Many diseases and conditions can affect soft tissues; it's important to rule them out and to work in harmony with any ongoing medical treatments or concerns.
All types of massage aim to improve circulation. Hands-on work supports all of the circulatory systems in the body, among them blood, lymph, air, cerebrospinal fluid, nerve impulses and chi (life force energy addressed by acupuncture and acupressure).
Massage helps manage pain by reducing inflammation and edema. It speeds healing by improving circulation to and around injury sites. It dissolves adhesions in scar tissue, and frees nerves from entrapment or compression. It improves the body's proprioception (awareness of itself) and sensory motor integration (ability to voluntarily control its movements), and thus its balance.
Skilled massage therapy also improves muscle tone by releasing contractions, and strengthening weakness. It ensures that each soft tissue structure is free to move by correcting torsion and restoring proper position. Cross-fiber massage (90 degrees to fiber direction) restores the linear, spiraling arrangement of the fibers in connective and muscle tissue and allows neighboring structures to slide past each other normally.
Massage also helps restore full range of motion in joints. In this era of universal joint problems, injections and supplements, we may have lost sight of the fact that motion itself stimulates production of joint fluid. Hands-on therapy increases joint fluid by moving the limbs through their range of motion while unloaded. It also helps keep a horse's body balanced so that the joints will be centered and move freely within
A practical benefit of massage is to make a horse safer to work with. He or she will be more attentive and trusting, more comfortable with approach, touch or treatment, and with lifting his/her legs, helping to avoid sedation or special handling.
Massage should never be performed on a tear, bruise, hematoma, swelling or inflamed area. Some of these areas are much more difficult to identify in the horse than a human.
A muscle, tendon or ligament tear will generally be accompanied by edema, heat and/or swelling. The horse will also usually show signs of lameness.
To make it brief, if one were to massage an already torn muscle before the proliferation (healing) phase were well into its cycle, further damage such as ossifying myopathy (bone formation) could occur. In a case where there has been tearing, it would be best to contact the vet. In turn, they may suggest adjunctive treatments such as ice, stretching (light), laser, magnetics, or - eventually -- massage.
Obviously, in a human we will see bruising; it is more difficult on horses because of hair. Generally, one would feel a bruise on a horse as a soft, warm or hot area. It would be best to ice massage this area using a frozen Dixie cup and peeling the paper back so you may massage with it comfortably.
A hematoma will cover a broad spectrum of conditions such as swelling, edema, heat, inflammation and lameness. After the veterinarian has determined that healing has begun, strokes like effleurage may be applied AROUND the affected area. Only apply to the site once swelling has diminished.
Lastly, in the case of a 'serviceably sound' horse, young or old, a massage therapist would want to be aware of, and explain to the client, that after a massage, a horse that has been compensating in numerous areas throughout the body may come up lame or short after the session. This is not always the case, nor is it a permanent condition. Typically, the horse will accentuate the lameness, soreness or joint stiffness but will soon revert back to compensating. This is why it is necessary to differentiate between stiffness and lameness. This would also be a perfect example of when massage can be an important diagnostic tool in conjunction with veterinary medicine.
To be safe ... just remember, for the most part, if you are questioning yourself before treating an area, the answer is probably "Wait." Call a professional who can get you started at the right time so as not to injure the tissue further. Also, remember that it can be of great benefit to massage the horse's compensatory sites as well as around injured tissue.
This information is supplied by Mike Scott of Eastover, SC. Mike has worked with human and equine athletes for the past 16 years and teaches classes in Equine Massage/Muscle Therapy. He can be reached at www.equinemmt.com .