Massage Therapy for Horses
If you are like many horse owners, your horse has a better life than you do. He has multiple vets, a farrier, a chiropractor, a personal trainer, life with friends, and a maximum of one hour of light work per day. When he walks, breathes, or blinks funny, you get online and consult with this entire team and several online forums before calling a life coach, your mother, and a shaman to find out the source of his maladies. Meanwhile, the most you spend on your own healthcare per year is the cost of a bottle of aspirin.
What wouldn’t we do for our beloved horses?
But if there is one thing that both you and your horse can use more of, it is massage therapy. If you are like most riders and horse owners, I probably don’t need to work hard to convince you that you need massage therapy. Between barn chores, tack care, and riding, your entire musculoskeletal system is probably yelling at you on a regular basis. But your horse already gets so much good stuff from you and has such an easy life. Does he really need massage therapy too?
What Does Massage Therapy Do?
As you can imagine, massage therapy for horses looks a bit different than for humans. There are no scented candles, leather beds, or zen music. Massage therapy falls under the category of bodywork for horses, a category which also includes chiropractic and physiotherapy. Bodywork is an important part of the sporthorse’s training program, and it is a routine for almost all equine athletes, just as much as vaccinations, deworming, and farriery. But even if you just take your horse for the occasional trail ride, or to an occasional lesson or schooling show for fun, massage therapy can help your horse out.
When horses have tension in their bodies, whether in their muscles or fascia, it can cause a variety of problems. They may become unbalanced in their gaits, or their steps may become short or choppy to ride. They may even start to act “naughty” by bucking, refusing to go forward, running out or refusing to jump, struggling with certain movements of reining patterns, failing to canter on one rein, or falling in through their shoulders or hindquarters. The large muscles along the back, hips, and sides are responsible for supporting the horse’s entire body as it moves, as well as carrying the weight of a rider and tack. Repetitive use of these muscles, especially if conformation or poorly-fitting tack exacerbates certain use patterns, can lead to chronic soreness and make the horse more prone to injury. Massage therapy can prevent muscle soreness from leading to more serious problems like pinched nerves, a blocked back, or soft-tissue injuries.
What Does Massage Therapy for Horses Even Look Like?
While everyone can do some basic massage for their horses every time they use a curry comb or pet their horse, massage therapy has some more specific techniques, which have particular targeted benefits.
involves firm pressure to the muscles and underlying fascia (connective tissue between muscles) in different patterns and consistencies. This releases pain and buildups of lactic acid, which causes soreness and affects performance.
focuses on specific spots of tight muscles (often referred to as muscle knots) to loosen built-up tension which causes pain.
focuses specifically on tension stored in the muscular fascia, as opposed to the muscles themselves. Some trigger-point therapies are used in this type of therapy as well, if trigger points are hidden in the fascia.
is considered a class of massage therapy, since it involves manipulating the horse’s muscles. Stretching may be passive or dynamic – dynamic involves the horse choosing how much to be involved in the stretch, such as in carrot stretching. Passive stretching involves the human manipulating the horse’s body to stretch out the muscles. Each of these different therapies has a certain benefit for the horse, all of them contributing to better movement and use of the whole body.
What Specific Benefits Does Massage Therapy Have for My Horse?
So glad you asked! Here is a list of some of the benefits that massage therapy can have for your horse:
- Improved locomotor function – massage therapy has the primary goal of loosening the tight muscles in a horse’s body. Tight muscles inhibit how the horse’s legs, neck, tail, and spine can move. A horse with tight, sore muscles in one of these areas will have compromised movement. The pain from this tightness can cause a horse to restrict its movement further, causing more soreness and tightness, and sending the horse off on a vicious cycle. Massage therapy can address this by reducing pain and physically enabling the horse to move better.
- Improved circulation – tight, sore muscles after exercise have buildup of lactic acid, and limited blood flow to aid in recovery. Massage not only breaks up the stores of lactic acid in the sore muscles, it actually increases blood flow to the sore areas, which aids in recovery and speeds the healing process. There are many studies that show decreases in healing time and significant increases in performance following massage therapy.
- Relaxation – massage therapy, with its role in relieving pain and the mechanics of stroking and rubbing, releases a lot of endorphins. Horses undergoing massage therapy often show various signs of extreme comfort relaxation, which can be extremely beneficial for high-strung horses or horses in stressful environments.
- Trust – because massage therapy feels so good to the horse, it increases the bond between the horse and its handler
I Can’t Afford Massage Therapy. Can I Still Offer Something to Help My Horse?
Absolutely! My horse loves the Roma Massage Rubber Mitt and double-sided massage mitt. I alternate circular strokes and long sweeps over his back and hips especially. I also get a lot of mileage out of my Hands-On Grooming Gloves. For an even deeper massage you can use The Dressager Equine Massage Roller from Epona. Sporthorses will also enjoy regular sessions with the Therapeutic Mesh Sheet. You can also learn how to do carrot stretches with your horse, and incorporate different stretches into his regular routine.
Massage therapy has a lot of benefits for all horses, whether they are riding lawnmowers or fancy sporthorses. Depending on what your horse needs, there are different therapies that can keep him feeling limber, loose, and comfortable. And maybe while he is relaxing, spoil yourself and get a massage for you as well.
Which of these therapies appeals to you the most?