The five elements and your horse - Part 1 Metal

Guest post series by Sam MacLean of Red Dog Ranch

This month begins a five-part blog series on the Five Elements of Chinese Medicine featuring Sam MacLean, owner of Red Dog Ranch, an equine acupressure/bodywork/energy practitioner who specializes in special/unusual cases, horses that perplex western veterinary care and end-of-life palliative care. 

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*Please note that this post nor any post that you find here at Insightful Equine are intended to provide or replace veterinary advice. If your horse needs medical attention please seek a veterinarian. 

Sam from Red Dog Ranch - Equine acupressure and body work

A little background before we begin with the elements...

Integrative Care for Your Horse: Traditional Chinese Medicine

Thousands of years ago the Chinese developed a system of medicine that we in the U.S. now know as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This ancient system was developed through observations of humans as part of the natural world and from understanding the patterns/connections between the inner world of the body/mind/spirit and the outer, physical environment. This ancient health care system is rooted in the primary principals of: 

  • Energy. Everything is energy. The universal energy (Chi, pronounced “chee”) animates life and is the underlying force of everything in the universe. Chi flows throughout the physical body along energetic pathways, called meridians. 
  • Opposites. Everything has a polarity (Yin and Yang), for example: day/night, light/dark, positive/negative, life/death, etc. And yet, nothing is absolute. Each of the polarities is interrelated to the other, cannot exist without the other and is even contained within its opposite.
  • As above, so below. Whatever happens in the external environment will be reflected in humans and animals internally. Whatever is taking place within the body’s internal systems will be reflected externally.
  • Wholeness. No one part of the mind/body/spirit can be separated from the rest. The body is an interconnected whole.
  • Harmony. When there is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harmony the person or animal is healthy. When there is disharmony and imbalance, that leads to dis-ease or illness. 
  • Prevention. In ancient China the physician was paid to proactively keep the entire village healthy. So if villagers became sick it reflected poorly on the physician and he would not be paid. This preventative approach to health seems at odds with western medicine’s view of treating patients who are already sick.

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TCM As Health Care

Over time the ancient clinical observations created a vast body of knowledge regarding energy, cycles and the physical body, which now provide the empirical basis for the practice of TCM. The TCM system of health care includes the following practices: 

  • Acupuncture: inserting thin needles, the size of single strand of hair, in particular points along particular meridians to create a harmonious flow of Chi.
  • Acupressure: using pressure from fingers/hands on particular points along particular meridians to create a harmonious flow of Chi.
  • Tuina: a form of meridian massage
  • Tai Chi: a form of exercise for mind/body
  • Meditation
  • Whole foods and nutrition
  • Herbs

Integrative Care

TCM, in combination with your regular vet care, is the perfect health care combination* to help maintain your horse’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and harmony. Western veterinary care has the latest technology, diagnostics and pharmaceuticals to support your horse during an injury, acute illness and/or disease; whereas, the equine acupuncturist or acupressure practitioner will support your horse during recovery from an injury, during chronic health issues and by promoting holistic prevention throughout the year. This integrative approach to health care also includes you as horse guardian. Understanding the Five Elements and taking steps to support your horse throughout the year will go along way to prevent sickness and disease.

Moving on to the Elements and your horse...

The Five Element Theory

Observing the patterns of nature and experiencing seasonal cycles, along with seeing the transformations of plants and animals through birth, growth, maturity, decline, death, decay and renewal, inform another key principal for living in harmony with nature. The Five Element Theory integrates the natural cycle of the seasons with the human life-cycle and provides a systemic and scientific method for identifying patterns or harmony/disharmony.

These five naturally occurring phases –Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water—are visually represented as a circle (see figure 1) to demonstrate relationship, movement and transformation within and between the five elements. The Wood element, as in spring, represents birth and new growth; Fire reflects the peak time of activity and development, similar to the energy of summer; Earth represents transition, the space of balance between two extremes and also reflects the transition time from summer (Yang and external activity) to fall (Yin and inner quiet); Metal corresponds to the season of fall, the phase of decline and harvest; while the element of Water, like winter, reflects both death and the potential for renewal. Each of these five phases has much wisdom to share and can start humans and their horses on a path to greater health, harmony and healing.

Explore the five elements of nature and how you can use them to support your horse - part 1 metal

Part 1 - The Metal Element

The Metal Element is all about releasing what no longer serves. The natural cycle of the year peaks in summer (the most active, Yang, part of the year) and autumn is the phase that prepares us physically, mentally and emotionally for winter (the most quiet, internal, Yin, part of the year).

In living according to nature we see hints of what naturally occurs during this part of the cycle: the air is cool and crisp, the abundant harvest has been safely stored or is now beginning to brown and decay; leaves are falling from the trees and will eventually enrich the earth from which the trees will generate new leaves next spring. So for humans and our horses this is a time of being inspired, letting go and releasing so that we will be open to new growth next spring. 

The process of taking-in and letting-go relates to the organ systems of the Lungs and Large Intestine/Colon along with the emotion of grief. When the Metal Element is out of balance in horses and humans the symptoms may include: coughing, excess mucus from the nose, heaves, skin issues, constipation, digestive trouble, fatigue/exhaustion, too much grief or inability to express sadness/grief. 

