The Benefits of Equine Sports Massage Therapy

 

For those who have not seen equine massage performed before, it could certainly seem like an odd, “new age” practice. One might picture a dimly lit room with flutes and waterfalls playing in the background, with scented candles burning and a horse laying on the table, being massaged with hot stones by a burly Swedish masseuse.  That image would be incorrect (and let’s be honest, a bit silly). Equine sports massage is, in fact, very much like sports massage in human athletes, generally performed on a standing horse, with the natural scents of hay and manure wafting through the owner’s barn. Equine sports massage serves to maximize the function of essential muscles using varying techniques. I have personally had the pleasure of witnessing the benefits of sports massage with client horses as well as my own.

Equine sports massage involves a poll to tail massage sequence, with the main goal being to break down adhesions and improve circulation. A complete massage session generally takes an hour, and it concentrates on the major muscle groups necessary for optimal function and performance. We ask a lot of our performance horses, and even young and healthy horses may suffer from soft tissue damage under the pressure. Hard worked muscles may spasm, build up toxins, and form adhesions. With massage therapy, we target these areas and work to break up the adhesions and increase circulation in the lymphatic system to flush the toxins from the horse’s body. Older horses, or horses who suffer from an injury, will often acquire muscle tension and joint discomfort. With these types of horses, we aim to ease discomfort, relieve tension, stimulate an increase of synovial fluid (joint lubrication), and decrease inflammation. The equine massage sequence begins at the poll, which prepares the horse for what you are about to do, establishes trust, and gets him to lower his head and relax. As you work your way down the horse, he will relax further, typically passing gas and excrement.

Many horse owners already recognize the benefits of equine chiropractic care, which works on the equine skeletal structure. Sports massage compliments chiropractic practices in equine athletes very well and can help extend the therapeutic benefits. I personally recommend massaging the horse two to three days before the chiropractic adjustment to loosen and prepare the muscles.  In some cases, a post-adjustment massage may also be beneficial.

Sometimes soft tissue discomfort will present in horses as an attitude problem, which can cause owners to work them harder and accentuate the problem. Some possible signs of discomfort are head tossing, incorrect leads, resistance, hesitation and/or refusal of a command. Horse owners know their equine partners and what is normal for them; if they seem off, they might be trying to tell you something. Sports massage is a safe and reasonably priced option to consider to ease discomfort and optimize performance in your equine athletes.

 

Alex Morcom is a certified equine sports massage therapist (CESMT).  She has a degree in Equine Animal Science from Stephen F. Austin State University and rode for the SFA Ranch Horse Team. She earned her certification from Equissage Texas. She lives in Marlow, OK with her husband and is the owner/manager of Morcom Performance Horses.

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Fundamentals of Equine Sports Massage

To understand sports massage and what separates it from other types of massage work, you must first understand the premise and function of massage in a general sense. Massage is the utilization of a variety of hand movements and techniques to manipulate the soft tissue structures of the body, with the intent to improve circulation, range of motion, and muscle condition. There are a number of types and techniques of massage, all being therapeutic in nature. Sports massage focuses on the muscle groups related to specific physical activity to enhance performance, prevent injury, and aid in recovery.

As a quick refresher, here are a few essential components of the soft tissue structure:

-Muscle tone is a natural tension within the muscle fibers.

-Ligaments connect bone to bone.

-Tendons attach muscle to bone.

-Fibrosis is a painful condition in which the connective soft tissue is injured in such a way that scar tissue forms.

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Horses are no different than human athletes; they perform better when they feel relaxed.

Muscles are built up through the process of creating many tiny tears, which are healed with the formation of scar tissue. While this is a natural process, excessive scar tissue is harmful and can impact range of motion and agility. Regular massage helps the muscles gain and maintain elasticity. Tension free muscles help keep joints in proper alignment, maintaining the flow of synovial (joint) fluid. When each aspect is functioning at an optimal level, the body is able to move freely and comfortably.

If you’ve ever had a particularly stressful day, you’ve probably noticed how tense and painful your shoulder and neck area can become. You have probably massaged your own shoulders seeking relief from the pain and you may have wondered why you instantly feel better by applying pressure. That quick pain reduction is due to increased blood flow. Physical manipulation also increases the flow of nutrients (particularly oxygen) to the affected area and speeds healing.

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Sports massage affects the body physiologically in many ways, including pain reduction and overall relaxation. What many don’t know is how equine sports massage can positively affect their horse psychologically. Just like humans, horses may develop stress and anxiety, which can be relieved through sports massage. During a session, a horse will become increasingly relaxed and comfortable. Some horses need a couple of sessions to get fully comfortable with the experience.

One of the greatest benefits of sports massage is that it can help prevent soft tissue injuries and damage, which is an unfortunate occurrence in high performance equine athletes. Keeping your horse’s muscles conditioned on a consistent basis can also help extend their athletic career.

Alex Morcom is a certified equine sports massage therapist (CESMT).  She has a degree in Equine Animal Science from Stephen F. Austin State University and rode for the SFA Ranch Horse Team. She earned her certification from Equissage Texas. She lives in Marlow, OK with her husband and is the owner/manager of Morcom Performance Horses.