“Your body relaxes and tenses your smooth muscles all the time. If you are not in charge of this process, then who is? UFO?” — Pawel Marciniak, co-founder of OneHorseLife
Is It Possible to Relax Smooth Muscles?
A few days ago I received a question from someone very interested in the “Relax That Stomach” SpotLight Clinic.
The question was:
Hello Anna! I saw your advert about the smooth muscles “Relax that stomach”. It is my understanding that the smooth muscles are involuntary, so I do not understand how you are able to relax these muscles without medication? I had an unrelated conversation with doctors and vets about this topic and it has been deemed unlikely / not possible that the involuntary muscles can be “relaxed” consciously. Please advise what to think. I am not skeptical, rather intrigued! Especially since I have had my own anxieties in recent months, I am always looking to deepen my calmness and a relaxed state for myself and my horses.
It is a common opinion, which many people share, that you cannot voluntarily relax smooth muscles, and in the effect, you cannot relax your stomach. No matter how popular, this opinion comes from nowhere, and has no support in science. Many people don’t know how to do something, and then, in fact, doing this “something” seems impossible for them. You can ask your neighbor if it’s possible to hold the breath for longer than 10 minutes underwater, and he would probably tell you that you would have died after 5minutes! But actually, the world record is 24 MINUTES and 3 SECONDS! If you ask someone who doesn’t know how to swim and diving is for this person like a trip to the moon, asking if it is possible for a human being to reach 213m depth without oxygen in the water will be considered impossible.
The conclusion is that a wrong question asked to a wrong person will always lead to a wrong answer.
“(…) Right now the world record for no limits — a crazy discipline in which guys rig themselves onto machines and the machines take them down to depths very quickly — is 700 feet [213,36 m]
In 1949 scientists said the deepest we could possibly dive and survive was 100 feet [30,48 m]. Any deeper and our lungs would suffer a fatal collapse. Now free divers are diving seven times that. And I think we’ll probably hit a thousand feet [304,8 m] in the next five to ten years”. — from the article “Free Diving World Record Will Soon Be Pushed to 1000 Feet” by Simon Worrall published in National Geographic.
You can see that science is very bad at telling what is possible and what is not. The human body is a very complex mechanism, only it is not a mechanism. It is YOU. Seeing the body as a mechanism is a mindset (mind-body dualism) described and popularised by Rene Descartes in the XVII century, which gained popularity in the XIX century with very big success coming from the machine industry and innovation of steam engine. The so-called Mind-Body Problem separated awareness from the body and treated the body like an object controlled by a higher-level object identified with thoughts and mind. This idea helped to successfully develop machines, like computers, but also brought many misunderstandings regarding how the human body works.
There are also many older ideas, coming directly from the tradition of Yoga, and dating 4000 years BC (actually no-one really knows how old it really is, some people claim even 12 000 years BC), which states that mind, thought, and body are united. If you assume that a mind is a separate machine, which has some access to another machine called the body, you can conclude that the mind has limited access to the body, and then there are things which the mind cannot control in the body. But when you see that mind and body are united and are one, there cannot be any limits of the access that the mind has to the body. If it’s limited, it’s only because of our awareness (thinking that we cannot do something), and lack of the right tools (techniques) to achieve this sophisticated connection. Lack of the right tools, and conviction that something is impossible always lead people to wrong conclusions.
One of the oldest research about relaxation of smooth muscles was done by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. It was focused on showing how skeletal muscle relaxation can lead to the relaxation of the smooth muscles and the digestive tract. This knowledge goes much further in the past, and many relaxation systems and meditation techniques used until this day yet developed thousands of years ago, were and are aiming at the relaxation of the smooth muscles.
