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Exploring Equine Bodywork with Red Dog Ranch Founder Sam MacLean

Sep. 19, 2023 at 2:19PM

Gut instincts, guardian angels, intuition, your inner voice. Whatever you call it, it's that little "somebody or something is trying to tell me something" feeling. Sam MacLean admits that she is a special kind of stubborn who needed numerous messages delivered quickly to make an impression upon her. First, she endured a nasty faceplant and tumble on a trail near Telluride, resulting in broken ribs, a chipped tooth, and a bruised jaw. Next, a rambunctious horse led to a dislocated and frozen shoulder. The final blow was a slip on the ice that irritated the previously broken ribs and shoulder. All this happened in less than three months.

"Something was trying to say, 'The direction you are headed—this is not what you are supposed to do. If I have to knock you off the top of a mountain and you don't listen, I'll do whatever it takes,'" Sam reflected. As an out-of-work marketer/fitness professional/nonprofit fundraiser, she knew it was time to change course. Then she asked herself, what was she supposed to do with the rest of her life?

Once she began listening, the answer came to her, not with another series of jolts and tumbles, but with a whisper. The word "touch" was a constant theme that would resonate with Sam while she was journaling or meditating. "Not like someone saying it to me, but it kept entering all of my journal entries. I would say or write something about touch. Why am I hearing, 'touch'?" Sam kept wondering. Then came a chance meeting with a woman who was providing massage therapy to horses at a local barn where Sam, who grew up riding and, as she put it, "getting in trouble with horses," was leasing a horse.

She encouraged Sam to sign up for classes with Tall Grass Animal Acupressure, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Sam's home. At the time, Sam was still healing from her injuries, in a total emotional funk, and unemployed. "I was feeling like, for the first time in my life, I'm not supporting the family. I'm totally a burden. And now I'm spending money on classes for myself," Sam lamented. But her husband, Tim, encouraged her to explore this new interest and direction.

"I went there the first day," Sam started, then paused. "I'm going to start crying … I went there the first day, drove home each day, and cried all the way home. Holy shit, I just felt like … it's when people get an all-body yes. Your whole body, everything about you says, 'Yes.' For the first time in my life, I was 50 fricking years old; I'm like, fuck. I found it. I was also like, Jesus Christ, what am I going to do with this?"

What she did with it is found Red Dog Ranch. The website describes its services as "Contributing to the harmony, balance, wholeness and vitality of your equine partner through a variety of bodywork modalities using intentional and educated hands, an intuitive connection and the innate ability to read subtle non-verbal cues for better communication with your horse."  Sam, with the encouragement and support of her husband, family, and friends, had finally found her profession, purpose, and life surrounded by horses and people who love them.

Eat, Love, Prey Animals

Cats, dogs, some birds, and small animals can actually join us in our homes as family pets, so it makes sense that our bond with these animals would become strong. But horses are basically livestock—agrarian animals of burden. Why do so many people become almost mystically attracted to them? 

Along with practicing bodywork on horses—massage, myofascial release, acupressure, reiki, and energy work—Sam is also certified in a practice called HeartMath, a technique that focuses on the power of the heart and how the heart influences the brain and the rest of the body, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. While HeartMath isn't for horses per se, Sam teaches classes in HeartMath techniques to her human clients so they can have a better relationship with themselves and others around them, especially their horses.

"Because horses are prey animals, they don't make as much auditory or audible noise. They communicate through body language and through energy," Sam explained. "The heart gives off the greatest amount of energy of any system in the body. More than the brain. This heart field extends about five feet outward from the human body.

"The horse field is at least 15 feet," she continued. "They are hugely powerful creatures. I have been with some horses where we have measured their fields in excess of 30 feet. For horses, this is about survival but also because humans and horses have survived over centuries because we have communities."

Sam told me that horses can read and sense human emotions and tune into what humans are thinking and feeling, developing a symbiotic emotional and physical relationship.

Some studies of equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) suggest that being in the presence of horses can have a positive impact on peoples’ resilience, somatic symptoms, and social functioning. While I won't suggest that being around horses can actually "heal" someone with severe trauma or mental health issues, data and evidence suggest that EAP and time with horses can make people feel better able to contend with the challenges they face.

"That's why people love being around horses," Sam said, "and why there are so many equine therapy centers."

Food, Shelter, Water, and Autonomy

I asked Sam to show me some of the techniques she uses when working on horses. We left her modern, built-into-the-side-of-a-hill house for a short walk to the barn. The first creature to spot us is Elmer, a guard cat that gives me a wary look from atop a mountain of hay. The next one to greet us is Pye, a horse rescue Sam and Tim took in the fall of 2021. Pye came to them emaciated and with leg and hoof issues, known as PPID or Cushing's and DSLD, which affect a horse's hooves and lower ligaments. While he still has leg and hoof problems, he has gained weight and is a solid, gentle, and curious horse.

