How can massage benefit your horse?

The most obvious benefit is reducing muscular tension. Tension can come from the horse’s conditioning program, an injury, a sedentary lifestyle, or mental distress. Some horses are prone to tension because of their conformation. It’s almost impossible to avoid! The presence of muscular tension doesn’t point to abuse or fault; it’s something that every creature (equine, human, or otherwise) collects over time. Bodywork is a great way to reduce this tension.

If left unchecked, a hypertonic muscle can get tighter and tighter. The horse may be unwilling to stretch the muscle during work due to pain, which reduces flexibility over time. This kind of compensation can cause other problems throughout the body, such as limping, disengaging the hindquarters and dragging with the front legs, or unnatural head carriage. This may lead to an injury.

Massage helps stretch these tight muscles and return the horse to their most comfortable, natural state. This is the core of my practice: recognizing the abilities of each horse, and customizing my massage to help the individual get the best out of their body. I use techniques that comfortably stretch muscle fibers, increase circulation, and improve flexibility, in order to return the horse’s movement to its most comfortable, efficient state. This is great for performance in the show ring!

I also take proprioception into account. Proprioception is one’s sense of body position in space, as well as balance. It alerts the horse when a muscle is stretching too far, or carrying to much weight. This sense can be a hindrance to good movement, particularly when a horse has recently recovered from an injury. The nerves don’t always heal at the same rate as the muscles! It can take special attention to help the horse understand what range of motion is safe, and this can be done with gentle dynamic stretching.

Massage helps in so many ways.

Horses tend to hide their pain, due to their nature as prey animals. Showing weakness in the wild is dangerous, because predators target animals that will be easy to hunt. This is not very helpful to owners, who would rather get their horses proper care than having them tough it out!

Massage therapy can detect and keeps track of problem areas, especially for horses that are the strong and silent type. When a massage therapist identifies a gray-area problem (may be out of their scope of practice to address), a checkup done by a vet will help that horse stay sound and avoid serious injuries that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

As a massage therapist, I will never intend to replace or undermine vet care! It's out of my scope of practice to diagnose injuries or illnesses, prescribe medication, or recommend training, among other things. It's my job to work alongside other professionals and defer to those that are most experienced: veterinarians.

For older and/or sedentary horses, stimulation of the immune system is one of massage therapy’s best benefits. With my focus on the skin and its nerves rather than the muscles, massage wakes up the body’s defenses against pathogens. This is great for horses that are susceptible to disease―whether that’s from age or a preexisting condition―and for horses that travel frequently. Contact with lots of strange horses, as well as stress from the interruption of routine, also increase the risk of sickness.

Bodywork can also reduce boredom for horses that are stall-bound, or otherwise don’t get much mental stimulation. This kind of touch imitates horses’ natural grooming behavior, which can be comforting as well as entertaining.

Regular massage helps support animals in this category, keeping them in good spirits and helping when they're in pain due to arthritis or other conditions associated with old age and stall rest.

Massage works seasonally with your horse. Many people think it's only helpful during the spring, summer, and early fall, when horses are working hardest, but bodywork is also useful during periods of inactivity! It's a worthwhile addition to a horse's time off over the winter.

As stated in the previous section, massage helps with boredom and promotes a good attitude. In the case of horses that are used to working a lot, resting over the winter can cause extra stiffness. Massage can ease that transition and keep horses in good shape for the next show season.

Though some horses enjoy snow and other cold-weather happenings, it's common for them to be somewhat stall-bound during winter. Icy and wet conditions exacerbate this less-than-ideal lifestyle. In a literal sense, massage warms up the tissues of the body and helps keep everything limber and flexible.

Aside from massage, strategies for managing your horse's well-being include adequate rest while conditioning, proper tack fit, fun and mental stimulation, regular check-ups by a vet, and other professional maintenance like shoeing.