Skeletal muscle relaxation is a big thing in sport but does not bring too many profits in the life of a regular human if it is not leading to the relaxation of the smooth muscles. It is nice to have a relaxed body, but only relaxation of the smooth muscles is bringing all the magical effects we all want and which are scientifically proven to be connected with relaxation: lower anxiety, lower fear, healing effect, better blood circulation, better digestion, improvement of the skin condition, and allergic reactions, less aggression and anger, younger look, better sleep, higher efficiency at work, better cognition and sharpness of the mind, better memory and ability to learn new things, better sex, quicker recovery after physical or emotional stress, etc. All these things are possible and are scientifically proven to be an effect of relaxation, but this relaxation has to reach the smooth muscles and even go deeper into the body, to the level of DNA.
Jacobson was very interested in relaxation of the digestive tract, because in the 1920s people were suffering from constipations. It was a huge problem sometimes leading to death at that time. Jacobson was observing how the relaxation initiated in the skeletal muscles is influencing digestive tract and is expanding the oesophagus, stomach and colon. He assumed that by measuring the diameter of the oesophagus, stomach and colon he can show bigger relaxation of smooth muscles. He was using very simple methods like asking his patients to swallow a small balloon filled with air, then he was keeping this balloon in oesophagus and was measuring the pressure of the air in the balloon. By showing that the pressure of the balloon drops, he assumed that the oesophagus had expanded. The other method used by Jacobson was measuring diameter of the feces. Jacobson assumed that the bigger the diameter the colon had, the bigger the diameter of the feces because feces are formed in the colon. He was using these measurement techniques in order to measure the relaxation of the smooth muscles in the body to know if the technique of relaxation that he was teaching to the patients was working or not.
Thanks to Jacobson’s research we know today that relaxation of the skeletal muscles is spreading into the digestive tract, and causes relaxation of the smooth muscles. We also know that the esophagus, stomach, and colon relax together, and tense together. This means, that if you see the relaxation of the colon, for example by measuring the diameter of the feces, you can assume that the stomach relaxed as well.
Today we know that it’s possible to relax the stomach.
How to Know That My Horse Has Tensed Stomach?
Every day I work with horses with the tensed digestive tract. These are young and old, pedigree horses and horses of unknown breeding, horses who do sport, and horses who are just family members. These horses suffer from many kinds of abnormal behaviors, but most often they are:
- Over-eating: they can stuff their stomachs with food constantly, and get extremely anxious and stressed even when they “see grass growing” on the summer pastures), or
- Under-eating: they avoid their meals and are extremely picky about what they eat. Very often they leave most of the meal untouched in the feeding bucket or walk away from the food before they finished the meal,
- Dominant around food: they get extremely anxious and aggressive towards other horses and people during meal times and around food. They present food-guarding behaviors (not letting other horses access the hay, etc.), they can behave unpredictably and very aggressive, for example: kicking stable doors and charging at other horses,
- Loners: they stay away from the herd and not seek any interactions with humans,
- Tensed: they have tensed bodies and always seem to stay in an “alert” or “flight” mode. They hardly ever lie down for sleep, and their rugs or bodies seem always very clean.
- Have problems with learning new things: seem aloof, almost autistic, very often give the trainer the feeling of “oozing away” into their own world, they cannot engage mentally into the training. When the horse is switched to the positive training methods like clicker training or reward-based training, the horse becomes very nippy, and pushy, gets excited, drops out the penis, sniffs your pockets for treats, seems obsessed and as he can only think about the treats, etc.,
- Mouthy: they bite the lead-ropes, halters, your jacket, can lick objects and your hands (horses cannot vomit, when they feel “sick” they often start to lick things),
- Don’t breathe properly: they have disturbed breathing patterns, shallow-breath, moments when the breath is held in: such horses don’t breathe properly when trained, and worked from the ground and from the saddle,
- Don’t like to be touched: horses with tensed stomachs are not affectionate, avoid humans, don’t enjoy grooming,
- Have balance problems: have problems with lifting up the legs during trimming, and keeping their balance by themselves,
- Don’t roll properly: they find it difficult to roll from side to side.
- Move tense: Have restricted movements under the saddle, and when worked from the ground. It feels as if the legs of the horse were tight,
- Have a very weak top-line: it almost feels impossible to build it up: many people who have contacted me said they tried literally everything to build up their horses back with no results at all.
