Massage Those Toxins Away!
By Sharon May-Davis

Toxins - YUK! We've all heard this word at one time or another in our life and it virtually always conjures up feelings of disgust. Sometimes, we've heard it in relation to the environment as toxic waste or build-up, but for those of us who are horsey, we nearly always know this to mean that some form of molecular waste has built up in our horses.

So let's first discuss - what are toxins in the horse? In the majority of cases toxic build up in the horse relates to the metabolic waste that accumulates in the muscles from exercise in the form of lactic acid. Other forms of toxic build up can refer to the end products of bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens. Even though this is a normal occurrence in the gut, in excess this enterotoxin can cause gaseous build up which precipitates diarrhoea. On the other hand, we can also discuss environmental toxicity such as "lead poisoning", also known as lead toxicosis. Although a rare occurrence now in my country (Australia), it wasn't that uncommon years ago when stabled horses would chew the paint on the wall and door, and unwittingly consume a poison in the form of lead. This toxic heavy metal and many of its counterparts such as arsenic and cadmium can still invade pastures through other methods, such as dumping of rubbish, sewage sludge and aerial dust. But I am digressing from the topic, which is how we can address toxic build up in our horse using massage. Unfortunately, the latter two require veterinary attention to deal with these serious conditions, but our loving hands can address lactic acid in those sore muscles with wonderful results.

So let's discuss - how does lactic acid get there? In general, lactic acid is the end by-product of an energy pathway known as Glycolysis. This pathway gives the horse great bursts of speed, but is short lived. For example, a quarter horse that sprints over 400 - 600 yards relies upon its glycolyptic pathway supported by the rapid breakdown of glycogen in muscle fibres. This is in the presence of limited or no oxygen and is often referred to as anaerobic metabolism. Hence a quarter horse has muscle bulk because of its large stores of glycogen. In contrast, an endurance horse such as the Arabian does not have the same bursts of speed and relies upon a different pathway that utilises more oxygen than the quarter horse and this pathway is known as aerobic metabolism or the Kreb's cycle. Now sciences aside, this lactic acid accumulates in the muscles in the presence of limited oxygen; in other words, for it to be converted into a metabolic state that can be eliminated more efficiently, then we must introduce oxygen.

The same can be said for the end by-product of aerobic metabolism, which is hydrogen. However, as aerobic metabolism functions in the presence of oxygen, hydrogen molecules then bond with oxygen, and water (H2O) is eliminated.

So how does massage introduce oxygen? Massage stimulates the very system that supports the transportation of oxygen to the muscle; naturally I am referring to the circulatory system. By increasing the blood flow to an area of muscle bulk, it aids in the introduction of oxygen and other supportive factors, which facilitates the enzymatic change of lactic acid into other substances. These substances are then more easily utilised and eliminated by the body. But it must be said that contraindications exist if there is muscle fibre tearing in a region. Any increase in blood flow will only facilitate the bleeding into the damaged area while it is still in an acute stage. Hence, if you are suspicious of such things, avoid this area for up to 24 - 48 hours in minor cases and longer if the tear is severe. Always wait for the initial inflammation process to subside before addressing muscle injuries of this type.

Now there are several very efficient massage techniques that help to increase the blood flow to an area. Compressive techniques along the larger muscle groups such as the Triceps, Gluteals and Quadriceps, help to increase the blood flow to these larger muscle groups. These can be achieved with a fist or the heel of your hand. Squeezing techniques address those smaller muscles or the ones in those difficult to get to places, such as the Biceps brachii, or the Ascending pectoral (also known as the Descending pectoral).

Direct pressure over a trigger point (areas of lactic acid build up) creates and ischemic affect, whereby the pressure placed over the point forces the blood out of the area. Upon release, the blood pressure that has built up around the point rushes back in forcing all the essential goodies such as oxygen, nutrients and any cleaning agents along with it. Never hold a trigger for any longer than 30 seconds at a time or for a cumulative two minutes.


Always effleurage every 30 - 60 seconds when working with a waste disposal massage, as this helps to facilitate the removal of not only lactic acid but other debris as well. Apply effleurage with a light to medium pressure and direct the strokes towards the heart; this helps the venous and lymphatic parts of the circulatory system to flush it into the garbage collective system of the body, thus flushing out those disgusting toxins! Always begin the massage with a light body effluerage and end with the same, and your horse will love you for it!

About the author:

Sharon May-Davis, B. App. Sc. Equine, ACHM, EBW, AESM, was the equine Therapist for the Modern Pentathlon Horses and the Australian Reining Team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. She works with Australian Champions from Western to Dressage and has a particular interest in researching the musculo-skeletal system. She also conducts clinics and seminars in relation to her work and looks forward to visiting NZ, USA and Japan during June and July. E-mail: