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You know how good you feel after a massage. Believe it or not, your horse might enjoy, and benefit from one too. In this article, learn all about the benefits of equine massage to sooth your animal’s aches, or just spend enjoyable time together.

Massage is one of the oldest forms of healing and has been used from ancient times to the present. Ancient Chinese and Romans already practiced some form of animal massage. The benefits of massage therapy no longer need to be proven. Such therapy has become widely accepted and recognized by the traditional medical community. Today, the animal world has strongly benefited from the progress of modern sport medicine.

Massage therapy is the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body to achieve specific goals of drainage, relaxation, or stimulation, as well as the release of muscle, tendons, ligaments and fascia tension. Regular massage contributes to the overall economy of the body and to its ability to function efficiently.

Active Horses, like human athletes, often play and train hard. Unfortunately, such demanding physical efforts often result in soreness, stiffness and sometimes in injuries and pain. Massage can help you minimize these problems, and maximize your animal fitness by keeping your Horse flexible and muscle stress free.

Benefits of Massage
Massage therapy allows us to trigger the body's ability to help itself back to health. Here are some of the most important benefits.
  • Massage’s soothing touch has a strong healing influence on horses of all ages, breeds and conditions, increasing the emotional bonding with the animal, allowing him to relax and accept being handled better.
  • Massage greatly increases the circulation of body fluids (blood and lymph) resulting in increased oxygenation and nutrients to the muscle groups, removal of toxins (lactic acid), resulting in a better metabolism, leading to enhanced performance and shorter recuperation time.
  • Massage loosens tight muscle fibers, knots, spasms, stress points, and trigger points.
  • Massage prevents and relieves stress, helping the psycho-physiologic self-regulation factors between body and mind. With patience, and several relaxing massages sessions, nervous or anxious horses will calm down and reveal a softer, more trusting nature.
  • Massage reduces the build-up of inflammation caused by strenuous efforts, overuse (muscle strain), or trauma.
  • Massage assist in recovery from injuries. Massage's healing function has been known to speed up recovery and can therefore be useful in solving a variety of problems - from simple tiredness from exercising, lack of vitality, convalescence, old age, to more specific problems such as strains, sprains, spasms, arthritis or recovery from surgery or broken bones.

Preparing yourself
To give a good massage, you need the right frame of mind, calm and relaxed. Use a soft voice to communicate with your horse and praise him/her all along the session. Give your Horse full attention, using a light touch and a smooth rhythm. Concentrate on the sensations provided by your fingertips (the four T’s) for a better feel of the structures and the needs of your Horse.

The four T’s
The palm of your hand and your fingertips will give you accurate feedback on the physiological state of the Horse’s body throughout the entire massage:

  • Temperature: the normal body temperature of a Horse is 101F; any change in the temperature suggests that certain problems exist.
  • Texture: it refers to the density and the elasticity of the muscles fibers.
  • Tenderness: it refers to the sensitivity response of the Horse to your touch.
  • Tension: it refers to the tonicity of the muscle fibers.

Your fingers work like probes, quickly feeling, and assessing what they touch, knowing almost instinctively how to adjust your pressure and massage move. You will be amazed to find how fast this heightened perception will develop in you. You can see the video #EV002 for visual guidance, just as if Jean-Pierre was there to teach you.

Pressure, Contact, Rhythm
The key to a successful massage is in the mastering of pressure, contact, and rhythm.
  • Pressure: always use a light pressure during your massage, between one to three pounds of pressure. Experiment on a bathroom scale to see how quickly you can build up pressure under your fingers.
  • Contact: keep your hands relaxed and flexible, molding them to the Horse’s body parts.
  • Rhythm: it refers to the frequency you apply your movements. A rhythm of one stroke per second is usually best.

Proper posture & Positioning the Horse
Good posture is essential when giving a massage. Good posture will ensure an energy flow from your hands to the horse and back to you, benefiting both you and the Horse. Keep your back straight, shoulders and arms relaxed to avoid muscle fatigue and tension. Keep a proper distance from the body of the horse so you can move smoothly during your application. You can see the video #EV001 for visual guidance, just as if Jean-Pierre was there to teach you.

When to massage your Horse
Any time is a good time to massage your Horse as long as no contraindication prevails. Depending on your aims, use different massage routines at different time of the day, and away from meals. For example, early in the morning, apply the relaxation massage routine followed by a gentle version of the warm-up routine to the older horse to relieve his general stiffness. For the active horse, the warm-up massage routine should be applied before exercising, and the cool-down massage routine after. Any deeper form of massage is most beneficial after exercises, or proper warm-up with massage or with a warm blanket. To calm or simply relax a horse, the relaxation massage routine can be applied at any time. Consider applying it before, during, or after traveling, or during any other stress time.

Duration of a massage
Several factors will determine the length of a massage.
  • The size of your horse.
  • His age and overall state of health.
  • The horse’s temperament.
  • Your aims.

The relaxation massage routine should last three to five minutes on any given horse. However, if it is your horse’s very first massage you can stretch it to eight or ten minutes, emphasizing softness, both touch and voice. Praise your horse all along in order to gain his trust.

The full body light massage should last from fifteen minutes for small breed, up to thirty minutes for larger horses.