- Suffer from itchiness, and sweet-itch: they are very itchy, demand scratches all the time (even can get aggressive if you don’t scratch them when they want it), and scratch themselves constantly on objects even up to the point of breaking the barrier of the skin,
- Don’t like to move: these horses are hard to motivate to move, and as soon as they start moving they seem to be interested only in stopping or standing still.
- Have hooves problems: abscesses, laminitis,
- Suffer from metabolic issues,
- Have asthma.
- Are overweight: and gain weight easily, and almost by eating nothing at all (many horse owners who reach out to me tell that their horses seem to gain weight just by “looking at the grass / hay / food”).
Why Do Horses with Tensed Stomachs Eat Too Much?
Tensions in the stomachs cause inflammation, which creates sensation of itchiness. You may say that the horse has an itchy stomach. Itchiness is an invitation for pain. Whenever we feel itchiness, subconsciously we want to have pain in that place. This is why when you have a mosquito bite and it’s itchy, you need to scratch it. A horse cannot scratch his stomach, so he uses food to fill it up to the point when it becomes painful. And of course, he needs to do it again and again because this itchiness is present there all the time, as long as there is inflammation.
You can stop this process only by relaxing the stomach and stopping inflammation. When it happens itchiness stops and the horse has the need to fill his stomach, and to make it painful.
We have so many testimonials from students whose horses not only turned from “aggressive dinosaurs” at the meal times, to kind and soft and sweet horses who share their meals with other horses and even move away to give space for younger horses or those “lower” in hierarchy after our course. We also have DOZENS of testimonies from people whose horses started to eat less in a constant-hay-access feeding regime, and downsized their hay intake by 50%! Just by doing this simple technique: Relax That Stomach.
You May Ask: Why the Tensed Stomach Causes Inflammation?
First of all, a tensed stomach means that the whole digestive tract is tensed. This, on the other hand, means that the process of digesting and absorbing nutritionist is functioning badly. We also know that tensions in the stomach cause tensions in other internal organs because they share the same space and because smooth muscles that hold other internal organs also connect with the stomach. It starts a whole-body response which includes the immune system, and hormonal system, and they also start to function badly in the end. In effect, you have a whole-body inflammation and many local inflammations, especially in the digestive tract, and the hooves connected with it. If this condition is prolonged, it can eventually develop laminitis.
Why the Tensed Stomach Causes Aggression?
Tensions in the internal organs cause visceral pain which influences the behavior of the horse. Such a horse feels strong and real pain but this pain cannot be precisely located in the body. In the effect, mind locates this pain in the jaw or in the head and sometimes in the lower back of the body, and when this pain is present for a longer time it promotes aggression. To understand it imagines yourself having a toothache for many days. How would it feel and how would it influence your interactions with others?
“How Do They Know?”
We are used to think that we can control only our skeletal muscles. Whenever we want to tense them, they respond immediately, and when we stop tensing, they relax.
On the contrary to that, smooth muscles are connected to the autonomic nervous system and can tense and relax involuntarily. That means that your body is all the time tensing and relaxing your smooth muscles without any conscious intervention of your mind.
A very simplified description of this process is the following: the autonomic nervous system has two subsystems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when there is some fear and prepares your body to fight or flight. When it happens, it tensed smooth muscles in the digestive tract and pumps the blood from internal organs to other places of the body more suitable to support fight or flight (for example, the calves). When the dangerous situation or context is finished, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and it moves blood back to the digestive tract and internal organs and starts the process of digestion.
All these changes happen much longer than the reaction of the skeletal muscles. And smooth muscles can keep tone for a very long time even when they are not activated. To make it even more complicated, smooth muscles respond also directly to hormones or the CO2 and O2 in the blood.
But we know that smooth muscles all the time respond to the current situation. And how do they know what is the current situation? Information about the current situation of the body is transferred from the outside world to the internal mechanism of the body by using tensions of the skeletal muscles. The body reads its tensions and knows from reading them what is the current situation around the body, in its environment and inside of the body. For example, tensions in some muscles may tell that we are in danger and we should activate fight or flight.
