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The Power of Touch

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Palpation originates from the Latin word 'palpare', meaning 'to touch'. Palpation is used mainly by therapists but it's an extremely valuable skill for all horse owners to learn. Getting hands on and learning what’s normal for your horse will help to keep him feeling and performing at his best.

In this article we look at top tips for developing your palpation skills and look at why regular palpation of your horse is important and useful. We also include a useful exercise to help improve your energy and intuition which will improve your ability to feel.

Gillian higgins horses inside out power of touch massage palpation

Getting into the habit of feeling your horse’s legs, back and neck – in fact every part of his body is a good thing. Do this on a regular basis and you’ll soon learn what your horse’s normal feels like even if you don't understand exactly what you're touching.

Developing this sort of inbuilt knowledge through feel will help you detect changes and take the necessary action quickly.

Palpation has two major objectives

  1. Locate the target muscle or anatomical structure that is being palpated

  2. Assess its health. This is done by feeling for its tone and texture

Anatomical palpation

Gillian Higgins horses inside out anatomical palpation the power of touch

This needs a thorough understanding of anatomy and relies on you knowing what the structures are underneath the skin. It’s vital for therapists to have a 3D understanding of anatomy so you can feel what those structures are and be able to visualise them.

Knowing what the muscles and bones are called is necessary but having a thorough understanding of what those structures feel like is crucial.

gillian higgins horses inside out develping palpation the power of touch scapula humerus glenohumeral joint shoulder joint

On the Developing Palpation course you’ll have the opportunity learn this skill. Thanks to the collection of bones and models at Horses Inside Out you will be able to feel a point on a horse and then back it up by feeling actual bone. It’s also about understanding the importance of those structures, in terms of training, management, performance, posture, stresses and strains, and areas that are likely to be injured.

Recognising what those areas feel like when things do go wrong is another key skill. Feeling and understanding what you’re feeling on a regular basis so you recognise if things change.

That Gut Feeling

The second part of palpation is more intuitive and this is sometimes hard to teach.

Your mental space, emotions, energy levels, posture and breathing can help or hinder your ability to feel what's happening. This intuitive side doesn’t just apply to palpation but to everything you do your horse.

We've all had those stressful days at work and it then impacts on your time with your horse - perhaps a training session doesn't go well, or your horse won't be caught. They are amazing creatures and so in tune with our emotions having the ability to control your emotions will have an amazing affect on the relationship you have with your horse and increase you sensitivity when you're touching him.

gillian higgins horses inside out the power of touch developing palpation students demonstration

On the Developing Palpation course you will learn exercises to help clear your mind and to lower your energy, so you’re in the best possible place to be able to feel.

Your posture is also important when you're working with your horse, if your posture is poor you're less likely to feel as much.

Lowering your energy levels

This simple exercise is a nice way to make sure that you're not bringing negative emotions or negative energy into the stable. Try doing this exercise before you ride and see if you notice a difference in you and your horse.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart with your knees slightly bent.

  2. To get your weight centred, gently rock from your heel to your toe, and sway side to side.

  3. Thinking about the joints in your legs, think about the weight through your feet.

  4. Move up to your knees – keep them soft and relaxed.

  5. Moving up to your pelvis - make sure it’s level. Tilt your pelvis forwards, backwards, side to side and then find the middle again.

  6. Think about your spine coming straight up out of your level pelvis all the way up. Each vertebra building on top of the another.

  7. So come straight up and then imagine a blue when you get to the very top pulling your head right up.

  8. Maybe roll your shoulders and let your shoulders drop down by your side.

And breathe

Now you’re in good posture take a deep breath in through your nose out through the mouth. Do this two or three times – each time you breath out think about lowering your energy down.

You're now in a good place to start working with your horse whether that’s grooming, riding or massaging.

Palpation - what are we actually feeling for?

gillian higgins horses inside out the power of touch withers assessing posture conformation

1. Normal v’s Abnormal

You’re feeling and checking for what’s normal, and whether there are any abnormalities. This forms part of the posture and conformation assessment most therapists would do at the beginning of a session.

2. Heat

As you feel are there any variations in heat in different structures? There are external factors that can make a difference to your horse's skin temperature. For example, has the horse been standing in the sun or has he just bee worked? This will affect his temperature.

Injury and inflammation can increase blood flow to a specific area and affect the temperature. Heat can be an indicator of injury.

3. Tension within certain muscles

The difficulty with tension is that every horse is different, and this is where as a horse owner, it's important you know what your horse’s normal muscles feel like because on one horse when you run your hand through a muscle it might feel really soft, on another horse, it can feel really hard - but if that's normal for that horse, then that's okay.

It's being able to recognise when there's an increase in tension or a change from normal.

Factors that can affect tension

Conformation and breed can influence tension but there are three other key factors that can have a big impact on tension:


If you're a very busy, anxious person, you're muscles are going to feel quite different to somebody that's laid back and very relaxed – it’s the same with horses.


Comparing the muscles of someone who’s very fit compared to someone that doesn't do very much, you're going to have different the feeling within the muscles. You need to know the normal feeling of tone and once you've got that normal tone you can start to recognise when there's a change.

Feeling sore

If there's tension within a muscle because a horse is trying to protect an area because they're sore, maybe it's as a result of delayed onset muscle soreness, having the ability to recognise that sort of tension and being able to work on it. The Developing Palpation course looks at a number of different techniques that help you to recognise when there is muscle tension due to injury protection.

If you would like to learn more about this topic check out these courses and this book:-

Massage for Horses

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