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.