Equine therapy.

It had been nine weeks since Cienna had dislocated her shoulder, but when Ang Lea of Horse Fix was called in, the mare was still hobbling on three legs. On top of that, the adjustment in how she was carrying herself was causing secondary problems in her hind end. Cienna’s vet had fixed the dislocation, but referred the owners to Ang for ongoing care. 

An accredited Equine Bowen Therapist, one of the first things Ang does at a horse’s first appointment is film their movement. As Cienna’s was such an extreme case, she took a video at every session. “It was life or death,” says Ang. Over the course of the next few months, regular appointments with Ang saw the shoulder and rear end issues resolved, and Cienna’s progress was documented on film. “She could hardly walk. And now she’s trotting and cantering around like the frisky Arab she is.”

Ang was already in her forties when she made the decision to leave her city job and pursue a career with horses. As a young athlete competing in running, she had received regular massage treatments and had developed a feel for it herself, until she was being sought after for massage. She was also a lifelong horse lover, working at a local institution growing up – Rinaldi’s of Ballarat – and owning her own horses in her thirties.

“Eventually, I got to that stage where I said ‘I should be doing this’. I’m good at massage … I’m obsessed with horses – no brainer.” But, Ang is nothing if not thorough when it comes to research and she wasn’t going to sign up for the first course she could find. Good content and national accreditations were essential factors, which led to Ang signing up to study Equine Bowen Therapy with Smart Bowen International Training College.

“I got so much out of it,” Ang says of the course. “I had to do over 100 case studies. It was not lightweight.” The extensive coursework meant that Ang finished the course with a solid understanding of the theory and plenty of practical experience. Her past life in the city also set her in good stead to get “hit the ground running” with her new equine business.

With a qualification like that under their belt, some might be tempted to start practising and never look back. But, as Ang says, “the best horse owners always want to learn; they don’t get shut down into one particular approach.” The same can be said of practitioners and Ang is a model when it comes to professional development. She’s studied equine biomechanics, craniosacral therapy, anatomy, soundness and gait assessment, to name but a few of the courses she has participated in. All have contributed to Ang’s holistic approach to her equine therapy, but she doesn’t guard the knowledge closely: “I don’t think I should have that in my back pocket and it should be just for me; I think that’s something I should share and give to the world.”

Interestingly, it is in her dressage lessons that Ang has felt much of her development as a horse person and practitioner occurring. For the last two years she’s been having weekly lessons with Leanne Williams of Avoca Park, who is currently Australia’s only licensed Ecole de Légèreté instructor. “She taught me feel and that’s been an important part of my bodywork,” says Ang. “Now, that is incredible – anyone who can teach content that is virtually unteachable.”

Reading the horse from a different viewpoint – from the saddle – has lent another dimension to Ang’s approach to her treatment. “Understanding as a rider what to do has been very important, in terms of understanding what’s going on in the horse’s muscles, ligaments and tendons – where I have the influence with my hands, body and breath.”

“At the start of every first consultation, I always do a postural check on the rider and I feel their shoulders so I can see how much tension they’re carrying. Because that’s going to undo the work with my hands… With your contact, if you’re incrementally tighter in one hand, you’ll put incrementally more pressure on the bit; and then you’ll affect the hyoid apparatus in the jaw, and then you’ll affect the whole body.”

For this reason, Ang is currently studying towards her Equestrian Australia Introductory Coaching Certificate, with Leanne. “I’m aiming to be the personal trainer and the massage therapist,” she explains. “So that I can actually help the riders improve the outcomes, as well as what my hands can do.”

Encouraging horse owners to look first to themselves before their “problem” horse is a big part of Ang’s approach. “Make sure it’s not about you, your body and your goals,” she advises. “The horse will tell you very clearly. The horse is not being piggy. The horse is not being a bitch. Sometimes horses just need a better rider and/or a rest.”

“Something I advocate for owners is to look at themselves as being the athlete first,” she says. “I think it’s only fair once you’re in working order to start thinking about what you expect of your horse.” Ang has stringent goals for her own strength and fitness, and believes all riders should have the same attitude; it’s informed by her history as a runner. Her father, Richard Lea, was her athletics coach, and Ang counts him as a major influence for teaching her about discipline and fitness conditioning.

The fitness values Ang espouses are exemplified in one of her sponsored riders. Vicky Henschke, whose horse, Akupheli Supernova (Naalah) featured in this article, has a history in gymnastics; one of the reasons Ang decided to sponsor her. “She’s an owner who really values bodywork,” says Ang. “She’s been an elite junior athlete herself, so she really understands the importance of it – she gets massage herself.”

Recently, Ang was gratified when Vicky took her advice not to compete at a particular event when Naalah wasn’t physically ready for the challenge. In listening to her therapist, Vicky put the welfare of the horse above her own ambitions. “I tell people things they don’t want to hear,” Ang admits. “I’m an advocate of the horse – I’m not there to mollycoddle owners.”

“That said, I’m the first person to step back if I realise that I’m wrong,” she goes on. Having worked with Ang on my own horse, this is something I know to be true; Ang has a habit of ringing her clients to update them on the latest findings that relate to their horses’ care.

“Getting good information and making sure what I’m spouting is correct is really important to me,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I’m a great writer, but I’m good at researching.” As much is evident on her Facebook page, where Ang shares comprehensive pieces she has personally compiled on subjects like stringhalt.

“When I was an owner, looking back on it, I wish I’d had people that helped me with my horses that were more willing to share and talk me through things,” Ang reflects. “My modus operandi as a therapist is to talk.” It’s one of the reasons she films her clients’ horses – so she can show the owner what she’s seeing and talk them through it.

“Be your horse’s own specialist,” Ang advises. “Anyone can put their hands on a horse, get a feel for their horse.” When your instincts tell you that your horse needs to see a professional, make sure they know what they’re doing. “There are reasons why people are professionally accredited… Check that your professional is insured, because if something goes wrong, you need to have that fallback.”

“Keep exploring; stop if it doesn’t feel right; trust your instincts.”

Like many people, Ang finds that spending time with horses feeds her creative energy as well. “I’ve painted horses compulsively forever,” she tells me. “For me, horses are about connecting with myself too. You learn so much about yourself through horses… Representing them visually is an important part of that process [for me].”

“You know how beautiful horses are and how present they are. I think that’s probably one of the most important things for me; they keep me very present in terms of my own personal journey.”

Driving out across the state at sunrise on a clear morning, it’s clear Ang loves what she does. “I’m outside, I’m in the country, I’m around horse people who love their horses. Find me a better job!”

To learn more about Ang Lea, click here.  You can also watch Cienna’s story on YouTube.