If you, or your horse, can sense these changes and relax these muscles, you can start controlling tension and relaxation of the smooth muscles. Of course, you do not need to consciously move your smooth muscles. It is enough to stop unnecessary tensions in your digestive tract and internal organs.
How Do We Do It?
Now you understand that your horse can relax his smooth muscles and it’s not only real and possible but also doable. The only question is: How we can teach the horse to do it?
We use the special procedure, which we designed especially for this purpose. This procedure is built on three steps:
- First Step: You need to teach your horse how to recognize his skeletal muscle tensions and how to release them consciously. This phase takes around two weeks, and is done at the halt or walk only, as the horse needs to learn how to expand his awareness onto the whole body, and start to recognize when and where his skeletal muscles tense. This phase takes around 2 weeks. In the effect, the horse starts to relax consciously, in a diversified, deep, and genuine way. He starts to consciously use his newly learned Relaxation Technique in situations in which he observes that he becomes tenser, for example, situations at the paddock, and when he tries to communicate something. He starts to use more relaxation as communication, and less tension and aggression.
- Second Step: We put the horse in a situation that normally would cause tension in the digestive tract. Because the horse already knows how to recognize his tensions and how to release them, we teach him how to recognize his tensions which precede tensions of the smooth muscles in the digestive tract in the very same situation. In the effect, the horse learns to sense very quickly when his skeletal muscles are tensing to imitate the flight or fight process, and he learns how to release his tensions in order to stop this process.
- Third Step: We use the new skill of Relaxation of the Stomach, which the horse learned in Step 2, to deepen his relaxation even more and to gradually be able to touch the tensions which he has gathered in the past.
From my experience, this technique is suitable for literally every horse and rider. It’s especially important for horses prone to colics, aggressive behaviors around food, for horses who are spooky and show separation anxiety (which is also connected to the smooth muscle tensions). The Relax That Stomach technique is also a must-have for all sports horses and horses exposed to higher stress, like youngsters being weaned, young horses who start their training, and horses who compete. If you see that your horse is sensitive, and tends to collect tensions having problems with letting go, for example: if you see that your horse can stay tense throughout the day if there was a storm the night before. Or if you can tell that your horse will have a bad mood that day, when you see him on the paddock, because something happened few to several hours before — it means that this technique is for you and your horse.
How Do We Know That It Works?
During the successful training sessions, we can observe that the horse starts to eat slower, and eats more selectively his food. Horses we used to “stuff” their mouth with food and used to empty the whole bucket in few minutes, now start to eat very slowly and eating the same portion of food takes even up to 10 or 15 minutes. We can also observe that the horse starts to pay attention to the environment: he looks around in a gentle and softly interested manner, he pays attention to you. In simple words: he starts to behave like a teenager eating his meal in a cultural manner by the table with the whole family, as opposed to a teenager shoving up the whole meal in the matter of seconds in front of a computer or TV. We can also observe that the horse takes very small bites, and chews them longer and more properly. This is all the effect of expanded relaxation and not of any sort of obedience or self-restricting or self-controlling behaviors.
When approaching the bucket with food or around meal times the horse is relaxed and is using his Relaxation Technique. His muscle tone is relaxed, and all muscles in his body feel wobbly. If you put the bucket on the ground, in front of the box, because someone called you and you needed to pick up the phone you will not hear kicking or will not observe nervousness in your horse — he will turn away and simply come back to eating his hay.
After a few weeks of training, you can see first signs of even deeper release: the horse becomes EXTREMELY affectionate towards his owner. He can roll from side to side (if that was not possible before). The condition of the hooves improves. You start to see that the horse eats less, and you see him less frequently in front of the hay net or slow feeder. The horse becomes calmer and is visibly less spooky. Even on the windiest day, and even when all other horses are acting crazy, your horse can remain calm, and connected.
