As all equestrians know, horses are superb athletes. But sometimes athletes become injured. While I work with injured animals, my goal as a certified equine sports massage therapist is to PREVENT injury in the first place.
Horses are made up of 60% muscle and are the most tendinous of all land mammals. They use 16 muscles to move their ears alone. We have the unique benefit of being able work closely with and ride these amazing animals, giving us a perspective to FEEL when there is stiffness, hesitation, or unbalance. Unfortunately, by the time you can feel this your horse is in serious need of muscle release. Often behavioral problems can be attributed to your horse letting you know there is pain or discomfort before the symptoms appear physically. The best thing any horse owner can do is prevent these behavioral and physical problems with regular sports massage treatments.
Areas where your horse may have tension can depend on a few factors: breed, conformation, muscle tone, and discipline. In my experience both show jumpers and hunters tend to have the most tension in their crest, neck, deltoid and their hindquarters . Dressage horses are more likely to have tension in their polls, anterior pectorals, obliques, and gluteus muscles. Some horses are naturally tense and high strung. Their muscle tension often shows itself in behavioral problems or seemingly random spooking. Tension in horses is never healthy and can lead to injury. The key is prevention.
Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapists (ESMT) have worked on a number of top level performance horses in a variety of disciplines from Olympic show jumpers, eventers, barrel racers, and Triple Crown race winners. Massage can give a horse the competitive edge, allowing greater flexibility and increasing muscle tone, but all equines no matter the discipline or exercise program will benefit from sports massage.
Equine sports massage uses the hands, fingers and elbows of the therapist to target tight muscles and acupressure points in the horse. We feel the tension with our bodies and treat accordingly. Touch is the most important factor and is incredibly powerful. We manipulate the soft tissue to loosen muscles, joints, and tendons; increase blood flow and lymphatic activity; and reduce stress. Sports massage is used in all facets of exercise: warm-up; cool down; general maintenance; pre- and post-competition; and post-injury or rehabilitation of both working athletes and pets.
BENEFITS OF Sports Massage
- Remove muscle spasms and adhesions.
- Enhance muscle tone and increase range of motion.
- Increase circulation, which speeds healing and removes toxins.
- Improve digestion, reduce ulcers and preventing colic.
- Improve joint health with increase of synovial fluid.
- Restore mobility to injured muscle tissue.
- Reduce stress.
- Increase flexibility.
- Prevent muscle pulls and laminitis.
Behavioral & Physical Problems Sports Massage Can Address
- Head tossing
- Trouble picking up leads
- Trouble bending
- Girthiness and trouble tacking
- Aggression (to people and horses)
- Chronic laminitis
Our work is extremely emotionally satisfying and immediate. As previously mentioned there are times when I first lay my hands on a horse that I can feel the stress and tension vibrating through their bodies. By the time I am done, it is drained away and the horse's relief is equally palpable. There is huge satisfaction seeing the animal you are working on reacting positively to your touch. Some reactions are subtle and some are much greater.
- Lowered head
- Lip quiver
- Licking lips and chewing
- Cocked hind leg (especially on the side being treated)
- Tail Swish
- Skin Quiver
- Vocalizing: nickers, sneezing, coughing, whinnying
- Walking Off
- Bowing (Yoga Stretch)
- Tremor or Body Shake
Some horses are more stoic and hide discomfort easily. Other horses are more sensitive and need a lighter hand. Either way we can tell exactly what is needed when we introduce ourselves and complete our initial evaluation. We often find when a horse is first receiving massage that they are incredibly tight, prone to walking off, and attempting to bite or kick. Remember this is not personal. We are building a new relationship and they are also telling us where they are uncomfortable. Our goal by the end of session is to receive little to no reactions at all. The next session is usually much easier for the horse. We are now more familiar to them and building on the previous massage.
After the Massage
Unlike chiropractic work there is no down time afterward. I encourage hand walking, turnout, or even light riding after a session so that the muscles can continue to stretch and release tension. Massage has immediate benefits that when used regularly can prevent a host of problems and aid in self healing. We often work in conjunction with veterinarians, chiropractors, and acupuncturists to provide a holistic wellness program.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD MY HORSE RECEIVE MASSAGE
We customize our treatments to the client, all our horses are as different in muscle tone as they are in personality. How often your horse receives massage we base on the following generalizations and we go from there:
- Personality. As you know every horse is different. Some are calm and unflappable and others are high strung and spooky. Anxiety can contribute to muscle tension, but in many instances muscle tension is the root cause of the anxiety.
- Exercise Program. Horses that are ridden more than 3 times a week and/or compete regularly would benefit from massage every 2 weeks. Alternatively pleasure horses that hack or trail may be seen once every 4 weeks on average.
- Health. Horses on stall rest or recovering from injury/ surgery will ideally receive massage 1-2 times weekly to prevent complications such as colic, speed healing, and to help calm the mind and reduce stocking up.
Our work as equine sports massage therapists is complementary to veterinary care. Massage therapists do not diagnose or treat illness; if you have questions about your horses’ health we recommend always contacting your veterinarian first. Please beware that currently, there are no standards for equine massage therapists. Find a certified and insured massage therapist to care for your horse. Your horse will thank you and the benefits are unbeatable.
On an end note, I realize that equine sports massage is yet widely accepted. My hope is that I can help this wonderful therapy become widely used in equestrian circles. After all, I see the benefits every day. I hope you will too.
Have you used sports massage for your horse? Tell us what you thought by commenting below.
About the writer: Heather Wallace is a certified equine and canine sports massage therapist, aromatherapist, and co-owner of Bridle & Bone Wellness LLC. She writes about her personal journey as an adult amateur equestrian and mom to two rescue dogs, Gonzo and Beau.