Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – June 2006 – Vol 34 – Nº 02

Volume: 34

It was a beautiful June morning, not too hot and not too cold. The Spanish station was on the barn radio. The smell of horse manure and that peculiar smell of urine from alfalfa-fed horses filled the barn. The flies were biting but still lazy in the morning coolness. The horse I was Rolling was owned by a man named Rolf who made me promise not to tell people that the horse was getting Rolfed – his competitive advantage. I was enjoying myself too much, I told myself. I needed to get with the program because I had to go to work that day. Then it dawned on me, I was at work! I laughed so hard that I fell off the stool I was standing on. Luckily the horse, a big Warm Blood, just looked at me concerned, like a friend, and the stall had already been cleaned. This article is to introduce you to the world of Rolfing horses; I hope that it will help you in some small way.

In 1997, during my advanced training’s anatomy course, Tom Myers and I went out for a beer one night and he asked me to explain “… how one Rolls a horse…” As I recall it he drank his beer while I explained my theory of Equine Rolling. After listening he encouraged me to write about my theory. As things would happen this is the year when I’ve been pulled on to write by both the IASI Journal and now the Rolf Institute. In the IASI article I wrote about the “shell” of the work I do with horses. In this article I’ll look at some points in more detail.

Before you can start to work with horses you need to understand how they are used by their owners. The majority of the horses you’ll work with are ridden horses and you are being asked to help improve the performance under saddle. Some will have a behavioral problem that is related to soreness, and, rarely, from mistreatment – although you’ll hear lots of stories about how the horse was rescued from some abusive situation.

It’s important working with any athlete that we have some understanding of the stresses their athletic pursuits put them through. In the case of the horse, it’s important to understand how their body is or is not suited to the sport we have them in. For instance, horses don’t bend laterally very well, so barrel-racing (they don’ t actually race the barrels, they run around them) is not a sport that is friendly to the horse’s structure and not many horses can excel at it. Watching a horse barrel-race is an excellent way to “see” how they adapt to the need to bend.

When you are working with a horse, you are working with two clients: the one you are touching, and the one who called you to work with the horse and will be paying you. To do this work well you’ll have to be able to converse with both of these clients. You’ll have to know when your work has benefited the animal and when it has benefited the human. The human can tell you if they feel good about what you’ve done; you’re already used to that. The horse will also, but you’ll have to learn to see this.


On a continuum of predator to prey animals, the horse falls as far to the prey side as possible. This is both a product of its inherent nature and of the domestication by men: first, being able to catch a horse to domesticate (while the really wild ones were probably hunted and eaten); and second, culling the herd for the more docile animals to work with.

Having evolved primarily on the plains, flight became the horse’s best reaction to threat. On the plains there aren’t many obstacles to run into; an escape strategy of running straight ahead as fast as you can is a smart one. When we get into trouble with this strategy is when the horse is restricted in its ability to run away, and then it has to fight.

The openness of the plains provided the horse with an unobstructed view of its herd mates. With this unobstructed view the horse developed a visual rather than a vocal communication strategy. The fascinating body language of horses is very complex and is mixed with a herd hierarchy and learned behavior, much as we humans have. Suffice it to say that if you approach a horse with the aggressive body language of a predator you can evoke the fight-orflight response.

Besides the potential for the horse to want to escape or fight you, there’s another reason why we don’t want to have our predator thing on when we are working with horses. In the presence of a predator, the prey animal will try to mask any locomotor problems it has. It’s the animal that has the movement aberration that gets the most attention from the predator; prey that’s easier to catch increases the energy profit on the investment required to catch it (If you have an opportunity to watch a horse moving freely as in an arena or round pen, turn your predator attention on and see if the horse’s body changes.) We all understand this as Rolfers, from our training, standing in front of the class in our underwear and from working with our clients. If you have your intense predator eyes on the client will hide their aberrations from you.

