Equestrian Life,  Holistic Wellness

Building Trust in An Anxious Horse

Today was a great day. For the last several months I’ve been working with a high-strung horse providing massage. He has been a bit of a challenge, and has been hesitant to trust me. 

Sunny is a beautiful appendix palomino at our local therapeutic riding center. He works with veterans and kids with special needs, and takes great care of his riders. My daughter has ridden him! But Sunny is always thinking and internalizes it. As a result, he has incredible muscle tension.


When I first began working with Sunny, he was extremely head shy and wary of me. My hand, placed inches from his body would result in him twitching in anticipation. When we perform massage we usually start with a light amount of pressure and then gradually increase to treat the spasms.


I found very quickly that light pressure was counter to what Sunny needed. He does better with moderate to heavy pressure to be able to relax. As you may expect, he is a very sensitive gelding.


It’s been a work in progress to figure out where Sunny is most comfortable receiving massage. We began in the wash stall. He didn’t like the rubber mat and refused to step on it. I worked on desensitizing him to it with positive association but he was always very “up” on the cross ties.


The cat didn’t help the situation. The barn cats would hang out in the hay loft above and one day while I was working with Sunny, a barn cat chased another on to the wood separating the two wash stalls. It, unsurprisingly, scared the jeebers out of him! He reared, panicking, and I took him off the cross tie and we walked him around a bit to calm his nerves before trying again.


The amazing staff quickly built an obstruction so that we I returned we could continue working in the wash stall unperturbed by sassy barn cats.


One day we tried his stall while the wash stalls were in use. There was a huge difference in relaxation. The nice thing about a sensitive horse is that when they open themselves up to massage they relieve tension beautifully.

I am beyond happy to say we recently had a breakthrough! After several months, changes in approach, and different techniques- Sunny gave me the most beautiful release. I decided to use my signature massage blend, which he inhaled and loved before I even began. Once head shy, Sunny now enjoys massage to his poll and atlas, lowering his head and closing his eyes in relief.


Despite his relaxed state, Sunny didn’t want me to touch his serratus (behind the scapula) at first. But with patience and perseverance, we released a major spasm. Within seconds he was stretching, licking, yawning, and sneezing. I stepped back to watch and enjoy. I wish I could have caught it on tape. I was luckily able to film a small release a few weeks ago. 



There is nothing quite like the feeling of working with a horse for months and having it click. Realizing that I can make the pain go away and that he doesn’t have to suffer.


Just one of the reasons I love my job. While horses like Sunny are a challenge, the feeling of accomplishment I receive when he shows trust in me cannot be measured. Regular massage builds a relationship between therapist and horse that cannot be denied.


When I left today, I felt so gratified and giddy. Time, patience, and using different methods have paid off. Trainer, barn manager, and program director all were able to see a happy, dozing Sunny when we were done. A seemingly small success, but a huge step for an anxious horse.


Have you had success building trust with an animal?



  • Jeanne R. Melanson

    I love this! I don’t have horses, and don’t know a whole lot about them; therefore, I didn’t understand some of the terms were using. It must be quite an honor to massage horses! How FUN! And the results you’ve achieved with this particular horse … I’m so proud of you. All the very best to you.

  • Pawz Crossed

    I looked into horse massage back in high school and was so interested in it! I had a horse a few years ago but had to sell cause the boarders upped how much a month they wanted just so they could buy him off me. They knew I couldn’t afford their asking price and there was no where else that I could find. We live in a small rural area, I am in the process of vet assistant classes and would so love to get into equine massage! I love horses to death and wish I still had my boy. PS. He was an anxious little guy

    • Heather Wallace

      That’s terrible! Honestly, the cost of board is the reason I don’t yet have a horse of my own. It’s so expensive. I wish I had the land to have them myself. You should definitely look into equine massage, it would be a great supplement to being a vet assistant. Feel free to contact me directly and we can chat.

  • Kelly

    There is nothing like that break through with an animal, when they finally relax and realize you are there to help them. I wish I knew more about massage when I had my horses.

  • DashKitten

    I can imagine the thrill you felt at such a breakthrough. What you are saying is, yes this works, give it time and good things happen!

    You must have felt such a sense of achievement (and then waiting until you go outside to shout YYAAAAAAYAYAYAA)


  • Sweet Purrfections

    How wonderful to hear you had a break through with Sunny. I admire your patience in working with him. I think horses are beautiful creatures and I know so little about them. I live my dreams through your blog.

  • Debbie Bailey

    I’m so happy to hear you had such a breakthrough with Sunny. I imagine that horses can be a lot like dogs when they’re scared. You need to keep trying different things to figure out what makes them most comfortable and relaxed. I’m glad you found that perfect combination. Hope your sessions with Sunny continue to go well now that you found a place and a massage blend that he likes.

    • Heather Wallace

      Debbie, exactly. Despite being on opposite sides of the prey/predator scale, horses and dogs have much in common. I think people want a quick fix and they don’t realize that is not what is best. Slow and steady builds trust and affection. That’s when you see the best results.

  • The Daily Pip

    How wonderful that you were able to have a break through with Sunny! That’s really wonderful and I agree it is such an incredible feeling to gain an animal’s trust. I first had this experience with my cat Daisy. She was so frightened of everything and it took many months, but I finally gained her trust.

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