After years of doing equine bodywork, I still get that “deer in the headlights” look from people when I say, “Your horse needs craniosacral.” Craniosacral therapy is not something we hear from our local veterinarians or medical doctors on a regular basis. So what is it?
In simplest terms, cranio means the head and sacral means the base of the spine. Traditionally, craniosacral focused on the core structure of the head with the spine and the sacrum. It is one of the few modalities that address the head and the whole body. It works primarily on the central and autonomic nervous systems and has been proven to help calm and rebalance these systems—especially in the horse.
Just in the last decade or so, craniosacral is a newly adapted bodywork therapy to the equine industry. Craniosacral therapy is a unique and efficient way to keep horses in bio-mechanical balance while maintaining both skeletal and muscular health.
This particular therapy is known for successfully treating specific equine conditions such as head shaking, TMJ imbalances, head traumas, and facial nerve paralysis including both acute and chronic injuries. The uniqueness of this therapy lies in its specific focus on the equine skull and the relationship of the head to the entire body.
Historically speaking, it is known as cranial osteopathy. Craniosacral evolved from the practice of osteopathy. Dr. William Sutherland, an osteopath in the early 1900s, discovered that the bones of the cranium connect to the sacrum through what he referred to as the “core link.” The core link is made up of the skull (or cranium), the spinal cord, and the dura mata (the protective sleeve around the spinal cord) along with the sacrum. Dr. Sutherland noticed that when “pressures” were applied to the various bones of the skull, the sacrum and pelvis were affected. The same principle applied when it came to the sacrum. Eventually, the pressures applied there would affect the bones of the skull.
These structures are connected, not only by muscles, fascia, ligaments, and tendons on the outside, but more importantly by the tissues from inside the core link. Typical osteopathy focuses on the bones themselves, however, craniosacral focuses on bringing balance throughout the skeletal and muscular systems with a specific focus to the individual bones of the skull, spine, and sacrum.
This type of therapy can help keep the central nervous system operating well by the removal of restrictions in the motion that is found within the nervous system. The craniosacral motion, or pulse-like rhythm, is similar to a heartbeat. Even though it requires training and an awareness to tap into this motion, it can be felt and measured. This rhythm is part of what moves the cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and spinal cord. This slight motion comes from the extension and flexion of the spine and bones of the skull. When the craniosacral pulse-like rhythm is disturbed and not able to completely move, it has the potential to cause a chain effect through the rest of the body, which in turn can affect the central nervous system. Craniosacral therapy aims to use light manual touch to rebalance the cranial rhythm and the nervous system.
The nerves are very important to consider when looking at a horse using craniosacral therapy. The most significant nerves are the cranial nerves that originate from the brain and enter or exit the skull through small openings. There are 12 nerves that help control everything from sensory organs, facial muscles, and the digestive tract. Craniosacral therapy is a non-invasive bodywork modality that implement a light touch that horses tend to enjoy. The objective is to increase the activity in the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” part of the nervous system and decrease activity in the sympathetic or “fight or flight” part. It is through this process that the body can allow healing to occur and relieve internal stressors and or trauma. The central nervous system opens up restrictions in the fascial planes and restores motion to the cranial bones allowing the body to rebalance and restore normal function to the nervous system.
The body is all connected. Craniosacral addresses the head with the whole body because the body is all connected. When something gets distorted in the head, like pulling back or a bonk to the head, the entire body is affected by the head injury or trauma.
How do you know if your horse might need craniosacral therapy?
What can you look for? Symmetry or lack of symmetry is vital. Look at the symmetry on your horse’s face. Are the eyes even? Do you notice any facial structure differences? Are the ears level? Is there a visual or palpatal dent? Look at the relationships within the whole body. All of the body parts work together—there is no separation. For example, if the horse is having problems cantering, cranio compression could be a factor for the compensation behind.
The two major pressure areas on the horse is the head and the back. The head has nerve supply, blood supply, and the brain supply. So, when things get affected, that is when we tend to see issues like head shaking and cribbing. We have their teeth done, but we don’t always look at the head.
Another thing we have a tendency of overlooking is posture issues versus confirmation. This is applicable both on the ground and under saddle. What we perceive as confirmation issues (and have been brainwashed to perceive as breeding issues) are actually out of balance issues. Once a horse has an injury, like being cast in a stall, compensation begins—the horse is out of balance. Musculoskeletal imbalance leads to imbalanced posture which leads to muscle tension and compensation.
Craniosacral is unique in how we address the body as a treatment, but it is also learning the compensation patterns in our horses. These patterns have been deemed confirmation. Out of balance cranial compression can be an element of why the horse is having issues in the hind end.
Cranial is not always looked at and understood. There is a disconnect when a horse pulls back and people disregard it and think it’s no big deal. Other issues we see are head shaking for no reason, behavioral problems, and chomping the bit. Yes, we need to look at the teeth, the feet, saddle fit, and the bones but the long-term solution is soft tissue.
Unless there is a boney change like a spur or fracture, most horses are able to be rehabbed. Invest your time and money in getting your horse in balance before competition or putting them back to work after an injury. More balance equals more power because the horse will move better. When a horse is balanced, they don’t have joint issues and don’t age as fast. They come back from injuries faster. When the bones are decompressed, the eyes move better and they tend to spook less. Over time, it all adds up. It isn’t always just one specific incident. It can be bad dentistry, pulling back, minor head trauma, cast in the stall, getting kicked in the pasture, or a slip in the paddock.
Craniosacral therapy is a great addition to any horse’s health routine and compliments other bodywork modalities like equine massage, energy work, and acupressure. Take the time to observe the simple things. Is your horse spitting out food? Is he or she not performing as good as they did a year ago? Remember, limitation comes from compensation. Keeping your horse balanced is key! Balanced feet, balanced teeth, balanced nutrition, and a balanced body equal optimal health. Craniosacral is one more tool in the tool box of health for creating a happy and balanced horse for years to come!
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