In a natural setting the horse is part of an intact herd made up of sexually viable members. They learn a social order from the Alpha Mare who is the leader of the herd. Young horses are taught respect and are used to a natural hierarchy. The Alpha Stallion is in charge of security and has this position because of his ability to discriminate threats to the herd from non-threats; he has the most discriminating awareness. With awareness being the determining factor of herd hierarchy, it is very easy for a human to be moved up or down in the herd based on our ability to maintain our awareness in the horse’s presence. Recognizing the horse body language that is displayed as you move up or down in the hierarchy is very important in working with horses.

In the domesticated situation, horses are taken away from their mothers when they can be weaned to allow the mare to be bred again. This practice seems to occur even though the mare may not be re-bred. This takes the young horses away from the learning environment of the herd and puts them in with other youngsters until they are old enough to be physically secure with the older horses. This is a body growth measure, not a mental growth measure. What ~nencounter when we work with the majority of domestic horses is individuals who are immature in their horsiness and often not very well mannered. It’s important for your own safety that you spend some time with new clients watching how they and their horses interact to assure that the horse has respect for the owner and, if not, that you are aware to stay aware.

This is an important point to remember when working with horses. What people describe as aggression in a horse is defensive in nature. A horse that is truly aggressive, in the predator sense of the word, is a very confused and rare animal.


The horse’s foot evolved from having three toes (with three phalanges) to having one toe (with three phalanges). The second and fourth meta-carpal-tarsal are still present as the splint bones and can be palpated on the side of the third meta-carpal-tarsal bone. The horse’s hoof is akin to our finger nail and is continually growing; as a rule of thumb, a completely new hoof takes about a year to grow, to account for the wear it experiences as the horse moves. The walls of the horse’s hoof will grow at a rate that accommodates the pressure put on that wall by the structures above it. In other words, if the horse’s weight is distributed to the outside of the hoof, rather than the center, then the outside will grow faster than the inside to accommodate for the increased wear on the outside of the hoof. The weight transfer through the foot will also affect its overall size; the smaller foot will be the one that consistently carries less weight and may be associated with a preference for the side that carries more weight. With man’s usage of the horse, the hoof cannot always grow as fast as it is worn, so the metal shoe was developed. Originally the shoe was held on by string, the Hippo Sandal; the strings were later replaced with nails.

Given all this, when you encounter a horse with shoes, you can tell quite a lot about how they transfer weight through their leg by looking at the wear pattern of the bottom of the shoe. Are the nails worn more on one side or the other? Is the shoe worn in the front center or off to one side? Is the foot balanced? I’lI leave it up to you to determine what the answers to these questions are and what that tells you.

The front of the horse, the shoulders and legs, are not attached to the rest of the body through a bone since the horse does not have a clavicle. This allows for a separation of the movement of the front from the rest of the body, similar to an off-road vehicle’s independent suspension system – as shown in Figure l (see image below), a caudal view if you made a rostral (coronal) cut at T1.

The body of the horse is suspended from the scapulae and legs by the pectoral muscles and the serratus ventralis and cervicalis. This allows the body to rotate, and elevate without disturbing the front legs, as well as allowing the legs to move without disturbing the body, within limits.

As you can see from Figure 1, any holding in the pectorals or serrati can show up as a rotation in the body. This can be reflected through the spine to affect the rear of the horse, but more often the horse will develop a compensatory strategy in the opposite leg. Rotation can be determined by the relative position of the sternum to the humerus.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/2006/791-1.jpg’>

You can also predict that in order for the body to rise between the legs the scapula will have to move laterally to provide a mechanical advantage. We’ll look at this more later.

The front legs hang from the body and neck by the brachiocephalicus, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius.

