Better Than Bodywork
An introduction to Equine Hanna Somatics and its benefits to the dressage sport horse
Every horse, at every age and stage, deserves to be happy and comfortable physically in work and in everyday life. Whether we are competitive dressage riders or just lovers of equines, we all want the best quality of life for our horses as well as to see them live up to their athletic potential.
Equine Hanna Somatics® (EHS) is a natural method of mind–body integration for performance enhancement, pain relief, longevity and an increased sense of well-being for both horse and handler. Based on your horse’s natural movements and thought patterns, EHS is a hands-on procedure for teaching horses, along with their riders and handlers, about voluntary and conscious control of their neuromuscular system. It’s gentle enough for every horse at any age or stage of athletic development and can be very complementary to the healing and rehabilitation process once your vet has decided that the horse is ready to begin gentle work post-injury or illness.
EHS is an adaptation of Hanna Somatics®, a proven, natural and safe method of pain relief and sensory-motor training for humans (read “The Training Between Your Training,” Jan. 2016). Like humans, horses experience stress and develop chronically contracted muscles that restrict movement and cause discomfort. Over time, these chronic, low-level muscle contractions, which can also be described as “tension” or “tight muscles,” become incorporated into the horse’s habitual posture. This is known as Sensory Motor Amnesia (or SMA—more on this later). Once this happens, performance and comfort are reduced, and the new postural patterns are difficult to change with physical training or manipulation.
Eleanor Criswell Hanna, co-founder of the Novato Institute, co-creator of Hanna Somatics and creator of Equine Hanna Somatics, has applied the proven method of Hanna Somatics to the horse and discovered that it works just as well, if not better, on the equine body and mind.
From the HorseEs Perspective
Rather than working on the horse’s muscles or adjusting the horse’s body,
in EHS practitioners are inviting the horse to participate in the movements by working with them voluntarily. This is a very important point, because for EHS to be effective in helping a horse find and keep new levels of relaxation, the horse must participate in and be allowed to feel the complete experience of using his brain to send instructions to the muscles, feel the muscles move the body and continue to both participate in and receive the sensory feedback from the body during the slow release of the movement. When EHS is done correctly, the horse will use a particular part of his brain—the voluntary motor cortex—to control the muscles during Somatic Movement.
There are many parts of the mammalian brain that can initiate muscle contractions, but the motor cortex is the only part of the brain that can mediate muscle relaxation. What the horse feels during the movement (quick, slow, smooth, jerky, etc.) and the actual impulses sent from the brain to the muscles comprise the information the brain needs to recalibrate how much tension is left in that muscle when at rest—this is called “resetting resting muscle tonus.” From the outside of the body, a practitioner can manually cause a muscle to release, but the brain will often reassert the contraction and the pattern of tension usually returns. By asking the horse to release tension in a muscle from the inside using his or her own central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), the releases are deeper and usually don’t wear off because the horse has effectively changed his own pattern. (For examples of immediate results with before/after photos of horses, and a few longer-term case studies, visit alissamayer.com/case-studies.)
What is Sensory Motor Amnesia?
As a natural consequence of daily living, both horses and humans develop SMA—an accumulation of muscle restrictions that build by degrees as a re-
sult of experiencing stress, one-time or ongoing trauma, pain from injury or poorly fitted tack, travel or even just from everyday training. SMA not only limits the ability of the affected muscles to move freely, but it also limits the amount of sensory feedback that the brain is receiving from the affected tissues, affecting body awareness. That old saying, “use it or lose it,” has never been more applicable than to brain cells, neurons and neuromuscular connections.
According to Hanna, SMA refers to unconsciously contracted muscles. Her concept of SMA describes the tendency of humans to forget certain movements or ways of organizing muscles or muscle groups, leaving the muscles chronically contracted. The contraction is the result of ongoing brain-stem-level impulses—in other
Voluntary Motor Cortex Motor Cortex Brain Stem Cerebellum Spinal Cord
Equine Hanna Somatics (EHS) is brainwork not bodywork, and is based on “pure physiology,”as Eleanor Criswell Hanna, creator of EHS, frequently says. This is the horseEs brain, in situ on the left, and in more detail on the right.