Pye shows us around the barn. He has a nice, cushy pad on the floor of his stall, like one you’d find at kids’ playgrounds, to protect them when they fall off the monkey bars, providing him comfort for his ailing legs and hooves. Pye shares the barn with two other horses, Romeo, a thoroughbred and Pye’s best friend, and Copper, an American quarter horse, plus two donkeys, Hamish and Milo. Pye likes to hang out in Copper's stall when Copper is out in the paddock with Romeo during the day.

Sam doesn't cajole or force Pye to leave the barn. In fact, she doesn't even ride her horses. She prefers just to leave them in their own state of being, as close to what they would have experienced had horses not been domesticated by humans tens of thousands of years ago.

"When I say I don't ride my horses, people get really confused. You have a horse. You're supposed to ride your horse. I'm not asking anything of our horses other than keeping their welfare," Sam explained.

Sam tends to treat her horses and donkeys as sentient beings. For centuries, philosophers, psychologists, ethicists, and other "big thinkers," from René Descartes (1596–1650) to Charles Darwin (1809–1882) to Pete Singer (1946–present) have argued both sides of the "are animals self-aware?" and "do animals have feelings?" questions. Sam joins their ranks. 

"Many people in the horse industry interact with horses more as objects and less as a sentient being. I firmly, firmly believe that they are sentient and sovereign beings. They have the right to tell me, like Pye, what is right for him. Like, I don't want to go outside. I just want to hang in here. I like my cushy floor," Sam said. "For me, that's totally fine. Around 5:00, the sun is going down; it's a little cooler, and he's lounged all day. Then he wants to go out and see Romeo, and we won't have to coerce him."

The Healing Touch

As we left the barn, Pye followed us for a bit but then retreated back inside. As we approached Romeo and Copper out in the paddock, Sam warned, "Romeo is very pushy. He has no problem coming up and telling you, 'I need a scratch.'"

I am immediately approached by Romeo, who tells me, "I need a scratch." So, I give him one.

As we gathered around Copper and Sam prepared to show me some of her healing techniques, she warned me, " Copper's the boss, so Copper will push Romeo away. And Romeo doesn't just move; he will kind of jump away. Everything with Romeo is big."

Seconds later, something startles the horses, and Romeo and Copper "explode" away from us. Having spent a lot of time around horses, I always know to expect the unexpected, so I especially appreciated Sam's warning. Every horse is different. It's good to know what to expect from an animal that weighs between 800 and 1000 pounds on average. And they are quick.

The energy almost immediately settled down, and Copper and Romeo came back to us as if nothing happened. Sam put a halter on Copper and began her demonstration on him.

"I compare my work to layers of an onion. As I work with a horse, I'm starting on the outermost layer," Sam explained. I ask if these are just physical layers or if they are energy layers.

"All of it," Sam answered. "Then I put my hands on them and look for sensitivity. There are certain areas of the body that we know can be reactive depending on what's going on. So, I'm looking for patterns. And because the foundation of what I do is Chinese medicine, acupressure and myofascial release inform everything that I do."

Sam runs her hands down Copper’s back, stopping occasionally to see if she senses any feedback from Copper. "There are association points along the back. I can inquire on each of these association points to see if the body has something to tell me. Each association point is associated with a particular channel in the body. They run from here to here," Sam says while running her fingers along Copper’s back.

She explains that any illness, disease, or "dis-ease" can be found through these association points or meridians in the body, be you a horse or a human. Sam said that these can often be linked to past physical or emotional trauma that one is holding in their body that could lead to illness or disease in that part of the body. For Romeo, Sam explains, "The emotions of liver and gallbladder are anger and frustration. When he is out of sorts, he's pissed off. He bites. He nips. He's angry. And when he's angry, I know that I can work liver three," she says while pressing on an acupressure point on Copper’s leg. "I can work this point and gently massage that point to help his body restore harmony."

We spend a few more minutes just hanging with her horses and donkeys, then head back up through the barn. I say goodbye to Pye and walk past Elmer, still eyeing me up with an air of cat discernment, and back into the house. As we finish, I asked Sam if being a healer was something she ever thought a fall down a mountain trail would lead her to. She immediately balked at the term healer.

"I don't believe I'm a healer. I can't heal anyone. I might touch a couple of points, but all I'm doing is saying to the horse, 'Hey, what about this right here? Is this working optimally? Is this point doing its job?' I cultivate my energy, my great bright light. Then, by me sharing that energy, another person or a horse will then be able to cultivate their own great bright light."

I guess it makes sense. We are all made up of energy. We can certainly sense that energy in the people we surround ourselves with. Some lift us up, and others drag us down. I can honestly say I've never been around an animal and said to myself, "That pony is such a bummer. He is just bringing me down." And while spending time with animals like Pye, Copper, Romeo, Hamish, and Milo may not be a cure for whatever ails me, it certainly is medicine and positive energy for my soul.

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.