Make Massage Work For Your Horse

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Anyone can give a soothing massage. It’s really thorough currying. You may even already have a suitable tool, a curry that gets down to the skin and feels good to the horse. Start as if you were currying your horse lightly. Stroke in circles, or rub back and forth across the hair, and concentrate on the areas he enjoys most. It’s that simple.

A therapeutic massage, on the other hand, has specific techniques that concentrate on pressure points or trigger points. It takes training to do this properly.

These pressure points, sensitive places on the muscles that react to massage pressure, are found throughout the horse’s body and frequently get sore from work. The sore places are muscle spasms or cramps, felt as “knots” in the muscle. If muscle spasms persist, further muscle damage like tears and strains can occur.

You may encounter sore pressure points even when you stick with a soothing massage. Your horse will let you know you’ve found them by reacting negatively at first. Direct pressure on these points will show you you’re on the right track as the horse relaxes and maybe even leans into you. You should see and feel him relax. His muscles should become looser as you work.

Massage, in general, stimulates circulation, increases muscle oxygenation and helps remove metabolized wastes. It can make your horse more comfortable, decrease stiffness/increase his range of motion, enhance coordination, and improve his athletic performance. It can help prevent injury, aid in the treatment of neurological conditions, relieve muscle soreness, and help him heal.

Therapeutic Terms
It seems every school of massage therapy uses different terms and techniques. Fortunately, there is overlap, and direct pressure is the most common technique.

Compression is direct pressure applied to compress the muscle. This increases circulation and readies the muscles for massage. Use the heel or back of your hand to press the muscle against the underlying bone or deeper muscles. Compression can be used on all the muscled areas but not on bony areas.

Use your shoulders and hips to provide the pressure rather than your wrists. Keep your elbow straight or hold it to your abdomen for support. You can compress and hold, or compress and twist. Use a slow, methodical rhythm of repeated compressions as you move along the muscle.

Percussion involves quickly and repeatedly striking the muscle along its length until the whole muscle or muscle group is treated. This can relax the muscles, ready them for massage, or ready them for exercise.

Percussion can be done with the fingertips, or with the little-finger side of the hand held loosely cupped. The stroke should bounce off the muscle, not slap it. The pressure depends on the muscle thickness. This technique is helpful over the haunches and on the abdomen, but the former can be treated much more briskly than the latter where there are thinner muscles. Don’t use this over bony areas or the loin.

Rocking is used on the top line, particularly along the crest. Cup your hands, position your thumbs against the neck below the crest, and pull the crest toward you, letting it spring back. Rocking is a relaxing, readying stroke.

Palpation is a diagnostic stroke. Hold your fingers in a relaxed curve because stiffness gets in the way of feeling. Feel for tense, knotted or rigid areas or lines that contrast with the supple feel of the rest of the muscle — these are areas of spasm or cramp.

The horse will also tell you where problems are, as he may step away, flinch, jerk, raise his head, switch his tail toward you or even kick. The tense areas are the pressure points on which your massage will do the most good. Remember that you have both superficial and underlying muscles to influence.

Friction can be light and superficial in a linear or circular motion, or heavier and deeper when applied back and forth across the muscle fibers. It can be used to locate and relax tense muscle fibers. A tool can be used, but most therapists use their fingers or thumb, instead, so they can feel when the muscle softens.

Direct pressure is applied to a specific pressure point by a thumb, the fingers, an elbow or a tool. You might hold your thumb still, vibrate it, or circle in tiny rings. You might hold the pressure steady, or increase and then decrease it. Pressure can be applied for a number of seconds or a minute or two. When you first apply pressure, if the horse is uncomfortable, don’t break contact. Lighten the pressure, then increase the pressure and hold (the horse should show relaxation at this point), then increase more as needed and hold, then decrease, to get the spasm to soften.

Fascial stretching targets the connective tissue surrounding the muscles. It allows therapeutic work on the fascia itself and allows deeper access to the muscles themselves. This may be done by crossing the arms, placing the palms on the body (for example, the barrel) and pushing the hands away from each other.

Strain and counter strain techniques pinpoint the spasm area and monitor it while manipulating the joints (with your other hand) to relax and shorten the muscle; this relieves the spasm.

Effective Technique
Massage prepares muscles for hard work, and facilitates their return to normal afterward. Your horse might have an existing problem or you may detect a new problem that affects his performance. Any significant changes in his movement or attitude signal a problem.

When the horse’s initial response is discomfort or pain, look for signs that he’s relaxing. Feel for changes in the muscle. When the horse leans into you, you know you’re making him feel better.

If there’s no reaction, but you know you’re in the correct area, keep working lightly. Either way, be patient. It may take several sessions to make a difference.