The rear of the horse can be thought of as the engine or drive train. It’s from the rear that the horse pushes the body forward with a minimum amount of pulling from the front that occurs due to friction on the feet in retraction. (Some horses pull from the front when they move, this is undesirable and an indication of tight shoulders.) There is a continuity of soft tissue and bone from the head to the rear feet, allowing energy to move from the rear to the head. The sinusoidal wave of energy from the rear to the head has to proceed without barrier to produce the most efficient movement. Barriers to this movement will set up reflected waves which can more easily be seen in the rider of the horse than in the horse itself. (When looking at an efficiently moving horse being ridden, the rider should look like a cork bobbing on the ocean.)


Collection is the term that riders use to describe the movement of the horse’s center of gravity from the front to the rear. This involves a shifting of the weight of the horse to the rear. The horse, in general, carries up to 60 of its body weight over the front legs; add to this the weight of a rider and tack. Without being able to compensate for this added weight, you will be riding a plow.

The key to a horse being able to collect is the movement of the thorax dorsally (Figure 1); this shifts the weight of the thorax and rider towards the rear. The thorax rises through the contraction of the pectoral and serratus muscles, which attach from the thorax to the arm and scapula. The arm and scapula have to be able to translate laterally, allowing the lift to occur. When the thorax rises, the sternum also rises, which brings the attachment of the rectus abdominis more cephalad, causing the pubic bone to also move more cephalad; this in turn causes the hips to rotate under and the back to round (Figure 2).

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/2006/791-2.jpg’>

It is this movement of rounding the rear end that gets confused by many people as collection when it’s not. True collection is the upward movement of the thorax, with a secondary effect of the rounded back. The rider of a collected horse will feel the energy of the horse’s movement in their seat/groin. It’s really what makes riding horses so sexy – or painful!

Horses will be doing this to a greater or lesser degree of success naturally. The key to being able to move the weight to the rear rests in the freedom the horse has in its shoulders. The shoulders have to be free to assist the thorax rising. This shoulder freedom is the foundation of most early dressage work, where the horse is asked to do shoulder in/out movements. A horse that cannot collect cannot do upper-level dressage work.

Since collection happens to some degree during all movement, the action of the neck could also be included in the description of it. I chose not to describe this, since a horse can move its front limb without being truly collected.


One of the benefits I received from spending many years riding in distance events, Endurance Racing, and Competitive Trail, was being able to watch horses being evaluated by experienced veterinarians before and after the events. After checking my horse in with the vet, I would join my friends in the “peanut” gallery, watching other competitors check their horses in. We would watch the horse move and give our peanut gallery evaluation of the horse, “grade one left front,” “slightly off right rear”… then we would hear the evaluation of the vet to confirm our diagnosis; it was a great way to learn to “see.” I would encourage anyone who is considering working with horses to volunteer their time as secretary to the ride vets – or to compete, if you have a horse to ride.

I’m not going to attempt to write about a complete movement evaluation for a horse. What I want to write about is how to look at a horse moving, such that we can develop a strategy for Rolfing the animal. I’m only going to mention lameness so you’ll know when to walk away from the horse and refer the owner to a veterinarian. There are five “grades’ of lameness defined by the severity of the movement aberration, listed below:

Grade 1 – Difficult to observe; not consistently apparent regardless of circumstances (i.e., weight-carrying, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc.)
Grade 2 – Difficult to observe at a walk or trotting straight line; consistently apparent under certain circumstances (i.e., weightcarrying, circling, inclines, hard surface, etc.)
Grade 3 – Consistently observable at a trot under all circumstances
Grade 4 – Obvious lameness, marked nodding, hitching or shortened stride
Grade 5 – Minimal weight-bearing in motion and/or at rest; inability to move

You’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to work with a horse that is lame. I don’t work with a horse above Grade I lameness unless I’m referred to the horse by a veterinarian.