I had my farrier appointment during our first really big winter storm yesterday, only because he comes from a different state and did not look at the weather to see that here in Maine we had a HUGE snow storm🙃. I took my horses out of the paddock, one by one, to have their feet trimmed, during many wind gusts and now flakes. They all stood without stress to have their feet trimmed. When they were all done and all back together in the paddock they began to carry on as if they were in a circus act, chasing, bucking, rearing. The one and only reason I can think of that my farrier and I survived the trimming without incident, was due to my several years of doing Body Marc and my horses currently engaged in the Optimal Performnace Program. So remarkable to me that I can be with my horses under those circumstances (never ever before) with so much gratitude to Pawel and Anna Marciniak! 😍 – Lyda Pola, USA.
If a horse had separation anxiety issues, he now can handle being left alone if the herd leaves somewhere or if he is taken away from the herd. You can also see first improvements in the movement of the horse: he starts to move more willingly and starts to offer you gaits for which you previously had to really encourage (trot, canter). The horse feels looser in his body, and your physiotherapist sees visible differences in his posture and muscle tone. If your horse previously had any issues with being touched or groomed — by now this should be gone as well. The resting posture of your horse is changing, and you should also see fewer cracks and abscesses in the hooves.
OK, Is It All Gold?
No. If your horse had very tensed internal organs, many of the symptoms he was showing or hiding, can now come to the light. Your horse can go through a very light laminitis episode, or become very spooky for a day or two. He can also get very mouthy for a few days, or itchy. If the tensions your horse had in his body were very big, after releasing them he can become extremely tired and will need up to a few weeks to recover, rest and sleep. You may find your horse sleeping up to 4h straight after a seemingly “light” 15-minute training session. Why is that so?
It happens because relaxation always starts the healing processes in the body, and healing is possible only when the illness becomes visible. The process of developing the illness is stopped, and the illness and tension which caused it are brought to light to heal. They will however not develop into anything serious. You will also see that they will go away by themselves in the matter of a few days to a few weeks (depending on the horse). You can have your own priorities but in this very moment, the health and wellbeing of the horse become priority number one. The horse must be allowed this time off, which you can spend on deepening his experiences of the Optimal Performance Program Relaxation Technique and Relax That Stomach Technique.
Entering the New Chapter
Going through releasing tensions of the digestive tract is absolutely worth the effort. In the effect, you not only gain monthly savings on hay, straw and hard feed, but you also end up with a gentle, and an affectionate horse who is a gentleman around mealtimes, and at the paddock towards other horses.
I taught this technique to over 250 horse owners, and over 500 horses. Onboard of the Relax That Stomach course we have vets, physiotherapists, horse owners, horse trainers, riders who compete in eventing, jumping and dressage, and those who want their horses to be happy and fulfilled family members. I believe that this technique is literally for everyone. Everyone willing to give it a go, and able to distinguish behaviors that mimic relaxation from the genuine relaxation of the horse, are able to guide their horses into this New Universe. It has transformed so many “aggressive” horses, who needed to eat alone or even be alone and were dangerous towards their owners, into sweet and cooperative horses who can handle a lot of stressful situations with total ease and with no additional training. I have observed postings of my students and I was super pleased to notice that the horses who know Relax That Stomach and Optimal Performance Program techniques for conscious muscle relaxation were not responding with fear and excitement to the sounds of fireworks on the New Year’s Eve.
Many people care a lot about the muscles and external strength of the horse. They can spend a lot of money and time to build strong skeletal muscles. But when the horse has tensions in the stomach and internal organs, he is very weak inside and his breathing is constantly compromised. He is wobbly under the saddle, and he feels like he has very little awareness of his body. I believe that if we want to have a shiny apple, it is not the question of if, but it’s a must, to have this shine from within. An apple rotten from the inside will not glow, no matter how many efforts we put into polishing it outside the shell.
If you want to continue learning go to:
The Relax That Stomach SpotLight Clinic is an online course that allows you to study at your own pace, and at the comfort of your own home. You will be also able to show me your progression, and ask questions whenever you need deeper guidance or explanation of some detail. This course comes with lifetime access to all materials.