Warm-up and/or cool-down massage routine should last ten to fifteen minutes depending on horse’s size.

Specific work on a body part should not exceed ten minutes. You do not want to risk overworking the structures involved.

Keep in mind that some horses might become restless after thirty or forty minutes massage. However, with practice, most horses will learn to relax quicker and enjoy longer massage sessions.

Frequency of massage sessions
The horse’s present condition and your massage aims will dictate the frequency of your massage sessions. For example:
  • A weekly full body massage is good preventive measure to maintain the optimum muscular fitness of an active horse.
  • A daily massage, even short, is very beneficial to the older horse suffering from arthritis or a horse recovering from musculoskeletal problems

A regular massage schedule will lead to faster and lasting results. The Horse will love you for it, and it won’t be long before he begs for your massage attention.

Your Horse’s feedback signs
It is very important for you recognize the various feedback signs your Horse can display during your massage session. Here are some sure signs of apprehension:

  • Ears back
  • Raising or turning the head towards you
  • Eyes widening and becoming intense
  • Skin twitching or flinching
  • Fidgeting
  • Tensing up
  • Moving away from the pressure
  • Breathing short and hard

Some sure signs of relaxation are:

  • Eyes half closed
  • Head down
  • Ears to the side
  • Heavy breathing

Always monitor your Horse’s body language constantly, and adjust your work accordingly.

Contra-indication to massaging your Horse
Here is a list of situations in which you should not massage your Horse:

  • When he runs a fever, over 104F.
  • When in shock.
  • When there is an open wound.
  • When there is some form of nervous problem.
  • Any acute phase of arthritis, colitis, diarrhea, hernias, and phlebitis.
  • Any tumors or cysts, or bacterial skin disease.

If any of these conditions exists, or if any unknown symptoms arise, consult your veterinarian first.

Massage as diagnostic tool.
Massage is a terrific diagnostic tool. You will be able to feel and detect much sooner than by sight, or grooming, any musculoskeletal abnormalities and problems. Regular massage gives you direct feedback on the impact of your training on your horse’s musculature, allowing you to adjust the level of exercise accordingly. Massage will help you avoid possible complications that could later on be very costly to treat and could cause delays in the enjoyment of your Horse’s life.

Common Stress Areas
Regardless of the activity level and the type of training, if any, all horses show some common stress areas.

  • The upper neck, especially behind the skull.
  • The withers area
  • The lumbo-sacral area

Horses involved in strenuous activities will always demonstrate a liking to being massaged in these parts. Regular massage attention to these common stress areas will keep muscular tension to a minimum and secure an optimal function of the musculoskeletal apparatus.

Massage techniques
Massage techniques refer to specific massage moves arranged in a pattern and done in an orderly fashion to achieve a desired effect. These techniques help you prevent the aggravation of certain symptoms, speed up the healing process, and ensure proper recovery. Some of the most commonly used massage techniques are:

  • The SEW/WES massage technique to warm up and drain the area you work on – video #EV005.
  • The Swelling massage technique to deal with any edema – video #EV009.
  • The Trigger point massage technique helps release the build-up of lactic acid in muscles – video #EV010.
  • The Stress point massage technique deal with small muscle spasms – video #EV011
  • The Origin/Insertion massage technique to maintain optimal fitness of your horse’s musculature – video #EV012.

These massage techniques can be used separately or in any combination during a massage session to ensure positive results.

Horse massage is easily learned, easily applied, costs very little and leads us to a much richer relationship with our horse and results in better caring for his needs. With practice you will be able to "see" with your hands and listen as your horse’s body "tells its own tale.” This is the most efficient way to contribute to your horse’s overall wellness and fitness while making his world a better place.

In the book, “Equine Massage, A Practical Guide” written by Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, LMT, and published by Wiley, you will find everything you need and want to know about massage movements, pressures, rhythms, techniques and sequences. Different routines are specifically designed for different situations. You will also learn about the various musculoskeletal structures, the areas of stress in an active animal and the potential stress sites.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found the information useful.  My goal is help you provide quality home care for the benefit of your animal.

Please visit our FREE library. Our many articles address important aspects of animal wellness and fitness. Take the time to scroll through our free library to find out how you can actively contribute to your horse’s wellness.

Animal Awareness also offers a large video library with over a 100 mini-videos that will show you how to easily perform the various massage and stretching techniques talked about in this article, and more. These videos offer you the correct start and visual guidance. With this knowledge, you will be able to develop a good home care program for the benefit of your animal friend.  He will love you for it.

Enjoy your new Awareness!

Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, LMT

The “Proper Positioning For Efficient & Safe Massage” (EV001), the “Hand Sensitivity – The 4 Ts” (EV002), the “Basic Massage Movements – Pressure & Rhythms” (EV003), the "Relaxation Massage Routine” (EV004), the “SEW/WES Approaches” (EV005), the “Full Body Massage” (EV006) and the “Stretching Exercises” (EV007) DVDs are the foundation of your work.

If you are just starting with your home-care program, consider our “Introduction to Animal Massage” package,a 20% discount value on the first 7 DVDs, to secure a sound foundation in your animal massage skills. Then take advantage of our other packages to increase your knowledge of home-care protocols for the benefit of your horse(s).