Massage therapy on a horse
Massage a horses back
Massage can benefit a vet's clients by helping a horse recover from the effects of travel, stabling, surgery or weight-bearing lameness, especially when the animal has or has had to wear a cast, to help restore muscles from disuse atrophy or overuse of the unhampered legs. Massage can reduce or remove scar tissue. It's valuable during and after stall rest, after a difficult birth, to help rehabilitate rescue cases, and after musculoskeletal injuries due to falling, pulling back or flipping over, being caught in quicksand or fences, trailer accidents and so on.
For massage therapists, veterinary consultation is essential. 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.
It's easier for a farrier to provide a balanced hoof when there is a balance in the muscles/tendons of the legs and the body, and the forces acting on the hoof are evenly distributed. Massage therapy promotes soundness by maintaining or restoring elasticity in leg and pastern ligaments; it helps maintain a healthy range of motion in the leg joints.
With massage, the upper body maintains its ability to distribute the forces of locomotion, thus reducing concussion on the hooves. Back, shoulder and hip joints remain pain free so when the farrier picks up a leg, the horse is easily able to shift its weight.
For the massage therapist a good farrier is essential. Because the legs are long levers, their condition has a profound effect on the body; chronic hoof pain, imbalance or joint strain strongly affects the horse's overall tension, straightness and balance.
Before adjustment, massage can reduce inflammation near joints, relieve excess muscle tension and reduce scar tissue. It prepares the horse to stand quietly to allow thorough evaluation and specific treatment.
Follow-up massage helps maintain chiropractic adjustments. It also helps restore normal patterns of movement and posture so the horse is less likely to go back to habitual patterns of dysfunction.
For a massage therapist, chiropractic provides an evaluation of joint movement in the spine and indicates areas that might be a primary cause of muscle or posture problems. Chiropractic adjusting aims to clear these restrictions and restore proper function of the nervous system.
The massage therapist notices body condition, personality and character traits that help the homeopath to decide on an appropriate remedy. Massage can pinpoint problem areas, the relative state of the right/left sides, how the animal reacts to stress or responds to stimuli, and other indications.
For a massage therapist, homeopathy is invaluable in getting to the core of a horse's problems. Homeopathic treatment can transform the behavior, balance and muscle tone of a horse. It is especially helpful with chronic or recalcitrant problems, or to reduce the effects of trauma in acute conditions.
Massage can eliminate scar tissue and release muscular distortions in the body that prevent smooth energy flow. The massage therapist can maintain energy flow between visits by using follow-up points suggested by the acupuncturist, and report on the status of energy patterns as shown by the soft tissues.
For the massage therapist, acupuncture creates a more relaxed horse by relieving pain, tension and stagnation. Acupuncture and acupressure can bring a horse back to "life," ready to accept therapy and open to positive change.
Pre-dental massage relieves muscle contracture in the poll, upper neck, hyoid apparatus and TMJ, which might tend to distort dental balance and jaw function. After dental work, massage helps relieve general pain and tension resulting from pre-treatment problems as well as the treatment posture (a good idea for the dentist, too!). It helps the horse more quickly regain normal jaw function and freedom of neck, head and shoulders.
For the massage therapist, trying to work with a horse that has significant dental imbalance or pain can be frustrating. Often poll, neck, shoulder and lumbar back tension and weakness can be relieved simply by eliminating dental problems. Some kicking or hock problems can also be resolved through equine dentistry.
Massage can help a horse be focused, and provide a relaxed response system rather than bracing and resisting. A calm, trusting horse is easier to train, has better balance, and can maintain peak performance. Massage can enhance body awareness - for the rider and for the horse - and can help answer that eternal question, "Is it just a bad attitude?" A thoughtful trainer improves the horse's ability to go freely forward under saddle; letting go of any mental bracing or resistance in the body provides immediate physical benefits. Thoughtful training also supports bodywork by following up with therapeutic exercises and warm-up routines that build the horse's health, and by helping the client learn to ride so as to maintain healthy posture and movement.
Barbara Chasteen, B.A. (Zoology) is certified in Equine Massage and Orthopedic Massage and specializes in equine postural restoration, therapeutic movement and sports massage. She is an award-winning writer/illustrator on equine anatomy/biomechanics and health (The Whole Horse Journal, Stable News). With Lorinda Doxey, EqTPM, she developed and taught the Equine Bodyworking course for five years and now teaches at Animal Acupressure Massage Center in Grass Valley, CA. Barbara rides her own horses in dressage and on mountain trails, and is completing several years of independent research on equine rehabilitation.
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 their capsules.
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