Some of the Testimonials We Received From Participants:
“My horses changed their eating patterns! They look better and they also doubled the time they finish a big hay roll (around 400kg). Before they needed about 1,5 weeks, but now they need more than 4 weeks!”
“Dear Anna Marciniak, like I told you about Sam’s behavior towards the food has really changed. We have a paddock paradise system with 24/7 hay: Sam was most of the time eating. After some weeks OPP his food patterns are changing not only with the bucket with food [on which we have been practicing]: in the paddock, Sam is eating less, and he is even standing with his buttocks to the hay, see foto below!!! 😂 Other horses say to him: “If you don’t eat please go away”, but he is looking with his calm look at them and says: “I am standing fine here”. He is playing a lot with other horses, and he is more standing still and relaxing and doing nothing [than just eating]. I like what I see, but that’s not all! Because his mare (girlfriend) which is always close to him is also changing her patterns and showing more calmness (deals with separation anxiety better).”
“Ultima and Valea eating hay quite close… I think it is the first time I see that ! Until now, Ultima (the chestnut) was too scared of Valea and Valea was too dominant about food to allow Ultima to eat close to her. I am so happy to observe that something is changing!!!”
“It was a GREAT clinic Anna! Thank you so much!! I woke up at 4 am to watch it live and I enjoyed every minute of it. So much information and great exercises. I did try the preparation exercise with my horse after the clinic and I think it went well. 😍 I will keep you posted on my progress and questions. Take care!!!”
“I did martial art for more than 20 years and nobody was able to teach me the functions of the power section with so much clarity ! Thank you, Anna!”
“Wasn’t able to watch live due to time difference and am only now starting to watch the third hour, but anyone who complains about the high cost of your course simply has NO CONCEPT of what they would be receiving. This clinic costs $335 NZD, about $55 NZD/hr. Where on EARTH could I have purchased a lesson with invaluable information and instructions and brilliant presentation that will last me a lifetime and impact my horse’s health and life permanently for the kind of money? Absolutely amazing clinic, Anna. AND I’M ONLY AT THE BEGINNING!”
“Hi Anna, thank you very much for the clinic yesterday – it was very interesting and full of information!”
“Anna, you have outdone yourself once again. What you are offering to us, is basically a weekend online learning clinic.!!! I was expecting maybe 2-3 hours of material, but I am overwhelmed and delighted and so happy to be able to follow you. The information is very well put together. Residual tension is having a whole new meaning for me, and how you describe really helps me understand how important it is to do less. I have felt waves where I was able to really feel how smooth and effortless Life was and also, even recently where every part of me feels tight, and more eager to tense than Relax.”
“Hi Anna, firstly thank you so much for such a comprehensive presentation 😊 I have finished going through the fourth theory videos and have spent some time reflecting on the information. I have some questions I’d like to ask but for clarity, I will break them up into separate posts to make it more straight forward for you to answer hopefully.”
“Dear Anna, I just have to tell you how Amazing you are! ❤️ It was such a priceless Clinic yesterday! You are doing such a great job! I learned heaps of new information! It all makes sense now why there are many stomach issues. The ball and apple was a really good example!”
“Totally agree with the others, Anna. I have only watched the first two sessions so far, and the information, guidance, and presentation is just so professionally and well presented. Your years of dedication and commitment are remarkable. I am so happy to be started on the OPP Path, and the timing of this clinic is like the icing on the cake. To me, it so lovely that we always have these Spotlight Clinics and no matter which stages we are at, it is always possible to revisit them and find more and more little nuggets of information previously missed or perhaps seen with a different level of understanding. I am so enjoying exactly where I am at with my herd at the moment, totally amazed at the transformations that are subtlety unfolding for both my girls and myself”
“Thanks for this clarification, Anna! [about replacing behaviors] I love this distinction and the distinction between relaxation signs and calming signals. Brilliant work, brilliant clinic! I’m looking forward to drinking this clinic in from start to finish!!!! Fabulous work!”
“It definitely was an amazing clinic, Anna Marciniak!! I did the relaxation technique on food just a second ago and its really mind-blowing what I felt in my stomach. Thank you so much ❤️”