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.

Why engage a professional?

I once had a passerby suggest that horses don’t need massages – she said that if she gave her horse a stimulating curry every day, she could achieve the same result. Of course, I am all for the benefits of a stimulating curry. A good grooming session is definitely relaxing and can stimulate circulation.  However, there are additional benefits to a holistic bodywork program with a professional. I thought I’d take a minute in a blog post here to respond.

My goal as a professional is to support both you and your horse – When I work with your horse, I am happy to share observations with you, and hope that you will take an active interest in what you can do to promote soft tissue health for your horse. I often provide suggestions of key areas you may want to work on between sessions, stretches to try, etc. Massage can be an effective way to create an improved connection with your horse, and there are some good techniques I’m happy to share with you to get you started massaging your horse.

However, there are some specific advantages that I offer that you and your horse may appreciate:

  1. I am trained in a variety of massage and other therapeutic techniques. Additionally, I have training in anatomy and functional anatomy. As a result, when I palpate specific muscles, and note some trigger point, or other dysfunction I can identify what it is and what impact it may have. I might note a tight area in a muscle, and when I describe the area and the function of that muscle to the trainer will often concur …”ahhh, that makes perfect sense given his (fill in the blank… resistance – left lead to right lead change, or whatever)”.

Additionally, I actively and continually pursue training, knowledge and experience in my spare time to stay up to date with new techniques for your horse.

  • I have cool tools:  When I find restrictions, I may apply specific manual techniques to release them, or I may recommend additional modalities. I am trained in techniques such as cold laser, PEMF / Magna Wave, Kinesiology tape, Core muscle stim, etc that can help mitigate or resolve a specific issue. I can also use these tools to help address soft tissue injuries and expedite healing.
  • I feel a lot of horses. Having spent many hundreds of hours touching and feeling horse’s muscles, fascia, soft tissues, I’ve developed a sense for things that are typical… or not. I might find an area of tension that many horses in heavy work carry. I also may note that something is anomalously tight or reactive. In some cases, I might find something unexpected and suggest a follow up with a vet.

For example, one of my clients has a pony who developed such a tight /painful neck that it became scary for the child to handle the pony — he was becoming quite grumpy and reactive. He was also moving slightly off behind, and the vet was out several times and focused his work on the hind end, with a series of joint injections. This pony was in regular bodywork sessions with me, and I went out to work on him during this time. As I worked on the anomalously tight neck muscles, I noticed a specific and unusual lump hidden out of normal palpation areas, which was quite sore. I consulted with the owner and her vet and when the vet re-examined the pony, he determined the lump I noticed was related to a torn ligament and all the tension and perhaps even the slight nebulous “offness” was related to the ligament and associated muscle tension. The vet provided an initial injection to help address some of the muscle spasms. I worked in conjunction with the vet, providing an extended course of massage and cold laser treatments, and now the pony is cheerful and sound again.

In short, please take advantage of my knowledge, tools and experience to help you and your horse be your best together!

What is Cold Laser Therapy?

  1. Cold Laser Therapy (aka LLLT): High Level Summary

Cold laser, or Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is one of the lesser known (to horse people) modalities I use, but it is one that I find to be incredibly effective.

Cold Laser or LLLT is also known as photobiomodulation (PBMT), and low-intensity light therapy. The therapy uses the application of light to biologic systems to promote tissue regeneration, reduce inflammation, relieve pain and promote healing (among numerous other applications). The beneficial use of low-level laser has been known for almost forty years (The first actual cold laser therapy device was developed in 1967 in Hungary), and I have added a list of peer reviewed scientific journal articles at the bottom of this summary for your reference.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that cold laser / LLLT has pain-relieving properties and improves cellular function. It can decrease the level of oxidative stress and improve cellular metabolism, thus reducing inflammation. Mitochondria are thought to be the receptor for the initial effects of light, leading to increased cellular activity (eg. ATP production, modulation of reactive oxygen species), effects which in turn lead to increased cell proliferation and hence improved healing. The healing process effect has been demonstrated for a variety of acute and chronic conditions (see citations below).

Different light wavelengths and intensities are used for different applications, targeting different depths of penetration..  A cold laser device creates a single wavelength of light, with no heat or ablative component, therefore it is generally safe for use with some caveats.  There are different wave lengths used by each device, in accordance with the medical issue it addresses. As a general rule, wavelengths that vary between 660 and 905 nm can penetrate the skin and may provide benefits for both soft and hard tissue. The class 3B 660 mW cold laser I use has various settings, with different intensities, and options for continuous or pulsed light

  1. Applications for LLLT / Cold Laser therapy  (The section below modified and excerpted  from: What is Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) and Does It Work? (

Chronic pain

The low level laser therapy offers pain relief in those who suffer from chronic low back pain and it can stimulate wounds to heal faster. It helps with acute conditions, such as the frozen shoulder and it eliminates the muscle pain associated with intense physical training (exercise-induced muscle fatigue). LLLT is effective for conditions such as plantar fasciitis, providing relief from both pain and inflammation.

A number of orthopedic conditions can be successfully addressed through the use of low level light therapy. Faster healing is guaranteed in case of sprains and strains, as well as pain relief. The therapy can reduce the severity of postoperative pain, it can improve functioning after whiplash injury and it can help with the manifestations of radiculopathy (cervical or lumbar). Other conditions that can be treated with LLLT include chronic regional pain syndrome, tendinitis, post tibial fracture surgery, and epicondylitis.

Conditions associated with neuropathic pain can be treated and improved with the help of this form of therapy. This includes trigeminal neuralgia, postherpetic neuralgia and diabetic neuropathy. Degenerative conditions affecting the central nervous system, injuries involving peripheral nerves and spinal cord injuries can benefit from the use of LLLT as well. (R)

Additional Benefits of Photobiomodulation

LLLT can increase the potential of the mitochondrial membrane, as well as the ATP synthesis (energy production). It contributes to mitochondria health, preventing the effect of reactive oxygen species.

Given the fact that low level laser therapy can support healthy cell growth, circulation wound healing and tissue regeneration, it should come as no surprise that it can be used on medical conditions such as the reflex sympathetic dystrophy, repetitive stress injury, rotator cuff tear, faces syndrome, bulging and herniated discs.

With powerful anti-inflammatory properties, it can work wonders in case of capsulitis, myositis, bursitis and synovitis. In those with scar tissue, the application of this therapy form can reduce the formation of fibrous tissue. It might be applied in case of cuts and scratches, as well as burns and as a post-operative solution. (R)

Those with hematomas and pressure sores can benefit from the application of low level laser therapy. A number of dermatological conditions can be treated with LLLT as well, including dermatitis, shingles, herpes, psoriasis, rosacea, acne vulgaris and eczema. LLLT has a stimulating and healing effect at the same time, restoring the health aspect of the skin. It contributes to increased tissue repair and healing, bringing down any existent inflammation.

LLLT – benefits & potential side-effects

Low-level laser therapy has healing properties, helping tissue regenerate, reducing inflammation and in fighting pain. It can also increase immunity, promoting faster recovery. The treatment can be used for rheumatic and orthopedic conditions, as well as for those who train on a regular basis, those who suffer from skin conditions or suffered a stroke (just to name a few examples).

The therapy can stimulate wounds to heal faster, it helps athletes recover faster from various injuries they sustained and it is a wonderful solution in case of chronic pain. It represents a standard treatment choice when it comes to musculoskeletal pain, reducing the risk of disability caused by chronic pain. In case of injuries, it can relieve pain and accelerate recovery at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that allows the body to heal without medication. So, if you are allergic or sensitive to various medication, you can resort to LLLT as a safe, natural and effective alternative (stimulate the healing process). Pain medication, on the other hand, has negative effects, often leading to addiction.

Studies have confirmed that LLLT can reduce the level of pro-inflammatory enzymes, thus helping with both inflammation and pain. Dentists, for instance, rely on the cold laser to treat inflamed oral tissue and heal ulcerations. The cold laser is beneficial for skin rejuvenation and dermatological conditions, such as acne, psoriasis and burns. It might also be used to treat wounds that heal with difficulty, as it happens in case of diabetes. (R)

When used properly, LLLT does not lead to side effects. It can happen that a mild discomfort appears after the laser treatment, but this is only determined by a re-stimulation of the inflammation phase. It should disappear within 24-48 hours.

  1. Cold Laser peer reviewed references