Does my horse need a massage?

Why massage your horse?

The simple act of massage can have measurable physiological effects. But how does it all work, and why bother with a professional massage?

We claim that Massage can:

  • Promote relaxation and improved mental health
  • Reduce muscle tightness and pain through release of release soft tissue restrictions
  • Improve circulation, muscle tone and flexibility
  • Enhance recovery for soft tissue injuries
  • Improve straightness and balance, often resulting in a longer, more supple strides

Massage works on the soft tissues of the body, and as I’ll expand on in a later post, these are all interconnected via the fascial system, so that benefits experienced in one area of the body can impact the horse’s movement and balance more broadly. The horse human connection is a lucky accident or a divine gift, depending on your world view. They are perfectly proportioned for humans to ride astride and they are sensitive and responsive in areas that are easily accessed by our aids and balanced to invoke a specific response. Over time the humans – horse relationship has evolved so that our expectations of their performance have become specialized. Although we might see a horse in nature jump over a large obstacle, or come to a sliding stop, turn or pirouette in a balanced way… etc, you won’t see a horse in nature do these things repeatedly. They won’t jump 8-12 large obstacles again and again. We ask more of them and their physiology than they originally evolved to be able to do. We impose mental and physical stresses on them, and expect them to perform, which they generally do. However, they tend to carry these stresses in their bodies and the work of an equine bodywork practitioner is to resolve the stresses, both the mental and physical.

Massage can evoke systemic relaxation, as measured through both the appearance of the horse and through measures such as heart rate breathing rate. Most massages I undertake begin with relaxation techniques, including “effleurage”. Effleurage is a lighter tough whole-body technique that is soothing to many horses. Superficial effleurage warms up the area by increasing circulation, and It promotes mobilization of the blood and lymph through the tissues. When performed faster and deeper, this technique can also aid in the removal of inflammation and edema. I use this “warming up” period of the massage to tune into the horse, and to feel for areas of restriction where I’d like to work more deeply.

As I identify areas that hold more tension, knots or trigger points (more on those later!) I apply different types of deeper massage techniques, which increase circulation and oxygenation — pressure from the massage encourages circulation throughout the muscle. During a blood vessels are dilated, increasing blood flow. Increased circulation can help speed up recovery of injured muscle tissues & help mobility.

Magna wave, Kinesiology tape and Cold Laser also impact circulation in various ways.  Improved circulation mobilizes / enhances the removal of waste from the muscle tissues. The tension, or “knots” that exist in the muscle fibers are largely a result of built-up toxins and as the horse experiences the resolution of the tension, the exit of toxins can cause the “twitch response” in adjacent fascia / muscles.

It can also lead to a lovely endorphin release, which feels good for your horse and often results in the physiological response of a big head shaking yawn.

Massage is Exercise!

Equine massage is considered an anaerobic exercise for your horse. The massage works their muscles just as a short but hard workout would. It can be compared to a quick gallop in the pasture or a speedy jumping round. In this way, massage is especially beneficial for an older horse or one lacking muscle, massage is a great way to help them safely build the fundamental muscles they need. If your horse was injured and requires stall rest, a massage can maintain their muscle mass and also help them burn some energy. 

Bodywork has results

These effects, the improved circulation, oxygenation and removal of restrictions caused by a buildup of cellular muscle toxins, allow the muscle to move more freely. The fascia, which also plays a large role in muscle function, also experiences improvements. Supple muscles are more elastic so the horse is less prone to soft tissue injury. Muscles that move freely also put less strain on joints and tendons.

The removal of restrictions is what cause the horse to be able to use its body more effectively – to have a longer stride due to an increased range of motion, to be able to be supple to the aids, to be able to deliver a more fluid lead change. These are the types of observations I hear from my clients – although every horse and every situation is different and they all respond in a different way, generally I hear that they see and feel an improvement in their horse’s ability to carry himself in a balanced way and deliver a more fluid response to the aids.