Standing Ground with Animals

Where Presence and Intention are Essential

By Lola Michelin

Grounding, breathwork, presence, intention—these are all tools in the bodyworker’s toolkit, practices that often separate the satisfying session from the spectacular. They inform our palpation, allow us to get inside of our work, and affect the subtle energy fields within and around bodies. People familiar with these practices are often drawn to healing work. Studying massage and other manual therapies often cultivates these states in even the unsuspecting.

As an animal bodyworker, these practices go beyond just tools that enhance and elevate my work. Presence, intention, and groundedness are essential. Presence serves to keep me and my client safe. Being grounded encourages nonverbal conversation and establishes trust. Intention helps to foster empathy for a species other than my own.

We can choose to anchor ourselves using the breath or meditative skills in any situation, including during massage. But step into a cattle pen or a kennel or a barn aisle, and that mindset is both automatic and immediate. It is both the reward and the requirement of working with animals. There is no opportunity to let thoughts drift to a grocery list, the day ahead, or a to-do list. The animal requires (and affords you) absolute presence.

The Necessity of Presence

Animals have taught me a great deal over the three decades I have worked as an animal bodyworker. Though equines have been my focus, I have worked with many exotic species as well. I have had the great pleasure of holding the calloused hand of a Malaysian siamang (a lesser ape) and tracing the scarred shoulder of a towering reticulated giraffe during their massages. I have watched some of the most respected zoo curators collect venom from a viper, trim the hooves of a white rhinoceros, and clean the teeth of a glistening Florida panther. I have felt the weight of a golden eagle on my arm lifting as she was released. To say the moment called for presence would be an understatement—lives depended on it. 

Animals live moment to moment, cognizant of past and future, but slave to neither. Enter a stall or paddock with your mind and heart divided and you are instantly found out. Approach a shelter dog with a troubled history without your feet firmly rooted, and retreat or suspicion by one or both parties is a near guarantee. Animals, predator or prey, are tuned to frequencies, sounds, and movements outside of our ordinary detection. They interpret emotion as vividly as most of us see color and they judge intention with ease, perfected over centuries of herd or pack dynamics. Animal massage therapists and acupressurists learn quickly that the best hands are only as good as the calm confidence behind them.

Clients as Teachers

Animals can be tremendous guides in helping us cultivate mindful qualities in ourselves. In the Equine Foundation Massage and Acupressure courses offered at Northwest School of Animal Massage (NWSAM), for example, students spend an afternoon in quiet connection with equines who work as qualified therapy horses. Facilitated by an equine assisted-learning organization called Axiom Equine, students are taken through several exercises designed to increase awareness and presence. Axiom Equine is known for conducting these horse-led empowerment workshops with diverse populations, many with no experience with horses. They have worked with high-school student populations, persons with past trauma, and, perhaps most challenging, corporate work teams.

In the NWSAM classes, students are instructed to place both hands on the horse and close their eyes. In the ensuing moments, they gain awareness of the horse’s electromagnetic field (EMF), which has been measured as much as 33 feet around the body and extending into the ground in a helical pattern. Studies have measured predictable decreases in people’s blood pressure while inside a horse’s EMF1 and research has revealed that when a horse is present or visible, individuals are less capable of lying or cheating, even when directed to do so.2

Students also guide the horses through various patterns and obstacles without contact, using only their posture, intention, and breath to direct the horse to move, stop, turn, or back up. Even experienced horsemen and horsewomen are often surprised at the connection and cooperation that can be established when only the breath and intention are at work. 

Affected Just the Same

For many massage therapists, using breathwork to assist your client is a familiar and valuable addition to your hands-on techniques. Consider the fact, however, that an animal may not share the same respiratory rate or, in some cases, even have the same respiratory anatomy as a human client. Nor can the therapist verbally guide the animal through a breathing pattern or release. And yet, they are just as affected when the therapist adopts a deep and regular breath pattern as humans are. The animal’s energy shifts in the same way, despite the rate or variability. The shared breath becomes a pathway to their well-being.

Intention, grounding, and breath is truly a formula for health and healing for all beings.


HeartMath, n.d. “How the Heart Can Heal,” accessed November 2020,

Ann Baldwin and Rollin McCraty, n.d. “Heart-to-Heart Communication with Horses,” HeartMath webinar, accessed November 2020,


Lola Michelin, LMT, LAMP, SAMP, is an animal massage practitioner, and the director of education at the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Washington State. For more information on animal massage, visit