Tension. It’s a physical concept that most of us are familiar with in our own lives, becoming increasingly dominant at times, but does it impact your horse? Tension is a physiological response to stress on some level and it does occur in the horse, rather often. In fact, I am hard pressed not to find a horse that is under some degree of strain. This tension or stagnation as some refer to it, can manifest on many levels and if not managed properly in the horse, it can lead to a host of health and lameness conditions. Considering the ramifications, it is extremely important to manage tension in the horse, but how do you do it successfully?
Tension is a physiological response within the body as a result of stress or strain. In truth, it is an emotional response which then manifests as a physical one, and can create some tremendous harm over time if not managed. In the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), every condition that occurs in the body has a pattern which precedes it. This is a pattern of imbalance in some shape or form. In most instances in western medicine, we see the end result or the disease, but do not see the cause. The ’cause’ is the imbalance of pattern of disharmony.
Think of a forest fire which ravages hundreds of acres with homes, displacing families and creating turmoil. That fire is the ‘disease’. The fire and the end result of it is our focus in most instances. However, there is a pattern which preceded it, coming from nature and that pattern of disharmony was likely drought or lack of moisture. In western medicine, we would focus on the fire and the end result. In Chinese medicine, we would more so focus on the pattern of disharmony which preceded it, then try to correct that situation and restore balance.
Every physical body is based upon energy. Energy is needed to fuel every cell and every bodily function from digestion to nervous. This energy is referred to as ‘Qi’ in TCM and in order for balance to take place, or health, the energy must flow smoothly. If it does not flow smoothly, then some organs may receive an overabundance of energy, while others are starved of it. When energy is not flowing smoothly, in TCM it is referred to as ‘Qi stagnation’ and literally leads to knotting up of energy, like a knot in your throat, belly, or even a passing headache. This energy or Qi stagnation can also lead to emotional problems, such as irritability, depression, and anxiety. Essentially, when energy is not flowing smoothly, then tissues are not being nourished, so malfunction occurs.
I used the photo above as it is a situation which to me reflects emotional and physical stagnation in the horse. Very common to see, not just in dressage, but other disciplines as well.
In most cases, this stagnation is temporary, almost coming and going. In TCM, they associate passing pains, occurring anywhere in the body, with Qi stagnation. It is generally a blunt type of pain, that may be present in one area one minute, then moved onto another, or possibly completely gone the next. This is a common problem in people with hypertension or high blood pressure, irritable bowel type of conditions, menstrual complaints, emotional outrages, back problems and even joint ailments.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that this is not in harmony with health in the horse. Energy is needed to nourish all tissues and when it is not flowing properly, problems will happen, especially if the problem is ongoing. In the long-term, if energy is not moving properly in the horse, then eventually blood and other sources of nourishment will be lacking in the body. Then, this leads to the increased potential for health and lameness conditions.
In truth, most joint, tendon, back and neck problems are associated directly with Qi or energy stagnation in the horse. Going further, most cases of irritability, behavioral problems, and even depression in the horse are associated with Qi or energy stagnation.
Considering this, it is wise to control it and through better management, it is interesting to see how many conditions actually resolve or at least become easier to manage in the horse. I am not just talking about behavioral problems, but joints, backs, and even tendons can become healthier, more flexible, and have reduced pain. Think of it in your own body. Tension builds and if you can just get a moment to fully relax and take a deep breathe, then things almost instantly feel better.
More severe joint, tendon and back problems are usually a result of long-term Qi stagnation which has impacted blood nourishment to the tissue, making the area weaker and more susceptible to injury. Pain itself, results in tension in the body, which then creates more stagnation. Think of a horse with a tendon injury as an example. Most are due to prior stagnation initially, creating the injury. Then, the horse is put into a stall for a month or even longer. Anxiety builds because energy is becoming stagnant in the horse. Many become hard to manage behaviorally and this is not hard to understand. Instead of managing the energy flow, many opt to sedate the horse to make them more manageable, however, this is not a solution. Then, the energy stagnates and impairs healing and many owners wonder why they fail to heal completely or in a timely fashion.
Signs of Qi or energy stagnation in the horse:
- Tension (cribbing, weaving, pawing etc.)
- Tight muscles and soreness
- Tight and sore neck and back
- Joint soreness and stiffness
- Behavioral issues from anxiety to depression
- Gas accumulation
- Loose feces with irritability or heat
- Constipation or dry feces
- Tendon concerns and failure to heal
- Poor hoof conditioning
- Yawning and constantly stretching
Qi Stagnation and Cause in the Horse
Energy stagnation is an emotional response leading to a physical one. In TCM, energy flow in the body should be smooth and this energy flow is governed by the liver. Yes, the liver is a major detox organ, amongst other duties, but in TCM, the liver is responsible for storing and moving energy, plus nourishing tissues in the body, specifically tendons.