When you are evaluating a horse with a movement aberration/lameness there are some distinct characteristics to understand. First there are obviously two main components that could be involved in it, the bones (compression) and the soft tissues (suspension). The referral from the vet is going to come to you for the soft-tissue problems; this isn’t their area of expertise. They can prescribe anti-inflammatories and rest but not much else-except Rolfing, if they know about you. When the horse is moving on a circle at a trot there are some simple rules to identifying lameness:

1. The horse will un-weight the painful part when it is being used. If this part is in the rear it will shift its weight forward by bobbing the head down when the painful part is weighted. If it is in the front it will raise the head when the part is weighted. The key here is to first see the head movement associated with weight transfer and then to see how it is timed with the legs as they are being weighted. This is not something that is easy to learn from reading an article; you have to look at a lot of horses under the direction of someone who knows what they are looking at.

2. Because the horse does not bend easily when moving in a circle (remember the plains and all that evolution stuff), it will rotate its thorax in a circle. This translates to more weight being put on the structures on the inside of the circle and less on those on the outside. (Try this for yourself, get down on all fours and play horsy in a circle and see where your weight is). Knowing this helps you to differentiate which part is hurting.

A corollary to this is that the bones are being weighted more on the inside of the circle and the soft tissue more on the outside. If you correlate a head bob with the outside leg it could be a soft tissue problem; if you have the horse trotted the other way and the problem goes away then it probably is soft tissue. I’d be thinking about violating my rule for this horse. This is where in the description of Grade 2 lameness it says that it’s apparent under certain circumstances.

3. There are defined times during the stride, protraction, landing, support, and retraction that put stress on different components of the structure. (I’ll let those of you who want to determine what these are. You can contact me if you want to discuss it. Don’t forget to include the neck and back in your analysis.) Seeing and correlating when the un-weighting occurs helps determine what the problem may be.

4. Bones and joints are stressed more by hard surfaces, and soft tissue is stressed more by soft surfaces. The rear end is strained more going uphill, and the front more going down. A Grade 1 lameness workup may include using different surfaces #o try and narrow down the problem.


As mentioned above, there are different phases of the stride that we can look at to determine a strategy for working with the horse. The quality of the gait is reviewed during these different phases. Let’s look at examples of some of the questions to ask during the trot:


Front leg: is it moving forward in a straight line throughout this phase, or deviating from side to side? How well does the leg fold? Does the head stay level as the front foot is moving forward? Does the shoulder move freely?

Rear leg: is it moving forward in a straight line? How much action is there in the hock? How far forward does the leg come before it stops? How much movement is from the leg at the hip and how much from the rounding of the back? Does the head stay level as the rear leg is moving forward? Does the angulation of the front and rear leg at the end of protraction appear to be the same?


On landing does the foot touch down toe first, heel first, or flat? Does the rear foot track into the front foot’s footprint, in front of it or behind it? Is the rear foot landing off to one side of the front foot’s print? Does the head stay level as the feet land? Do the front and rear feet land at the same time, in a trot?


Does the leg come back into full extension, both front and rear? Is there excessive wobble as the bones come together? Does the head stay level through the support phase? How far is the downward migration of the fetlock? Is there excessive screw home in the rear leg? Is the shoulder free?


Front leg: does it fold up completely and
evenly? Does the shoulder move freely? How long does the leg stay in extension?

Rear leg: is there a smooth transition? Is there excessive hock action? Does the leg fold evenly?

For both the front and rear legs we want to see equal movement in protraction and retraction. Like a pendulum swinging.


I propose that our series for working with a horse has to be based on shifting the center of gravity from the front to the rear and facilitating collection. Anything you do that helps this, helps the ridden horse. 99% of the horses you work with will be ridden.

Here’s the series that I came up with, from studying Dr. Rolf’s Ten Series:

1. Open the superficial, neck, back, front, rear. (Can be stand-alone session.)

2. Free the shoulders, neck and back. (Should be followed by session 3.)

3. Free the rear, neck and back. (They can stop here.)

4. Head, neck and back (They can stop here.)

5. Integrate


Before I touch a horse at all, I want to see that horse moving. I use video to allow me to look at the horse later. Before the first session 1 will evaluate the horse in movement and in standing.


