Horse massage, Courtney Molino explains, works by manipulating the soft tissue, compressing muscle fibers against bones and spreading those muscle fibers apart. This increasing circulation, removes metabolic waste (lactic acid) and allows healthy nutrients (like oxygen) back into the horse's muscles. Horse massage can also release endorphins, which lowers pain response. With the help of a Quarter Horse dressage competitor named Sebastiani, Molino talked to us about massage and showed us a few moves.
Why should we have our horses massaged?
Just like us, horses can injure their muscles in a variety of ways. About 60% of a horse is muscle-just running in the field, it's amazing what they can do. They get weekend-warrior syndrome, where people don't ride all week and then go for a four-hour trail ride.
With poor saddle fit, I see a lot of sore backs. Then there are problems with conformation, lack of proper warm up and cool down, [and] lack of proper turnout. Muscle injuries can also stem from incorrect training and poor footing. And the biggest benefit of massage is prevention. A lot of clients will call me because they have a certain issue, and then sometimes we will go to a preventative maintenance program so we can find and fix small problems before they become big, and the rider starts to notice performance problems.
There are a lot of ways you will see muscle tension. A horse gets stiff, or has shortened strides, or girthiness. I see a lot of horses that all of a sudden will become girthy because of the withers and back. Girthing really pulls the saddle down on those muscles. Your horse may all of a sudden show a lack of forward impulsion, excessive head tossing or tight jaw, or not pick up the correct lead.
Most horses enjoy massage. They will yawn, or lick or chew. Their eyes start to close a bit, their heads drop. Many of them turn around to massage me.
What can I expect from that first massage?
On the phone or via email, I ask for a detailed health history, past injuries, and past sicknesses. Then I conduct a gait analysis by watching the horse move to get an idea if there is something wrong, and get an idea of the horses' normal way of going. Everything I do is full body. Why do the full body if only the horse's shoulder is sore? Horses are great at compensating and it's important to treat the cause, not just the symptoms.
It takes about an hour to an hour and a half. The sequence is the same but the time I spend in certain areas is different depending upon what I feel. You have opening strokes where you're loosening the muscles, palpating locating strokes where you're feeling for certain spasms, treating strokes to actually treat the spasm and then you close off the muscles.
There are three levels of pressure, and light on one horse is very different from light on another. I can maybe use a lot more pressure on the gluteus and then on his back. And they tell you. My physical limit in a day is six. Watch your horse for positive feedback signs during the massage. You should also walk your horse for several minutes after the massage. The massage is really a workout for the muscles, and walking helps prevent stiffness. Also know that your horse may drink more water than usual following a massage. This is a good thing, as it helps flush toxins, released during the massage, out of the body and prevents stiffness.
How can owners massage their horses safely?
They can use percussion, where you use the side of your fist, like on the gluteus muscle. You usually just bounce it, and the more you do it, the more jiggle you will see, and that is a good sign, especially for horses that tend to get tense in the hind end. It's also good if your horse is ever tying up. I do a lot of racehorses, and they need it.
Another one is called compression, and you can use your palm to push down and turn, almost like opening a childproof medicine bottle. I like to have people use that on the tricep or deltoid, you're kind of compressing muscle against bone and freeing some of the restrictions. And the important thing is even if only one shoulder is sore, do things on both sides for balance. Then there are back rub and back circles, where I have people rub from withers to back hip. That is going to create some friction and really loosen the back muscles. By drawing some small circles forward and back, you can really feel the horse's back relax.
Always be sure to stay alert when massaging your horse. Even though you may trust your horse, any horse can jump when scared or kick when hurting. I always keep my hand on the horse's shoulder when working on the front end, and on the horse's thigh when working on the hind end. This enables me to feel the muscles tightening for a kick or spook before it happens.