Marissa Schaefer Apr 11 2023

5 Ways Becoming an Equine Bodyworker Has Changed My Relationship With My Horses {for the better}

8 minute read

It was Easter Sunday and a gorgeous morning here in STL.  I decided I was going to ride my horse, Bo, before the day’s family activities and nothing could stop me.

These days, going to the barn is few and far between - and catching a ride is even less.  Usually, I have the boys in tow plus my dog and am giving kiddie rides rather than riding myself. But this morning was all about me, and I was ready to go deep into the woods and leave everything behind.

Beaming with excitement, I went out to the pasture to catch Bo.  Although he was contently nibbling on fresh spring grass he happily left his field. As I was grooming him, trying to get off whatever winter coat I could, I noticed he wasn’t quite himself.

Usually, Bo loves to be groomed.  It’s his favorite part of being a horse (besides being fed, of course).  Except this morning while grooming his neck (his favorite spot he usually leans into) he’d shy away and step back. The sign was so subtle, at first, I thought it was all in my head.

Once it happened again, I knew something was off.  I dropped my curry and went to work massaging the base of his neck and into his shoulder.  The whole junction was completely locked up and the muscles balled tight.  After a few minutes of work, and lots of releases later, his neck was freed up and he was comfortable being groomed.

‘Odd’, I thought to myself.  Bo is 22 years old and I’ve owned him for 8.5 years since he was 13.  Never once has he shied away from grooming.

While grooming the other side, Bo began to slightly hollow his back at the curry. Again, I dropped my brushes and went to work on his back until it was released and freed up.

‘So odd’,’ I thought again.  Bo was in such a great mood, calm and content.  Yet, in a few spots he was clearly indicating discomfort.

Still, I felt I’d done my due diligence and was eager to ride.  Life has been so insane lately, and I desperately wanted a horse fix to quiet my mind.

So, I grabbed my tack.  On went the dressage pad.. half pad.. saddle.  It wasn’t until I began to tighten the girth I noticed his ears pin.  I was so taken back. In the 8+ years I’ve owned Bo never once has he pinned his ears (or bit, kicked, reared, etc.). I thought it had to be a fluke, so I released the girth and tried again.

There was no denying his ears were going back in relation to the saddle.


“State of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation”

Now I was in a major quandary - do I listen to the subtle signs my horse is giving me or do I press on with my own desires?  Afterall, it’d been a month since my last ride - didn’t I deserve this?

I came up with a compromise - ‘I’ll put on my bare back pad and see what happens!’

Holding my breath, I tightened the girth on my bareback pad… no ears back, no discomfort - whew, all good!

With my bridle in hand, I removed his halter. Typically, Bo stands there and brings his head closer to be bridled.  But this time, he turned and walked away.

There was no denying he was telling me ‘NO’ as politely as he could.

Now I was at a crossroad - do I respect his boundary and honor his wishes or do what I came there to do?

99 times he stands perfect to be groomed, saddled, and mounted.  How often has he taken care of me and my 2 little boys?  Do I give him this one time to say no and respect that?


Disappointed, I took my tack and grooming supplies back to the tack room and put them away.


I learned in a ‘traditional’ barn setting where your horse sure as hell better do what you tell him to do when you tell him to do it with no questions asked.  If you let your horse say no and get away with anything, he will think he’s the leader and walk all over you.

I never quite understood this mentality and always felt my relationship with my horse was a partnership - that he should be valued just as much as I.  But, I didn’t want to be the wussy who let my horse walk over me, so I tried to follow suit.

However, Bo has a way of communicating gently and guiding me to new paths and answers. He’s like the Gandhi of horses.  Over time, by listening to him, he led me to equine massage therapy and for that our relationship is forever changed.


  1. I listen to the whispers

“A good rider can hear their horse speak.  A great rider can hear his horse whisper.”

In the past, I wouldn’t have even noticed if Bo was stepping away from being groomed.  I can’t help but wonder how many times before becoming a bodyworker I overlooked these small signs from him.

Over the years of working with horses, I’ve trained my eyes and senses to pick up on the slightest signs of discomfort.  Now, I listen for the whispers - the flick of the tail, shifting of weight, holding of breath - the small signs that indicate there may be something unseen going on.

  1. I don’t assume my horse is just being naughty

“People have problems with horses because they either don’t know or don’t pay attention.” Jesse Westfall

How many times in the past have I called my horses naughty?  I didn’t have an explanation for their behavior so ‘naughty’ was my default.

Since becoming an equine bodyworker, I’ve learned a whole new way of thinking about and relating to my horses.

I now understand they are never being naughty - but are rather communicating.  Do they not understand what’s being asked and need more education?  Am I not asking clearly enough and do I need more education?  Are they feeling afraid in a new environment?  Is their body feeling discomfort/pain that’s making it hard to work?

How many ‘naughty’ horses have I worked on that actually had a severe pathology going on?  Too many.

Never again will I slap a bandaid label of ‘naughty’ on my horse.  I will always look for the deeper meaning behind their behavior.

  1. I respect ‘off’ days

“If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn't need motivation to speed him up.  What he needs is education to turn him around.” - Jim Rohn

Sometimes, you just need a day off, and our horses are no different.  We all have good days and bad days.  Days where we feel we can tackle anything and days where it feels impossible to get out of bed (or leave the field).  Some days, “it just be like that” (in the words of my 4 year old, Rowan).

Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned to respect my off-days, knowing if I allow myself rest the next day is usually so much better.  I now extend that space to my horses as well.  As long as my horse is communicating respectfully to me that they ‘just can’t even’ that day, I’m good with it.

  1. I care about their comfort and well being above all else

“I can make a General in five minutes, but a good horse is hard to replace.” Abraham Lincoln

I feel like I have the greatest horses in the world.  Bo is one of a kind and the most gentle soul I’ve ever met.  I could never replace him, and I want him to have a voice and be heard.  If either of my horses aren’t feeling well, I want them to know they can tell me.

  1. We have a deeper relationship

“We show strength by the actions we don’t take”

I had this epiphany during a pivotal time when I was moving from more ‘traditional’ horsemanship to more P+ focused horsemanship.

The epiphany was - ‘if you were Bo or Fancy, would you want to be around you?’  The answer was a hard no.. ouch.  I wouldn’t want to be around someone who didn’t let me have a voice, didn’t listen to me and lost their patience at the slightest challenge.

At the time, my horses didn’t want to be caught in the field and were running from me.  These days, they catch me at the gate.

The difference?  I allow them a voice and listen to what they’re saying.

Although it was disappointing to not ride Bo that morning, it also felt incredibly empowering knowing he knew that he could talk to me and that I would listen - and I wouldn’t trade that relationship for a trail ride.

~ ~ ~

Despite being involved with horses in some aspect my entire life, owning my own horses for over 8 years and being an equine bodyworker for 7 years, I feel my horsemanship journey is really just beginning.  I still have so much to learn - and this time, in a whole new way that respects the horse and puts them first.

I am forever grateful for the people in my life who’ve helped me find a different way, and for my horses who continually push me to question the traditional methods I’ve used.  Becoming a bodyworker has truly changed my relationship with my horses for the better, and the skills I’ve learned are something I can take with me and improve throughout my life.

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