It is said that the Lungs “receive pure chi from the heavens” which then helps nourish the entire body. Our mind, body, spirit is healthiest when we take in the purity of clean air and whole food nourishment, and then the Large Intestine makes the final determination on what waste needs to be released. When the metal energy is blocked or stagnant the regular flow of waste becomes interrupted and this may cause a build-up of garbage or an urge to control. This can also be a metaphor for the mental aspect of our lives during the fall season. What garbage are we reading or watching or listening to? What needs to be mentally released in order for us to continue our inward journey over the winter?

The emotion associated with the Metal element is grief. Life generates many opportunities for grief. Often times it comes in the form of loss (of life, a job, a significant change, moving, herd change, loss of a herd-mate, etc.) and the key to healing is allowing the emotion of sadness and grief to move through without holding on to it. 

How can you ensure that your horse is balanced in its Metal energy so that it can transition into the energy of Water (Winter) harmoniously?

  1. Eat and treat according to the season*. Use warming whole food treats that reflect what is seasonally appropriate: including pumpkin and raw pumpkin seeds as treats, adding cinnamon to your horse’s grain. If your horse continues to graze on pasture throughout the fall, it is also important to be careful about the drop in temperature as it impacts the sugars in grasses.
  2. Ensure good digestive health. As the temperatures drop ensure your horse drinks adequate water and where possible consider heated buckets and water troughs. If you notice runny stools, evaluate the ingredients in your feed to ensure it does not include inflammatory agents like soy.
  3. Ensure good lung health for your horse, part 1. With falling temperatures barns will begin to close windows and doors, which reduces air circulation, causing more dust and debris to collect in the environment. If your horse struggles with lung issues ensure he/she has a stall where clean/fresh air is available and encourage the barn to use best practices for cleaning while horses are inside.
  4. Ensure good lung health, part 2. For people, practicing deep breathing exercises can be beneficial but that would be challenging to teach horses. So the best way for horses to fully engage their lungs so that they inhale heaven’s chi is to encourage regular movement. Get some exercise with your horse. Even if you don’t have an indoor arena or your riding lessons might be done for the season, now is a great time to take your horse for a walk. Explore nature together or just bond while walking around your property or playing at liberty.
  5. Healthy coat and skin. In TCM the condition of your horse’s coat/skin is a reflection of the harmony/disharmony of his/her Metal Element. Make sure to regularly groom during this time so that if you notice unusual rashes or skin issues you can bring it to your vet’s attention.
  6. Pay attention to signs of grief and depression. If your horse has experienced a change to a new barn, loss of a herd member or death of a family member get support for your horse.
  7. If you see patterns of disharmony related to the Metal Element like coughing, colic, diarrhea, skin issues, fall allergies, mucus running from the nose, or depression please contact your veterinarian*. After a diagnosis, and with your vet’s approval, reach out to an equine acupressure practitioner or equine acupuncturist so that an integrative care approach can support your horse going forward.

Finally, we all have things we need to release and the element of Metal reminds us as horse guardians that fall may be a great time to release outdated ideas about our horse. It is easy to get stuck in a pattern of thinking negatively about our horse…”he is stubborn”, “she is such a crabby mare” or “he’s got my number”. The next time your horse does that thing that makes you think he is “stubborn” ask yourself if that is true…is he truly stubborn? Or, is he trying to tell you something or get your attention? The next time your mare pins her ears at you and you are about to tell her she is such a “crabby mare”…think about what may have caused her to pin her ears and could you have done something differently.

As you move into autumn, the energy of the Metal Element will also nudge you to get quiet and reflect. As your horse’s guardian…what inspires you or breathes life into you? What are you holding on to that needs to be released before winter? Think about three things you’d like to let go of this fall and three things that inspire you, write them down and begin taking action toward both releasing and being inspired.

If you have questions or would like more information on TCM or the Metal Element, please send me an email. If I can help your horse this fall (or any time of year) please reach out.


The next part in our series will arrive in January with the Water Element. So, until then…

Be in harmony,


*Please consult your veterinarian prior to making changes to your horse’s diet and/or incorporating integrative care into your horse’s health care.

Nourishing Destiny, Lonny S. Jarrett, Spirit Path Press, 2009.
Traditional Acupuncture, the Law of the Five Elements, Dianne M. Connelly, PH.D. Tia Sophia Institute, 1991.
Wood Becomes Water, Gail Reichstein. Kodansha USA, Inc., 1998

Explore the five elements of nature and how you can use them to support your horse - part 1 metal

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Cindy Warner

    Thank you for this! I have always been sad/grieving in fall and this helped me understand the context it may be in. I also love the idea of letting go of wat no longer serves us. I have had some big stuff in that area lately as well- this helps me truely let go and make space for better things. 😊.

    1. InsightfulBR

      I’m so glad Sam chose to share her knowledge on the Elements for this series. I’m right there with you on letting go of some of the excess noise and getting ready for the quiet of winter.

    2. Sam

      Hi Cindy! I’m glad you found the article helpful and I really appreciate you sharing your experience. It’s fascinating to me how hard letting-go can be until we do it and then realize the impact it has. It’s such a natural part of life. I often feel the urge to purge in the fall…get rid of crap that’s been building in the garage and basement, recycle clothes I no-longer wear, etc. We all find our way to release and making it a mindful practice brings more meaning to the experience. What do you notice with your horse this time of year?

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