I have the handler move the horse at a walk while I “listen” to the footfalls and view the quality of the walk. Does the horse reach out, or have over-stride; is it dragging its toes? How does the horse carry its head? Is it moving freely? Is there an undulation in the back? Does the barrel swing side to side? Is the horse interested in what it’s doing or is it asleep? This is also the time to gauge the relationship the handler has with the horse; will you be safe? Then I ask the handler to walk the horse and stop. I like to do it at least five times- walk, stop – so I can see if a pattern emerges. The horse can stop with feet/legs in the following ways:

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/2006/791-3.jpg’>

The horse standing with its head up will normally have its front feet squared with each other. If not, this could indicate a problem in a front foot, which causes the horse to un-weight that foot/leg while standing. When the horse stops from a walk, the most efficient stance it can take is to stand with the rear feet/legs square and under its pelvis. The next best scenario is for the horse to stop randomly during the five tries, square, left back, right back… If the horse picks a left back or right back pattern most of the time, this would lead me to think that there is a problem in the pelvis.

Next I want to see the horse move in a ten-meter circle, or a normal lunge-line length, at a minimum three times to the left and three to the right. At first at a walk, to evaluate the walk without the handler leading it, then at a trot to determine if the horse is lame. In the circling trot we are looking for the same quality-of-motion indicators that we used at the walk. Foot flight, over reach, head position… We are also looking for how engaged the horse’s movement is. Are the rear legs swinging equally to the front and rear? Like a pendulum? How much suspension, if any, is present? Does the rear end “piston” up and down or deviate laterally?

Once we have decided to work with the horse, and that it’s not lame, we want to evaluate it standing again. Have the handler simply hold the horse and let the horse pick its most comfortable stance. Do a general conformation analysis; you’ll need to study this elsewhere. Does it weigh all legs equally? Does the neck come out from the body cleanly? Is the neck centered? Is the body balanced in neck, thorax and rear end? Pick up a front foot and look at the bottom of the hoof. Is the frog in the center or off to one side? Hold the leg at the fetlock and look down at the foot. Is it balanced medial to lateral? Holding the fetlock again, let the foot drop away and feel the balance in the joint; is it being pulled to one side?

Rotate the foot in hand; are there restrictions in the rotation? Look at the heels; are there cuts, from overreaching? Look at the medial hairline above the coronet; is the hair being cut? This indicates a toedin flight pattern, which you saw while evaluating the conformation.

Look at the overall impression again. Are the hamstrings overly large, pushing into a restricted shoulder? Is there a tissue buildup in front of the shoulders, pulling from the restriction? Overworked scalenes at a young age, due to using a hit too soon or heavy hands, will cause a “false” retinaculuni in front of the shoulders.

Once I am done with this I go to work. I usually start at the head and work my way backwards. The view of the first session is to open the superficial fascia. Superficial fascia on a horse is deep relative to a human; remember you have hair, hide, adipose then fascia.

The horse will move while you are working with it, even help you open an area. It’s amazing that horses normally move away from pressure (unlike dogs, that pull against it), but they’ll lean on you when you work. Remember to never get between a horse and a hard spot! Watch the rear feet, not for a kick, but to see if the stance changes to square; this is an indicator that you are freeing the shoulders.

Take time while working to step back and allow the horse to integrate what you just did. Don’t get too intense, into your predator mode.

When you are done (no more than 45 min. of work), have the horse trotted again in a circle and see if anything has changed.


