BELLINGHAM — As Codi Hamblin enters the horse corral, she is careful to observe cues — some subtle, others not — about the animal’s demeanor.
Many horses perceive strangers entering their enclosures as veterinarians, there to poke and prod in the name of health.
Ears up, ears down. Tail still or swishing back and forth. Stomping and biting. All signs.
On this Friday morning, Hamblin is at Animals As Natural Therapy in Bellingham to restore the connective tissue and alignment on two of the nonprofit’s horses.
The work she is doing — called equine structural integration — is like massage, but on a much grander scale.
On this day, Hamblin, of Mount Vernon, is working with a 29-year-old quarter horse named Starfire and a 19-year-old miniature horse named Persephone.
“You have to get the horse’s permission,” Hamblin said of her work. “That first session can be slow going. But I’m always paying attention to their body language. It’s a conversation between you and the horse. Horses want to be heard. They have a voice. You just have to listen.”
As she began to work on Sundance, Hamblin said the horse was tight in her neck and she had to start with a light touch. Moments later, the horse walks away. That isn’t out of the norm.
“That’s OK,” Hamblin said. “I needed time to process what I’d felt and that was a lot of general tension.”
Once Sundance returns, Hamblin gets back to the task at hand, moving precisely between each rib.
“She has been more relaxed since we started this,” Animals As Natural Therapy barn manager Kelsy Hartman said. “This helps her stay loose and relaxed. Codi does a great job. She takes it slow and easy and horses respect that.”
Hamblin is a certified equine structural integration practitioner as well as a licensed large animal massage therapist. She also holds national certification through the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage.
Hamblin started her business, Aligned Equine Bodywork, with the mantra of “Helping horses release tension, restore balance and move into their full potential.”
“I received training in both structural integration and large animal massage, and I do implement both into my professional work, but my specialty and primary focus in bodywork is with structural integration,” she said.
Structural integration focuses on connective tissue — or fascia — that surrounds muscles, muscle groups, organs, nerves and blood vessels.
If the fascia is disrupted, it can cause discomfort. Hamblin’s job is to find those disruptions and smooth them out.
“It can affect a horse’s well-being as well as performance,” she said. “I mean, I put a backpack on my body and if it isn’t right, there is pain and discomfort. So it’s the same for a horse with a saddle.”
Personal experience led Hamblin into this line of work.
About five years ago, she began receiving massage and acupuncture for herself.
“I saw good results and improvement for myself,” she said. “About the same time, I had gotten my horse who has physical limitations due to arthritis. Knowing the positive results I’ve experienced through massage, structural integration, acupuncture, etc., I started having bodywork done on my horse to help him.”
After the treatments helped Hamblin’s horse, her curiosity was piqued.
She thought if such treatments could help her horse, why not others?
“As I started to learn more about these modalities and how they work for both horses and humans, I started to see another way of learning about, connecting with and helping horses. I loved the idea of working with horses this way and so started looking for school programs. The thought really was, ‘Hey, I could do that.’”
Having been around horses her entire life, Hamblin saw this work as a natural progression.
“I have always wanted to be around horses,” she said. “This was a way to do that and also help them. This allows me to put horses front and center. This is a niche. Plus, it’s my passion.”
Treatments start with a sequence of body strokes from head to tail where Hamblin searches for tension in the fascia. The horse can react almost immediately.
“Looks, chews, yawns, those are all really good signs,” she said. “Those are signs of release and a sign of progress.”
There are five sessions of treatments. The early ones are to find problem areas, and the later ones to correct those problems.
“It’s a big puzzle,” she said. “Every horse is different. So by sessions four and five, I can tailor it to specifics, to what I’ve discovered as problem areas.”
Concluding her work with Sundance, Hamblin gives the horse a gentle pat.
Sundance takes a few steps into the center of the corral, lays down and rolls around.
“That’s the horse realigning itself,” Hamblin said. “They really do feel different after each session. That’s a really good sign.”