When energy stagnates, most of the time, it is an emotional response. The horse is unhappy for some reason, not comfortable, in pain, or on the wrong diet or training program. This creates stagnation. We all know how this feels and how this can develop, as it manifests almost daily in some of us to some degree.
The liver must be ‘fed’ properly and thus, diet is a huge factor. If the liver is not nourished itself, through proper foods and herbs, then it will get out of harmony and energy will be more likely to stagnate. When the liver is not nourished properly, this is either termed ‘liver blood deficiency‘ or to the more extreme, ‘liver Yin deficiency‘. These will be discussed in another article, but both are dependent upon proper nutrition and stresses (lifestyle).
Some horses are just more prone to Qi stagnation due to their personality, however, all horses can experience it and do experience it. The cause, however, can vary. Despite the cause, the main goal here is to get that energy moving and keep it moving. This can be a temporary situation, where one supplements for a short period of time to resolve the stagnation, or in other cases, it can be a daily regimen and effort to keep that energy moving. It is all dependent upon the horse, their personality, and a few other factors.
The bottom line goal is to get that energy moving! This is often one of the first things we personally do in all cases of joint conditions, tendon problems, digestive issues, and behavioral problems.
Managing Qi or Energy Stagnation in the Horse
I have known about the problem of Qi or energy stagnation in the horse for many, many years. However, only more recently have we created an herbal blend to assist in getting that energy moving and keep it moving. The formula that we use currently, which is a custom made blend for our clients, is the EQ Tension Relief blend. What was once only available to our clients is now available to the public.
To get energy moving, one can use acupuncture properly or one can use herbs, or in truth, sometimes best results are gained through a combination. Qi stagnation is a major problem in the alternative world of medicine and is one of the main causes of many other health conditions, so it is common to manage and diagnose not just in people, but horses as well.
The EQ Tension Relief formula provides 5 key herbs to assist in moving energy and supporting the liver function:
- Blue skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is used to help soothe the liver and move energy, while also gently cooling the body and reducing anxiety.
- White Peony is used to help soothe the liver, calm it down, cool and nourish the liver through nutrient provision.
- Angelica sinensis (Salvia multiorrhiza) is also used to nourish the liver and aid in moving energy and blood, but has a mild warming effect to stimulate movement.
- Tangerine Peel (Chen Pi) is a digestive herb which aids in promoting healthy digestion and moving energy within the digestive tract, which can be helpful for those horses with gas or colic histories.
- Bupleurum chinense is a major herb used to help move energy in the entire body and create harmony. It has a mildly cooling effect.
All five of these herbs impact liver health and energy movement in the horse. In addition, by moving energy, they assist with pain and discomfort. In fact, all of them have clinical and research benefits when it comes to inflammation.
Qi or energy stagnation is extremely common. You don’t just have to have an irritable or anxious horse to have stagnation. Those horses with sore backs, necks, joints and tendon issues also have stagnation to some degree. It is interesting to see how much improvement can be gained just by ‘moving’ that energy! In most cases, we don’t even need to use a stronger herbal formula for pain and can eliminate many medications and injections.
Downsides to moving Energy in the Horse?
I have yet to see any downsides or negative reactions. Essentially, we are trying to restore balance and all disease and lameness issues are a result of imbalance. However, there are a few words of advice that I will lend for those ears that are listening.
Energy requires energy to move. Think of a river that is stagnate and maybe flowing out of its banks. You can relieve any obstruction and get that water moving, which is ideal, but if there is not enough water behind the blockage to keep things moving, then you can run into stagnation again due to a deficiency or shortage of water. This is the same for energy. Your goal is to get it moving in your horse, but your horse requires energy to move energy.
For most horses, there is an abundance of energy, so you get it moving and then reduce the dose as needed to keep things going smoothly. However, some horses have stagnation yet are depleted at the same time. This is referred to as ‘Qi deficiency’ and often has to do with an improper diet, poor digestive function, and overall strain upon the body, like depleting a battery. In those cases, we can use a formula like EQ Tension Relief initially, but we closely monitor their response. If they seem to feel better and more relaxed, then we succeeded in moving that energy. However, if after a few days or even a week, they start to get sluggish with reduced energy, reduced appetite, or even loose stools, then we have a Qi deficiency situation at the root, which now needs to be addressed. This would be managed by using the EQ Gut Blend III formula, potentially with a low dose of the EQ Tension Relief if needed.
Bottom line? No matter what you are dealing with in your horse, you are likely facing some sort of energy or Qi stagnation. This can be the primary problem which has led to that joint issue, back problem, or tendon injury. It is wise to manage it and as stated before, sometimes the results can be quite phenomenal! This can be a first line approach for many conditions, just to assess the impact upon your horse by moving that energy.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN