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An Introduction to Massage Therapy for Horses

What is Horse Massage Therapy?

By: Teresa Anderson, CESMT

Massage therapy for horses can be broken down into two groups, physical therapy which aids in recovery and is applied post-injury, and sports therapy. Sports therapy views any restriction of motion due to muscle tension as a problem as it can lead to injury, and restricted motion actively works against the horse’s comfort and optimum performance. Sports Massage Therapy is used for the prevention and treatment of muscle tension and is the manual massage therapy referred to in this article.

How do you know if your horse needs massage therapy?

It is always recommended that you consult your veterinarian before introducing any integrative therapy to your horse’s routine, and it’s important to note that muscle tension can cause reduced performance or a symptom of something deeper. Additionally, there are circumstances under which your veterinarian may not recommend massage therapy, such as after a certain point in a mare’s gestation period or if cancer or a skin condition is present.

Horses that could benefit from massage therapy exhibit symptoms of motion-restricting muscle tension caused by repeated exertions, maximum efforts, nervous energy, prolonged isometric exercise (where a horse is asked to maintain posture or frame), compensatory injuries, or protective splinting (tension that occurs around an injury, often remaining long after healing). Symptoms include:

  • Head tossing
  • Reluctance to bend
  • Sore back
  • “Cinchy”
  • Lack of coordination
  • Short or choppy strides
  • Incorrect or switching of leads
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Hip or shoulder lameness
  • Anxiety
  • Off for no reason

What are the benefits of equine massage therapy?

The benefits of Massage therapy for horses are many and can include:

  • Increased flexibility and range of motion
  • Improved balance, coordination, and proprioception
  • Improved posture and muscle tone
  • Increased circulation for waste/toxin removal
  • Loosening / softening of scar tissue
  • Injury prevention
  • A present and willing attitude

How often and when should a horse be massaged?

How often a horse should be massaged largely depends on the frequency and intensity of his work and whether there are any preexisting conditions. For a high-performance equine athlete, your massage therapists may recommend sessions every 3 to 7 days for the first week or two before settling into a maintenance routine of 1 to 2 sessions a month. A family horse with only occasional work might be maintained with one session every few months.

When to massage is a very important question. Choose a time when things are calm around your barn, not feeding time or your horse’s regular workout time. Choose a location familiar to him with soft footing (perhaps his stall) and friends nearby. And plan. Depending on how your horse reacts to massage, you may not want to schedule a massage session fewer than three days from an event. His body will need time to clear the lactic acid and toxins released by the massage before he can experience the maximum benefits of massage therapy.

Can I massage my horse myself?

Absolutely! Massage therapy is a wonderful way to bond with your horse. Once you have the all-clear from your vet, there are several methodologies you can study via books, online tutorials, seminars, and certification programs. A number of those methodologies have a foundation in the massage therapy method developed by Jack Meagher, who worked on human and equine athletes alike and coined the term ‘Sports Massage.’

Massaging a Horse

How to Massage a Horse

A certified, vet-sponsored Equine Sports Massage Therapist will use a mix of massage, bodywork, and stress point therapy techniques with various levels of pressure to seek out and release exact causative spots of muscle tension and pain. It has likely taken them years of study and practice to refine their skills, but any horse owner can learn techniques to help their horse experience greater relief from muscle tension than he can achieve on his own.

Several techniques to study include compression strokes, kneading, percussion, cross-fiber friction, and stress point therapy. For beginners, it’s important to start with light pressure. For your horse’s comfort and your safety, you don’t want to work a painful area too aggressively too soon. Here are a few introductory techniques to help determine where your horse might be holding residual tension. But before you begin:

  • Safety first, do not close yourself into a stall or anywhere you can’t move quickly to safety. Ask if there are any known sensitive areas on the horse before you begin.

  • Quick release tie your horse loose enough so he can drop his head to the height of his withers. If he stands still, you can ground tie him or drape the lead rope over his back.

  • Remember to set yourself up for success by carefully choosing the time of day and location to work on your horse.

  • Less pressure is more when you’re learning massage, and pressure should be increased gradually.

  • Be patient. Especially if massage therapy is something new for your horse, he will likely initially react to pressure from your hands by yielding to it. Ask him calmly to ‘whoa’ and praise him as he figures out that you’re asking him to work with you differently.

  • You’ll know you’re on the right track when he starts to relax and shows you signs of release, such as lowering or shaking his head, sighing, blinking, licking his lips, stretching, fidgeting, or yawning.

  • Happy Yawning Horse

Basic open palm technique over the topline:

The bladder meridian is your horse’s longest pathway of responsive acupuncture or pressure points. Running your hand over the length of it can help relax your horse and wake up areas he may have blocked (areas he’s not fully using for fear of pain). For this technique, we will follow the bladder meridian from poll to tail, staying 2 to 3 inches below the crest and then 2 to 3 inches below the spine. Take your time and move slowly, as this simple, focused exercise can allow you to identify potential areas of tension or pain. Your horse may flinch or move away from your hand as you pass tension areas, or he may offer even subtler responses such as repeatedly blinking, a quiver of the lip, or a change in breathing. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand at your horse’s throat latch angled slightly toward his withers and place an open hand on his poll just behind the ear. You may find it easier to use the hand closest to his rump.

  2. With only enough pressure to indent the hair, very lightly run your hand over the bladder meridian, poll to tail, while using your free hand as a reassuring point of contact, first on the horse’s shoulder and then on the hind quarter.

  3. Repeat several times on each side, gradually increasing the pressure from very light (think indent hair) to light (think indent skin) to medium (think indent muscle).

Diagram of Bladder Meridian on Horse

Next is a compression technique. Imagine a triangle on your horse’s neck with points at the poll, the middle front edge of the shoulder, and the withers. Avoiding boney processes, we will work within that triangle and over the shoulder muscles on both sides to help identify and free up any areas of tension.

  1. Place your open hand at the base of the neck a few inches below the top of the crest and lightly press the heel of your palm into your horse’s neck, barely indenting the skin. Tip: it’s easier to use your left hand on your horse’s left side and your right hand on his right side.

  2. Maintaining the pressure, rotate your hand as if turning a dial, move your fingers about 45 degrees (you’ll rotate clockwise using your right hand, counterclockwise using your left), and release the pressure.

  3. Relocate your hand’s position slightly higher along the crest of the neck and repeat until you reach the poll. If your horse reacts to the pressure at a specific location, lighten up and linger longer in that area. For this technique, be careful not to grab with your fingers as you work along the top of the neck.

  4. Once you reach the poll, slide your hand back down the neck to your starting point.

  5. Move your hand lower in the triangle and work again towards the poll, returning to your starting point with one continuous open-hand stroke.

  6. Repeat until you’ve worked the full area of the neck triangle, and then move on to the shoulder muscles, working bottom to top in the same way.

  7. Repeat the entire sequence with medium pressure (think indent muscle).

Suppose you’re finding areas of tension on your horse with these initial techniques. In that case, it’s a good idea to book a session for your horse with a certified equine sports massage therapist (Note: state laws vary. Some states require a massage therapist to be under the supervision of a veterinarian). The massage therapist will utilize their experience and myriad advanced techniques to move your horse toward optimum wellness. Your horse is going to thank you!

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