Most of us have an idea of what massage is. Those of you who have experienced a professional massage at the hands of a master therapist know the profound healing value of the work. As an athlete I am well aware of the pain, misalignment, and limitations that come with muscular injuries. Personally, massage was a major factor in rehabilitating many of my injuries over the years, and yes, some of them came from horses! It makes sense to me that Olympic athletes, human and equine, have massage therapists at their ready when they are training and competing, recovering from injury, or even living lives of gentler retirement.
Massage therapy helps all horses. Whether racing or retired, a horse is a horse and we know that 60% of a horse’s body is muscle. Whether grazing in a pasture or flying down the final furlong, a horse’s muscles are crucial for health, performance, even survival. Therefore any issues with the muscles, and the fibers that make up each muscle, have a significant impact on the horse. Any tightening, any spasm, atrophy through an illness or injury, affect the muscular system. This occurs because they interfere with the amount of oxygen that flows into the tissues. A muscle works at its best when it receives a free flow of oxygen, and this allows for the flow of nutrients to the muscles and for toxins to be eliminated as well. Muscles are critical for healthy movement in the horse, they all work together not only for motion but for balance and stability.
Massage facilitates healing primarily by increasing the circulation in the muscles and this is achieved by various strokes and pressures over multiple areas of the horse’s body. The whole body must be worked, there is no benefit to focusing on a singular area. The body is a unit wherein one area affects all others and we often see tension reduction in one area while working on another. While massage focuses on the muscles and we do not treat joints, there is often a benefit of reduced inflammation in troublesome joints and tendons because of the increased circulation in the area.
While massage is often deeply relaxing to the horse it can also be considered a “full body” workout. It has a powerful effect and a horse might actually feel more sore following an initial massage. For that reason, we do not recommend a first time massage less than one week before a competitive event. Areas of stress, tightness and spasm have not allowed the muscles to function at their best nor process toxins as well as they should. While massage is effective from the very first session, the benefits compound over time. Horses in heavy training and competition benefit from frequent massage, both before and soon after their competition.
This increase in circulation as a result of the massage enhances muscle tone and restores the muscle to its proper length. In a similar manner, massage lengthens connective tissue, promoting health and reducing risk of injury. All of this assists healing and recovery. You may notice a lengthening of your horse’s stride after massage. You may see a difference in the topline or how the horse holds it’s head. Riding will likely feel smoother.
You will often notice a significant change in your horse during and after massage due to the release of endorphins, natural chemicals released during the massage that serve as both pain killers and relaxants. This calming effect benefits most horses and I’ve found this to be particularly beneficial to horses with histories of trauma, those recovering from illness or injury or experiencing stressful changes such as changes in location, pasture mates or levels of activity.
There is a vast body of science that documents these and other benefits of massage. If you are interested in more information please contact me and I will guide you to it. This is a fascinating and very hopeful topic.
Ruta Mazelis, BS, CEMT
Solstice Equine Massage Therapy
Certified – Insured -Committed to Excellence