This session is dedicated to the shoulders. You don’t have to do all of the evaluation of the first session; just watching them trot in a circle is good enough. Satisfy yourself that the horse isn’t lame and look for the quality of the movement in the shoulders. The shoulders should move back and laterally as the leg swings through protraction, support, and retraction. The diagonal feet should land at the same time. The cannon bones of the diagonal legs should express the same amount of angulation moving forward as they do moving backwards or to the rear. As the leg is going forward the shoulder blade will be coming back and at the same time away, laterally, from the body. The head should be able to reach all the way to the ground while the horse is trotting. Is there a movement in the back that undulates? Does the rear end move evenly up and down? This indicates whether or not the rear legs are bearing the same proportion of the rear-end weight. Imagine a ” on the rear of the horse, the “T” should tilt evenly side to side as the legs are protracted, grounded, weighted and retracted. During protraction/retraction and a portion of the grounding, deviations may indicate a soft-tissue problem. As the leg moves through grounding to weight-bearing, the soft tissues, especially the ligaments, are elongating and vibrating, especially in the front legs. Dampening this elongation and vibration are the “check” ligaments (superior and inferior) as well as the carpal retinacula.

As the weight moves over the leg, deviations are generally caused by a problem in the bones/joints.

Compare the impression of the inside legs to the outside legs as mentioned above.

Work to free the shoulders and then evaluate the horse again.


This session is about the rear end. Have the horse trotted in a circle. Look for the amount of over-stride. Where are the rear feet landing relative to the front? Do they travel in a straight line (determined by where the rear foot falls relative to the front feet)? Have the horse cantered on the circle. Does the rear-end lumbar coiling happen? (Lumbar coiling is the extension of the spine that has to happen to “load” the lumbar aponeurosis.) Is the canter engaged or out of sequence/strung out? Is the tempo three-beat or four-beat?

Work to free the rear and then evaluate the horse’s movement.


This session is about the head and neck. This is like a Seventh hour human session. The idea is to remove the restrictions and holding patterns that come from being ridden with a saddle and having a bit in the mouth. l think it’s a good idea to learn how bits work, so you’ll be able to anticipate the animal’s potential problems. The movement evaluation is the same as the last two sessions, at a trot. Assure there’s not some lameness issue that precludes continuing.

The standing evaluation includes a more detailed view of the horse’s head, eyes, mandible balance, sternum relationship to shoulders, freedom of the AO…

Work in the mouth, to wake up the “bars” and tongue.

Re-evaluate the movement.


This session is about closure. If you followed my pattern you’ve now seen this horse for over a month. You’ve been able to see changes in how the animal moves, and, as importantly forgotten what it looked like before you started.

The same standing and moving evaluation as in earlier sessions should be used. You may want to try some tracking to alleviate a leg swing issue. You may want to suggest some movement exercises, if you know how to train a horse, to help the horse further integrate. Movement over ground poles… There’s no agenda. Enjoy it.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/2006/791-4.jpg’>

Some people say that you should just go out and work with horses, don’t get any special training for it. I don’t agree with that attitude, but that’s probably because I have spent so much time around horses, riding and training and now Rolfing them. I came to be a Rolfer through the intervention of Liz Gaggini and having Tessy Brungardt work on my endurance horse after we had a bad accident, a “wreck” in horseman’s terms. I left my Engineering Management job at Hewlett-Packard to become a veterinarian, but because of the wreck I wasn’t able to attend when I was supposed to. The reason I’m recounting this is simply because the entire time I was in auditing and practitioning I thought I was going to work with horses, not people. While my classmates were taking notes for their human practices I was taking notes for my horse practice as well. I would leave the class at night and go out to the barn to work with the horses. By the time I was in my practitioning I realized I was going to work with both horses and people.

I spent my first year working with horses for free, actually for a donation to a charity and photo rights to the horses. I took videos of every horse I worked with and watched them to see what changes were made to the horse’s “way of going”. I worked on my horses for specific issues and measured the time it took for the issue to come back – e.g., tight hamstrings. Even though 1 had an extensive background with horses, I still had to spend a lot of time learning how to apply Rolfing to a horse structure. You could just go out and do visceral manipulation as easily as you could just go out and work with horses!

I hope you got something from this article. Feel free to email me if you have any questions – about horses, not visceral manipulation.

1. Read Louis Schultz and Rosemary Feitis’ book The Endless Weh for a description of “false retinacula”. I first saw this idea in a “Rolf Lines” article.

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