “Here’s my head, I am ready”. Sometimes they will actually guide me where to put my hands.

I think biodynamics can really change the way we view equine craniosacral therapy.

Ryan: So I guess I am safe in saying that one of the best things you can do to facilitate security and happiness in a horse is to be present. They appreciate and need it!

This morning I treated a particular horse for the second time, and her recognition of me was quite clear. She began displaying curiosity and affection immediately … it was as if she was thinking “I like spending time with you. Who are you?” I felt deeply seen and examined by her. We got into a process more quickly than the first visit and went more deeply. Today was really interesting because I was acutely aware of shifts in her emotional state as she worked through events in her past that left imprints of grief and fear. For me, it has been easy to recognize when the horse is remembering an event that has emotional loading. At times I find they want to tell you a story about their emotional life, and it feels as if a burden is removed from them when you carefully listen to the tale.

In our human classes, it is often said that the act of telling one’s story to a caring listener is a healing experience in itself. This is true for horses as well. But instead of a verbal communication of their story, they tell it through universal language that might include tonal shifts in the autonomic nervous system, mouth movements and sounds, eye contact, posturing, shifts in the internal structures like organs or cranial bones, shaking, sleeping, and other altered states.

I can’t say that I’ve been able to identify specific thoughts, per se, but it feels like they hold the intention of conveying a tonal imagery to me. When I place this tonal imagery over an awareness of how events imprint in our biology over time that I have developed from working with thousands of people, I can often get a sense of how their life has unfolded … a map of where they have been. Sometimes the owners are amazed that I can tell so much about the history of their animal, but to me it is so obvious. It just all seems to be right there in front of me when I really listen and open up my consciousness and senses to them.

Shea: That was so beautifully put, and very accurate with my experiences. There are some horses who will tell a story through a picture of an event or I will have an empathic experience, usually of a physical pain. But the most common unfoldings that I experience are through shifts in their nervous system or physical unwinding of a structure. They are not human and so do not complicate their stories. But every so often I will meet a horse who has a human-like nervous system that has become very erratic.

Equine craniosacral class

One horse that comes to mind was a young thoroughbred who went straight from track racing to a hunter-jumper trainer with no down time … no time to unwind any trauma from the race track. He could hardly walk yet he was in training to do show jumping. He was so over loaded with emotional and physical trauma and his nervous system felt exhausted from working on overtime. His craniosacral sessions were like experiencing an exorcism. His tongue would stick out of his mouth and curl up almost touching his eye with this wild snake like movement, and he would violently shake. I would occasionally get an image of something traumatic and wondered if it was an experience he was working through. Since nobody could confirm, I will never have proof but it felt real to me.

I had another experience with a horse whom I was able to confirm had a birthing trauma. His system felt stuck in a spiral. It was unlike anything I had ever felt. It felt like it was imprinted in his being, this swirling spiral of movement. He was not a calm horse at all. He could not stand still … as if he could not get grounded. His story came to me in images. At first I could not understand these images because I had to really work hard in staying grounded. He was very dangerous horse to work on. But the more I was able to find that quiet space in the midst of the drama of his flying head and hooves, the more these images came to me. I asked if he had been pulled out of the womb. So his owner called his breeder and the breeder told the story of his birth and how traumatic it was.

I have also worked on several horses who were in the process of dying. Although it was not known at the time, I can now recognize the patterns in the nervous system as it is shutting down. In my experience with these horses, there doesn’t seem to be much history in their system that needs unwinding. It is more like a preparation for what is to come. The only words I have right now to describe this would be like walking through your house to make sure the lights were off before you left for vacation. There is a slight sense of fear and unsettledness, mixed with peace as the system settles through the craniosacral work. I usually felt sad during these sessions, even before I recognized what was happening. This is a process that I am still learning about as I have only experienced this around five times. But with each one, the process was the same. And at the time of their session, we did not know they were transitioning. I suspected this while working on them, but like I said, I am still learning about this process.

Ryan: Those are really interesting examples. Well, it didn’t take us long to get into the more esoteric aspects of the work! I could talk about this all day, but I would like to shift over to talking about biodynamics for a bit if that’s okay with you. I am curious if you could talk about how the biodynamic paradigm has informed your approach to working with horses.

Shea: The biodynamic paradigm has taught me to look at the system as a whole and palpate the slower rhythms that are naturally found in our equine friends. When I first learned equine craniosacral, I was taught to palpate a movement that is found more in humans than in horses. But learning and understanding the slower mid and long tide rhythms has helped me find deeper strain patterns in the system, which I believe creates a more profound healing session. Being present in this slower movement taps into a vibration that horses tend to live in. When I meet them there, I feel they can use me more proficiently as a conduit for their own unwinding of deep traumas and strains. I appreciate how the biodynamic approach works on the fluid body as a whole. This has opened a whole new world to me in my healing approach. Understanding the different systems and being able to identify and be present within them has created a much richer healing environment for the horses.

Shea Stewart helps a student

Ryan: I have only really worked biodynamicaly with horses, so I can’t make a skilled comparison with work in faster frequencies or direct tissue work. But I can say that horses shift into synchronization with Primary Respiration much more quickly than humans do. The biodynamic approach seems to be a good fit because it just happens so easily. I am also continually impressed with the ability of most of the horses I have touched to be neutral in the midst of their internal shifting. They are very good at naturally allowing an inherent treatment plan to come forth. They do it with …well, I guess I could call it a trusting simplicity. They have an innate ability to just get out of the way and allow wholeness to come forth without judging the manner in which it permeates them. So many humans have a tendency to judge their own process harshly or shut it down out of shame or guilt! Horses, however, have a very porous ego structure. I think this is correlated to their innate ability to be present in the moment and respond to what instinct requires of the moment rather than being invested in ideas about who they should be. They are quite fluid in their ability to adapt to biological reordering. I will qualify this, though, by emphasizing that they need to feel safe!

Shea: I don’t have the experience with humans that I do with horses so I can’t really understand the lack of acceptance or the ego getting in the way. In comparing biodynamics to working in the faster frequencies that I was originally taught, I find that horses simply tend to lack the faster frequencies. It wasn’t until my human classes that I really understood the differences. I think it was the Biodynamics I class that I took with you regarding trauma in the system and you mentioned that CRI is thought to be a result of a faster paced society, and it was not reported before the 50’s. This was a huge “aha” moment for me because I was taught to feel CRI in my equine practice, but in reality it rarely existed in their systems. Maybe in one horse out of 75 would I feel a spot that had a faster straining movement. On average, their systems were much slower, even where there was an acute trauma. I think this could be evolutionary in the equine craniosacral world.

Most students are taught to palpate a movement that rarely exists. Horses in general live in a much more natural state than humans. They don’t drive, text, watch tv, play on the computer…..all of those things that elevate our systems. Their systems feel like glacier speed compared to humans, at least in my experience after taking human classes and getting my hands on humans and horses from a biodynamic perspective. There is a palpable difference. I think biodynamics can really change the way we view equine craniosacral therapy.

Ryan: That’s really exciting, Shea. I’m glad that biodynamics is merging with the existing paradigm in equine craniosacral. It clearly offers a new set of perceptual options that will help therapists to view the metabolic rhythms, spatial organization, and therapeutic needs of horses more accurately. I’m looking forward to working with you to further develop the model.

ryan-hallford-craniosacral-therapistRyan Hallford is a craniosacral therapist and educator. He offers certification programs in basic and advanced cranial work through the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX. www.cranioschool.com