If you’ve been working on an area, seeing improvement, then find another unexpected sore spot, don’t despair. The initial sore area you alleviated may not have been the horse’s original problem. He may have made it sore while compensating for his primary sore spot. For example, a horse with a sore right foreleg might work harder with the other fore or the diagonal hind.

While initially frustrating, relieving the initial muscle spasm and finding the primary sore area is actually an aid to diagnosing and treating the primary problem.

You can use what you find during your soothing massage to help your horse. Choose any sore areas from your massage, any stiff areas you’ve noticed while riding, or any areas of previous injury. Concentrate on these and learn to massage these areas well. You might keep a journal of the areas you massaged, the techniques you used, and the horse’s reactions.

Using a liniment on the area you’re massaging won’t hurt, and may help, as long as there are no open wounds nearby. Its primary effect is on the surface, while massage can have deeper effects. Massage oil, or anything that allows the massage tool, or your hands, to glide more smoothly over the horse’s coat, can help, particularly if the horse’s hair is long.

Don’t be surprised to find your horse sweating due to increased circulation or breaking out in hives due to a histamine release during or after the massage. It should go away soon. Don’t be surprised if your horse is slightly sore after a massage, as the muscle manipulation can cause bruising or micro tears to the muscles or soft tissue. If you see that you’re gaining ground overall, continue your treatments, otherwise you may want to back off in pressure or intensity. If you work your horse after a massage, take it easy and do lots of stretching.

Not Recommended
Massage should not be used until actual injured areas begin to heal. After an injury, the affected tissues need time to begin healing.

During this time, we can use massage therapy on the uninjured but related sites — the compensatory sites — to relieve stress. After healing starts, massage aids blood flow to the area and encourages lymphatic drainage. Therapy can restore flexibility to soft tissue and minimize scar tissue that would limit muscle pliability. The onset of healing depends on the structures affected and the extent of the injury, so check with your vet to be sure healing is underway.

Massage is not enough when the horse is distressed or lame. When in doubt, call the veterinarian for a diagnosis and ask him/her how your massage can assist and enhance veterinary treatments.

As you might expect, massage therapy also is not a quick fix or as a way to minimize inadequate athletic preparation. Avoid using it for the first time, or using new techniques, before a competition or important ride, as you don’t know how your horse’s muscles will react and how he’ll feel afterward.

Some problems, like shock or fever, diseases like cancer, and on a hot or swollen area should not be massaged. Massage around a swelling, however, can help relieve it.

Tool Choices
Massage therapists use their fingers, hands and elbows. Some use tools while others say the tools don’t allow them to “feel” as well. For those starting out or concentrating more on soothing massage than working toward therapeutic massage, tools may help.

Some soothing massage tools also work as grooming tools. The Jelly Scrubber, Unigroom, and Horse Vac are grooming tools that contribute to a soothing massage. The first two are used like a curry comb, and the Horse Vac attachment is basically used like a curry and can be used with or without a vacuum cleaner.

The Equine Hydro-T water nozzle can turn a bath into a soothing massage session.

The Equissager, Happy Heart, and Rubbit Horse Massager have little grooming effect, but they allow you to effectively use light-to-moderate pressure on the muscled areas of the body to enhance the soothing massage effect. We found these tools gave a good range and concentration of pressure and were helpful to those not trained in therapeutic massage. The Vapco Steam-It Massage Therapy Body Work Lotion enhances the soothing effects.

We found that the more we practiced the more we were able to feel “through” the tools. As your sensitivity develops and you decide that you want to progress toward therapeutic massage, you can choose tools like the Happy Heart and the Rubbit that allow you to target specific pressure points.

Or, you could check the reference books and videos (we especially like the video and book by Mary Schreiber/Equissage 800/843-0224) and further develop the sensitivity and use of your hands and fingers. The more you learn about anatomy, pressure points and techniques, the more your massage will shift toward therapeutic.

Bottom Line
A soothing massage is a wonderful way to treat your horse, and yourself, to some relaxing time together. You’ll train your hands to become more sensitive to any stiffness, discomfort, and potential problem areas. You’re already aware of this through watching and feeling as you ride. If you choose to progress toward therapeutic massage, you’ll benefit from an increased understanding of your horse’s anatomy and physiology and help him even more.

For a soothing massage tool that doubles as a grooming tool, we recommend the Jelly Scrubber for sensitive horses and Unigroom for other horses. For a soothing tool that takes you toward massage therapy, we prefer the Rubbit over the Happy Heart. Our far-and-away favorite dual-purpose tool, however, is the Equine Hydro-T nozzle. We recommend this nozzle any time you need more than a plain stream of water.

Also With This Article
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Click here to view "Cautions."
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Click here to view "Tool Field Testing."