‘Dem Bones ‘Dem Bones: The Equine Skeleton

I have been thinking a great deal about bones lately. They seem to keep coming up for a number of reasons. For one thing, my own have been complaining as of late when I get up in the morning, a not so subtle reminder of my advancing age and my tendency to overdo…well…just about everything.Equine skeleton

Secondly, I am gearing up for a great adventure in June when we launch our Equine Articulation Workshop on campus. For four days, students and professionals with come together for a part anatomy / part engineering workshop in which we will rearticulate an entire equine skeleton in motion on a platform. It is going to be quite a feat with a professional animal model maker, a veterinary pathologist, a farrier and a doctor on board already to assist. The tricky part has been recovering the bones from the pit in which they have been prepared and identifying each…a bit of an archeology adventure thrown in for good measure. So…I have been “boning up” on my boney landmarks.

Which got me thinking about the way we teach boney landmarks and their significance to massage work. Needless to say, the landmarks serve as a guide map for the therapist to locate muscles attachments and fetter out those annoying stress points. But I wonder how many people get the change or take the time to really look at the way the bone forms and the amazing intricacies in its structure and form? The boney landmarks aren’t just anchor points, they are a beautiful kind of poetry written in calcium and phosphorous chalk, an elegant impression of stress and force that tells a story of creation and development in a way few other elements can.

The other day, I was reexamining a section of lumbar spine from a mare that lived her entire life in the Bone w cystwild; untouched by human hands until the day we discovered her bones after a snowmelt. The chain of lumbar vertebrae told a story about her shape and size through their short, thick bodies and broad transverse processes. They gave away secrets about her posture as she aged and perhaps as she foaled and raised her young through the roughened edges of arthritic bone, proof again that the bone is constantly changing and adapting to the horse’s movement and just as often, their immobility. I traced a large boney cyst on the ventral surface of the joint space between two lumber vertebrae like a detective uncovering a clue in the sand. Had this cyst irritated the mare enough to cause her to shift her weight laterally to avoid the narrowing joint space and possible nerve irritation? Could that have launched the inflammatory response that created the degenerative process causing the arthritic changes in the bone? How might I have approached this mare if she were a massage client of mine? I can well imagine the number of riding and racing horses that faced similar challenges and carried similar patterns on the off-white parchment of their skeleton.

Equine skeletonOf course, as a therapist, I cannot see the actual boney landscape of my clients, but only imagine it under the glossy coat and undulating muscles that are my doorway to the body. I can, however, palpate and visualize the scaffolding that lies there and use my massage to affect it in many ways. I know that my sweeping effleurage strokes encourage vasodilation and delivery of blood and nutrients to the tissues, including bone, encouraging growth in developing animals and assisting the movement of critical minerals (calcium, phosphorous, magnesium…) at all stages. I know that this can have a profound benefit for nursing mares, whose bones leach minerals as needed for milk production. When I use linear frictions, crowding or tractions to encourage myofascial release, I can feel the resulting unwinding of the periosteum, the flexible fascial membrane protecting the bone and blending with the tendon attachments. As the fascia melts in relief, the therapist can often even feel Horse legthe bones rise and float and spiral within their web-like sheaths on their way back to better alignment. During both active and passive range of motion assessments, we get to clearly see the musculoskeletal system cooperatively strive to blend flexibility and stability into graceful movement.

Probably there is no more evident benefit to the boney articulations in my own experience then the exciting new Manual Ligament Therapy techniques. MLT reduces hypertonicity in the muscles, calms reactivity in the ligaments surrounding the joints and aids in restoring better proprioceptive patterns in the nerves serving the joints all in a few easy steps. The result of this release in tension is often a satisfying ease in movement and stretch as the bones rest into their appropriate space freed of the tightropes that previously pulled them every which way.

I often speak about scope of practice in massage and every good massage practitioner knows that skeletal adjustments using thrusting forces are the realm of the properly trained chiropractor and osteopath only. Every good massage practitioner also knows that the bones serve many functions in addition to providing the levers for movement, such as protection of vital organs and structures, metabolism and transport of minerals and the creation of blood cells in the deep marrow-filled channels. It is a valuable reminder of the many ways massage affects the bone, independent of adjustments. I am reminded time and again that there are infinite ways to participate in healing and that in many situations, the horse is only asking for our conscious intention and a place to rest their weight to restore the homeostatic balance that the cells themselves are best equipped of any to restore.

Lola Michelin
Lola Michelin is the Director of Education at the Northwest School of Animal Massage. She is also a founding member of the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage (NBCAAM) and co-chair of the Legislative Committee for that organization. An internationally recognized animal massage practitioner for over 25 years specializing in equine and exotic animals, she also owns and operates Paxhia Farm, an equine retirement and rehabilitation facility on Vashon Island, Washington. Learn more about Lola
Lola Michelin


The Northwest School of Animal Massage was founded in 2001. We teach equine & canine massage, acupressure, aromatherapy, Manual Ligament Therapy and Equi-Tape.
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Lola Michelin

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