The donkey stands perfectly still. His eyes are almost closed and his head is lowered. The only sound is the chirping of the birds. Estelle presses her hands gently against the donkey’s side and holds them there. At first, it appears that not much is happening but I just need to wind my clock down. We’re in donkey time now and this is Shiatsu. It looks to me like a match made in heaven…
Estelle Brodeur grew up in France on a farm with cows but she’s always loved donkeys. She enjoys driving and groundwork and finds donkeys are much better at this than horses. She says that, like dogs, donkeys are very close to us in their understanding.
After training for three years at the School of Equine Shiatsu, she is now the leading authority on Shiatsu with donkeys.
What is Shiatsu?
Shiatsu is a form of physical therapy, originating in Japan and incorporating theories of traditional Oriental medicine along with more recent Western therapies. The Japanese word Shiatsu means, literally, finger pressure. It uses pressure applied with the fingers, thumbs and the palms of the hands, as well as stretching, gentle rotations of the limbs and leaning into the body.
Shiatsu with horses is not new. The Equine Shiatsu Association was formed back in 2002 and, while much of the evidence on Shiatsu has been anecdotal, they published research in 2016 showing that horses do benefit from the therapy.
Although not a substitute for conventional veterinary care, it is increasingly recommended by vets as a useful complementary therapy for the treatment and prevention of problems in equines, including back, neck and shoulder pain, skin and kidney problems, inflammation and poor circulation, as well as fear and anxiety.
In the case of donkeys, Estelle explains,
“Being ridden or carrying heavy loads can cause back problems, animal traction can produce tension in the shoulders and eating too much rich grass can lead to poor circulation and skin problems.”
Shiatsu is thought to restore vitality, relieve muscle tension, body pain, stress and nervousness, ease respiratory problems, improve circulation, reinforce the immune system and encourage the production of anti-inflammatories. It works to boost the body’s own natural self-healing abilities.
The aim is to achieve a smooth flow of energy, or ‘Ki’ in Japanese, throughout the body, by focussing on certain areas, or channels (knowns as acupuncture points and meridians) connected to the nerves, joints and major arteries.
Yin and Yang
The Tao symbol from Chinese philosophy represents the harmony of yin and yang, or opposites, such as hot and cold, light and dark, fire and water. Shiatsu practitioners aspire to achieving balance between these interrelated forces and between ourselves and the natural world.
Estelle finds that donkeys will present with more energy and less pain and be visibly more relaxed after receiving a Shiatsu treatment. She says, “Sometimes, the next day, you get the impression that their body has changed. It is no longer split between the forequarters, flanks and hindquarters but flows as a whole.”
This is Praline, a female donkey suffering from back pain and a lack of energy in her hindquarters:
A Complete Shiatsu Session
While problem areas for donkeys are often the forequarters and back, in a complete Shiatsu session, Estelle tackles every part of the body from the hooves, legs and buttocks to the shoulders, neck and face.
She uses pressing, tapping and stretching on specific pressure points. The crown of the hoof is thought to help energy regulation and under the elbow is the heart line. There are 365 points in total, including inside the ears and below the eyes.
The session finishes with smooth strokes around the body, in the direction of circulation, in order to achieve the final harmonization of the body’s Ki.
During the session, your donkey might lower his head, chew, snort, scratch, yawn, or turn his head to ‘speak’ to you. These are all signs that tension is being relieved and that he is relaxing and benefiting from the therapy. In French, the phrase is ‘lâcher prise’, meaning ‘to let go’.
Back to Nature
It strikes me that donkeys make the ideal candidates for Shiatsu, with their quiet understanding and natural ability to be still. It is a reciprocal therapy. I lean on you and you lean on me. I listen to you and you listen back – and donkeys are the great listeners.
Estelle carefully assesses the donkey’s condition and considers his environment and usual activity before beginning. Her expression is one of peaceful concentration as she works in rhythm with her own breathing and pays close attention to his reactions.
Working on his alignment, she pulls gently on his tail and he pulls forward, giving his back a satisfying stretch. Several times during the session he turns his head slowly to look at her, as if to say, “Yes, that’s the spot right there.”
A Shiatsu massage is bound to enhance your connection with your donkey. After all, don’t we all need someone to pay attention to us? To look after us at the end of a hard day? To soothe our tense shoulders and worried minds, and help us to just let it all go…
Leading French magazine on donkeys, Les Cahiers de l’Âne, featured a demonstration of Shiatsu with a donkey by Estelle in 2015. View the article here: SHIATSU: Les zones du corps.
Estelle runs courses in Shiatsu with Donkeys across France and in Belgium, suitable for French, English and German speakers. Search for forthcoming course dates and locations.
If you would like to learn the basics of Shiatsu with your donkey, you can order the Starting Shiatsu with Your Donkey DVD, which includes a complete Shiatsu session. (DVD in French, with English subtitles, playable on European machines only).
Get this cool sticker for only 3 € when you order a DVD!
Estelle works with Ânes Sans Frontières (Donkeys without Borders), a non-profit organisation which supports donkey rescue centres, provides education on caring for working donkeys and helps protect endangered breeds in France and abroad.
A French Folk Song
Introducing French folk duo Marcel et Lola, featuring Estelle on clarinet and her partner Philippe on guitar! The duo performs in the Ardèche region of southern France where they live. The donkeys always enjoy hearing them play and their favourite song is Partis’âne – a tribute to trekking donkeys:
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift