Massage and Muscle Therapy

by Catherine Bird

Your horse's muscles make up 60% of his body weight and are responsible for the movement and healthy functioning of his body. Problems with muscles do not always make themselves evident directly; your horse may have a change of behaviour, develop an annoying habit, resist a command, or become uneven and display general signs of soreness.

Massage can help

True Red happily models while Catherine shows different areas to massage your horse. Checking the TMJ - When did you last have your equine dentist check your horse's teeth?

Massage for your horse is beneficial for many reasons. In days of old, it was a tool used by grooms to help maintain their horses' health. Massage can be used to prevent injury as well as to assist the body to repair muscle fibres that have been damaged.

Often muscles will be the first indication that there is something wrong. A muscle, which functions by contracting and relaxing, contains many fibres. If a muscle is not operating at its optimum, some of these muscle fibres can become "stuck" and form a spasm. As the spasm enlarges, it causes pressure, and it is this pressure that is a major contributor to discomfort and pain.

If such a spasm is not removed, it will eventually lead to a tear in the muscle or damage to other connective tissue. Unfortunately, spasms do not work themselves out on their own, and quite often the body, always trying to maintain homeostasis, sets up other areas of resistance to feel balanced. If the body can't fix a problem, it will set up a compensatory effect somewhere else.

The longer a muscle spasm is left unattended, the harder it is to remove. A muscle spasm that has been in the body a week is relatively easy to remove; one that has been there for months or years will take more than one treatment and may need maintenance treatments if a permanent weakness has been allowed to develop.

If muscle soreness continues to recur, it may indicate an underlying problem or a problem with an internal organ, and you will need your veterinarian to examine your horse and assess his condition. You will also need to discuss hoof issues with your farrier, whether your horse is shod or unshod, especially in the case of performance horses with heavy workloads.

Unfortunately, horses are prone to muscle injury. It can happen easily - a slip on a trail ride, a new or poorly fitting saddle, an old racing injury that has left a weakness, or added stress when moving up to more advanced movements in dressage.

This shoulder area should be soft and easy to slip your fingers under the shoulder blade; many problems in the shoulders may be traced down to the leg or hoof.

Massage has a role in any horse's routine

  • Massage will improve the body circulation and promote the healing of injuries.
  • For the athletic horse, it is another dimension of training that will enhance muscle tone and increase the range of motion.
  • Massage will ease out muscle spasms and relieve tension. Often a horse labeled as "stubborn' or "pig-headed" is just in pain. He is not saying "I won't"; he is trying to tell you "I can't."
  • After a session of intense work, such as a competition or race, massage will help your horse recover quickly. It aids the body to eliminate the wastes and toxins that can leave both you and your horse aching after an event.
  • With "old" injuries you may have inherited when you purchased your horse, massage can be used to break down scar tissue and adhesions.
  • Massage promotes healthy muscles. A horse with healthy muscles is less likely to sustain an injury, and if he is unlucky enough to fall prey to an injury he will recover more quickly. Once your horse has achieved good muscle health, it is easy to maintain by including massage in your grooming regimen.
Areas an owner can check

If your horse is sore in the withers always make sure his saddle fits properly.

Muscles are a part of the body we can all "feel" and there are some areas you can assess yourself. Remember you will be "feeling" your horse in a different way and if you touch him awkwardly he may respond with a nip or a kick before he realises you are trying to help him.

The area under the eye, which is referred to as the Temporo-Mandibular Joint (TMJ), will feel tight and stringy. You can place pressure on this tight banding and hold with even pressure until you feel the tightness ease. Your horse may tighten here if you are forcing him into a frame to go on the bit too hastily, if his teeth need attending, or if he is trying to balance his body against a tightness in the shoulder, back or hip.

Shoulders are one of the areas you horse will always appreciate you rubbing. The front of the shoulder blade is like the top of your shoulders. They can develop deep spasms which affect extension and flexion. Sometimes this will be on one side or both sides. If this is an ongoing problem you need to look for signs of strain or excess weight bearing such as splints, monitor tendon health, or talk to your farrier about hoof angle. Problems in the leg are often reflected in the shoulders.

Backs are usually the reason a person calls a massage therapist. If there is soreness in the withers please ensure your saddle is fitted correctly. If the withers do not respond to massage, it is wise to have your veterinarian assess your horse and make sure he does not have fistulous withers. Sore loins may reflect internal problems or hind leg action such as plaiting, or what we call in the Australian racing industry "going down on the bumpers" where a horse's fetlocks contact the ground as he gallops. The safest move you can perform on the loins is to place your hands over them and leave them there to "sweat"; this helps to draw out discomfort.

Anywhere you touch your horse is important. If something feels unusual to you, "feel" both sides, if there is a difference, then question why.

Why call a professional massage therapist?

Sweating the loins helps to ease discomfort. Always check hind leg action if your horse is sore here.

A good therapist will have you present while they massage your horse. They will be able to show you where your horse is recovering from injury or is vulnerable to possible injury, though most legislation prevents them from giving a diagnosis. They can also show you how to maintain your horse's muscle health in between visits and you will discover areas that your horse just enjoys having massaged.

The massage strokes are easy, but what some people have trouble with is developing the "feel". Your hands become the way you communicate with your horse when you are massaging him; hands can 'tell you a story of intrigue' and also reinforce to your horse how much he means to you. This communication comes with practice. If you can, attend a weekend course, and if one is not available attend a course in human massage; the principles are the same.

The advantage the professional therapists have is they massage many different horses. Breeds vary in how they "feel" under your hands. What the horse is trained to do also makes for a different "feel". A child's pony or trail hack will "feel" very different from a racehorse in work. The professional also gets adept at reading the 'story'; the intensity of a muscle spasm and its response to a massage technique often give the therapist a clue of how long your horse has been sore there. The sort of spasm or soreness may also indicate how your horse sustained the injury.

The professional therapist also has detachment. Our own horses are often the hardest to step aside from and look at objectively, whereas a therapist can come in with a fresh eye and a different perspective. Sometimes you may panic over an oddity you "feel" or one that is not responding to your touch; the therapist will be able to validate or relieve your fear.

Don't give up on a problem

Too many times we know something is "wrong" with our horse. Everyone in the horse world is an expert in their own sphere, but if your horse is continually resisting training techniques or always sore in his shoulder, please question why. Professionals in every field are fallible and if a problem persists it is worth finding out why. In each of the following case histories, massage helped relieve the problem or showed there was something else to address.

Fern is a lovely 20-year-old pony ridden regularly in dressage and one-day events by her 10-year-old owner. Fern's owner is her third owner; Fern has always lived in this area. She had performed well for both previous owners and been known for never having had a lame day. Unfortunately her new owner had to withdraw from competitions regularly as Fern kept pulling up lame.

Fern was brought to one of my massage clinics to see if the problem may have been muscle related. Most of the reasons for her lameness were blamed on her age. During the clinic we found a very tight and locked shoulder. Once this was released Fern was back to working again. However the problem came back. Each time we massaged the problem it improved but was still lurking there to annoy us. If a problem is resistant after three professional massages you know something else is wrong.

We suspected arthritis in her fetlock. X-rays revealed no sign of any arthritis. So what else could it have been? Eventually a veterinarian took interest in Fern and examined her closely and finally with extensive x-rays he found a hairline fracture in her third metacarpal bone in her knee. Finally we had a reason.

Mandy was a mare who continually tossed her head and refused any dressage aids when it came to learning how to hold herself in frame. Outwardly there was no reason why this mare should be difficult to handle. Upon examination she was tight in the TMJ. This discovery led to more questions and further discussions with her veterinarian. Closer examination found the reason for her behaviour was a severe sinus infection and once drained we had a well-behaved dressage horse that would place in most competitions.

Princess was a lovely Arabian mare who was happy to live in her paddock but when asked to work she became aggressive. Her owner was a skilful practitioner of natural horsemanship and persevered with techniques believing it was a dominance and respect issue. Out of frustration she was given a massage and found to have a chronically sore back. The next training session the owner was surprised at the willing participant she now had ready to work. As a willing happy horse, she did not develop any more soreness and now excels in her lessons.

You can never ask too many questions, and as long as you ask in a non-threatening way, most professional massage therapists will work with you to find the answers. Massage is also one of the safest therapies you can apply on your horse and use to develop a better relationship. Stay safe with simple techniques and ask a professional for guidance, and you and your horse will have more quality time together

Catherine Bird

Healthy Happy Horses, Naturally.

PO Box 670. Randwick. NSW Australia

About the author:

Catherine Bird is a Sydney-based qualified Aromatherapist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist specializing in treating animals. Her clients include the NSW Mounted Police as well as show jumpers, eventers, endurance, dressage, and race horses, along with dogs and humans. Catherine is a member of the International Association of Equine Sports Massage Therapists.

Catherine is authoring a series of books about natural therapies for horses, drawing on case histories gathered from her experience. "Horse Scents, Making Sense with Your Horse Using Aromatherapy" is now available. Catherine has worked and studied both in Australia and in the United States with some of the world's foremost equine therapists.